Words by Sean Moeller // Illustration by Johnnie Cluney // Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
It's without a doubt that Ben Nichols, the lead singer for the Memphis, Tennessee, band Lucero, makes his mother and father proud. It's also without a doubt that he likely made them gray sooner than they were going to. He helped turn the worry lines around their eyes and mouths into trenches, keeping them up nights worrying themselves sick when he was a younger man. Or, this is what one might assume were they just to base a conclusion on the man's hard-drinking, all-out-living lyrics, which take us to the end of the night, only to run rings around it, double-back and pretend as if we've only reached the beginning of the evening again. It's the framework, his and this exuberant and ruckus-encouraging band of boozers and fun-lovers, plain old lovers and good old boys who know their limits, just barely. They run all of their nights out of town, sometimes the nights following them straight into the next morning as the lights pop up and everyone's breakfasting. They don't care much for those hours, just as the werewolves don't. Those are recovery hours, times to lick the wounds, times to hibernate until the next opportunity to cut it up occurs - and there's always another opportunity.
Nichols and the five guys he plays with (Brian Venable, John C. Stubblefield, Roy Berry, Rick Steff and Todd Beene) - constantly, unceasingly and mercilessly - tend to give voice to characters who live recklessly, laugh big hearty laughs and do most things, well, heartily. The music that they give to these characters, as accessories and themes, is somewhere in a twilight zone between punk rock and the kind of country and western music that you'd find in a jukejoint or a honky tonk in the middle of nowhere, with a floor littered with broken bottle glass. It's sort of country and western music for the incredibly well read who just so happen to have tattoos up and down their arms. Lucero songs are just as much anthems as the greatest Springsteen songs are - and they might actually be just as appealing to the same people.
They approach the tragic and epic nights out on the town - even if it's the same town that they'll always be in and never leave, bellying up with the townies who are just their friends, cousins and neighbors - the same way Craig Finn and The Hold Steady do, with a mindfulness to small and intricate details and knowledge that can be gleaned from those nights without really knowing it until much later. Those are the details and moments that get faded into the woodwork and the buzz of an evening of shots or cheap pitchers, but occasionally become life's greatest lessons.
Nichols, with his raspy ass voice and an infectious chuckle that's heard here at some beginnings and some ends of songs, is one of the best writers/narrators of these promiscuous nights of debauchery and figuring out what it all means by way of the bottle and some nice insights by way of the boys down at the tavern. Nichols sings about love in "Can't Feel A Thing," the way a man at the end of a long and sober (not sober) night would, maybe with a disgraced piece of a week or an unlucky conclusion to something that promised more. He sings, "She asked me if I loved her and I showed her the tattoo. It's alright. Can't feel a thing," and the words cut to the quick, directly to the bone. He has the same success in a song from the band's magnificent, "1372 Overton Park," simply called, "Mom," where he is addressing all of their mothers with a few verses and a chorus of reassurance that the lessons of right and wrong hadn't flown right through their ears. And though those mothers may be worn out and silvered at a younger age, they must already believe what Nichols says when he sings: "Mama, we're still your boys." The men of Lucero have sad livers, but that assailant is part of the research that needs to be done to get it all straight.