Hillbilly Highway – Hard touring Memphis act Lucero roll into town


by Sheldon Birnie

One of the hardest working bands in rock n roll is hitting Winnipeg this week, and I for one could not be happier.

Lucero are a long-running, hard-touring band out of Memphis, Tennessee. Having been out on the road for well over a decade, playing up to or over 200 shows a year, the band are far from slowing down, even as they edge into their 40s.

“That’s pretty much how we make a living,” explains guitar player Brian Venable over the phone from his home on President’s Day. “It’s not like we all gave us promising law careers to be musicians. That’s not a secret, necessarily, but it’s one of those things.”

“There’s that lower level of great bands, that’s how we make our living,” he continues, as his young son runs around him. “Your Drive-By Truckers, your us, your anybody really. We’re still a touring band, that’s what we do. We love playing music, we love writing songs and playing them for people. But I think that’s also important just to get out there. It’s partially the art, partially the commerce.”

The parallels between Lucero and the Drive-By Truckers don’t end with their tireless work ethic, but also in the stories both southern bands tell in the gritty, literate songs they sing. The characters that fill Lucero’s singer and songwriter Ben Nichols’ tunes are a hard-scrabble lot, working, boozing, and loving their way around the back roads and alleyways of America.

Over the course of eight albums released since 1999, Lucero’s sound has walked the rickety fence between rustic punk rock and gritty country, with a healthy dose of southern soul thrown in for good measure. Their particular sound has always been closely tied with their hometown of Memphis, a city with deep roots in American music.

“Memphis has always been the place where there’s amazing music,” admits Venable, who is joined in the group by Nichols, Roy Berry (drums), John C Stubbfield (bass), Rick Steff (keys), and Todd Beene (pedal steel). On the groups’ latest, 2012’s Women & Work, the boy are joined by Jim Spake and Scott Thompson on brass, giving the album a rich Memphis feel. “I’ve always felt that everywhere has a good music, or a lot of music anyhow. But I’ve always felt that we have a lot of good music in this city.”

For their current spring tour, which began after a quick jaunt to Australia to perform at the large outdoor Soundwave Festival, Lucero went into the studio where they cut their first couple albums to record an acoustic EP.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Venable told Stylus. “But we went down there and in true Barn magic, we somehow knocked out four amazing songs. We just got real lucky.”

Apart from the as-yet-untitled tour EP, the boys have been busy recording some other tunes for a variety of projects.

“We did an Alabama tribute record,” says Venable with a  chuckle. “It’s kind of cheesy enough, but still country. We were like, ‘Really? Hell yeah! We’ll do an Alabama song!’ We’ll never do it live but it was fun.”

Another project Lucero contributed a track to is the Replacements’ “Songs for Slim” series of split 7” records to benefit former Replacement guitarist Slim Dunlop, who recently suffered a stroke. The recently reunited Replacements recorded a one-off, four song 10” EP – their first recording in over 20 years – and pressed a limited 250 copies, which were then auctioned off to the highest bidder, raising over $100,000 towards Slim’s medical bills. The second phase of the project features split 7”s with the Replacements and a number of heavy hitters, including Lucero, Steve Earle, Deer Tick, John Doe, Lucinda Williams, and others, covering Slim Dunlop tunes.

This current spring tour also marks the first time that Lucero has properly toured across Canada, something that is exciting for fans of their brand of rock n roll who don’t happen to live in our country’s top three markets.

“We do the usual Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver,” Venable explains. “But [fans are] always like ‘You should come to these other places! We’re starving for it!’”

Audiences in Winnipeg will starve no more! Lucero rolls into town on the Hillbilly Highway and hits the Park Theatre with Shovels & Rope Friday March 29. Sure, it’s Good Friday, but make sure to check this show out.

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