Hard-Luck Heartbreakers

Hard-workin’, Roots-rockin’ Lucero is starting to see its fortunes change

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Five years ago, it didn’t look like Lucero was going to make it. As noted in the beginning of Dreaming in America, Aaron Goldman’s 2005 documentary about the Memphis quartet, they were a “band without a label and without a single royalty after 20,000 albums sold. Touring (was) their only income.”

The film itself is a portrait of a band in strenuous straits, zigzagging endlessly around the country, stationing themselves in dives and bars to play to crowds of uncertain sizes. Hundreds of bands go through the cycle of constant touring, but what made Lucero’s situation especially unfortunate was how they had always been a band that deserved to crack open its niche.

Lucero’s organic mixture of skilled Punk and Tennessee-bred Southern Rock could mesh equally well with the tastes of old-school Country fans out for something classic and Rock radio listeners in the market for something rootsy. The problem is getting the attention of those people. Once they’ve heard the band, there’s no way their charm couldn’t reel in some new enthusiasts.

In 2009, Lucero is still alive and thriving but, no, they’re not quite where they should be. Are the kinds of troubles that they went through during the filming of the doc still applicable?

“Oh yeah,” says vocalist Ben Nichols, “very much so.”

The group is still owed money from one of their previous labels and still run themselves ragged on the road. However, last fall, the group signed a multi-album deal with Universal. As of a few weeks ago, they were immersed in recording their first disc under the contract.

“We did two batches of demos, 18 demo songs” Nichols says, sounding exhausted just discussing the workload. “We took them apart and we’re putting them together again. We’ve got two weeks to record this thing. We’re doing 12-hour days. We started the day we got back from South by Southwest (around March 21) and we go right up until the day we leave for tour (about April 12). We’re hustling.”

On previous full-lengths, Lucero’s rambling anthems cut melodic swaths of Americana that evoked the raw pride of The Replacements, the thoughtful positivity of Bruce Springsteen and the winsome forlornness of Hank Williams’ heartsick ballads. For this new one, the band’s been listening to The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and is hoping to do something a little different.

“It sounds funny but we’re making a Soul record this time, within our framework,” Nichols asserts.

With the incorporation of back-up singers and a horn section, this next disc will have the Rock & Roll ambitions of seventh album Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, but, says Nichols, “it’s going to be 10 times better than that. We’re definitely putting more into this record than we have any record in the past. It’s been a couple of years since we put out Rebels and we’ve taken on all the lessons and mistakes from that record.”

It’s rare to find a musician speaking so transparently about his or her older work, but Nichols is upfront about what the last LP lacked.

“What I needed was an editor,” he says.

That outside voice came in the form of producer/ex- Flogging Molly member Ted Hutt, who is working with Lucero at the famed Ardent Studios in their hometown of Memphis.

“He’s been great in letting me know what needs more work,” Nichols says. “Just giving me his opinion on the songs has been really helpful.”

With 15 songs set so far, the band is unsure how many will make it to the as-yet-untitled album. What makes this release special are the possibilities that come with Universal’s commercial reach.

“With them, you could get this record into Target and Wal-Mart, places that actually might make a difference for us that we haven’t been able to get into before,” Nichols says.

After the album is finished, Lucero goes back to America’s highways. “To survive, we’ve got to stay busy,” says Nichols.

Recalling the days of Dreaming, he adds, “We’re exactly the same as we were back then. But that’s just fine. We’re right where we want to be.”

LUCERO plays the Southgate House Thursday with Titus Andronicus. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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