Ben Nichols, the grainy-voiced heart and soul of alt-country rockers Lucero, wastes no time in raising an obvious point about his band’s Sept. 24 date at the Copenhagen Beer & Music Celebration on City Hall Plaza. “Our music seems to go pretty well with that kind of crowd,” he says. “Lucero’s always been good drinking music.”
Indeed, the Tennessee group’s party-hearty reputation has become ingrained during an 18-year run of spirited, occasionally shambolic nights. “Lucero’s never been known as the most professional of bands,” says Nichols, 42. “There’s been some really rough shows along the way, but there’s been some brilliant shows as well. But right now we’re actually playing better than ever before. We’re a little more focused on actually playing the songs and trying to play them well.”
Over the years, the heavily tattooed band only heightened its image through Nichols’ hard-bitten lyrics about life on the road, kissing the bottle and missing homebound relationships. “From the beginning of Lucero, pretty much all the songs are taken directly from our life,” he says. “They’re pretty literal.”
And in that sense, Lucero has clearly grown since Nichols traded bass for guitar and launched his country-punk crew with guitarist Brian Venable, bassist John C. Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry, later adding keyboardist Rick Steff. For one thing, three of the original members got married and have children. “I cashed in. I’m out,” Nichols says. “Luckily I waited until the right woman came long… She puts up with me and all the ridiculousness that is being in a touring band.”
Drinking’s still part of his life on tour, but it’s different at home. “It’s definitely healthier,” Nichols says. “I can be away from that now, whereas before, when I’d go home, it just kind of continued on. The road never stopped.”
The songs on Lucero’s 2015 album All a Man Should Do reflect those changes. “Throwback No. 2” conveys an outright marriage proposal, and in “The Man I Was,” Nichols sings, “None of those young girls could understand how slowly killing oneself takes a toll on a man… I paid for my sins. I will start again.”
“I have the feeling most people can relate to that in one way or another,” Nichols says. “It doesn’t have to be drinking or whatever. It can be whatever demons are following someone.”
Musically, the group has evolved as well, with a nod to its Memphis roots. Steff injected some boogie-woogie piano. Then they added horns akin to the classic Stax Records sound. Horns carry over to a lesser degree on All a Man Should Do, along with more acoustic guitar—and a softer tone that’s partly represented in concert. “Folks like singing along to slow, sad songs too,” Nichols says.
Jody Stephens from ’70s power-pop icon Big Star even lent harmonies to the album’s cover of his former group’s “I’m in Love with a Girl,” which came about partly because he works at Ardent Studios, where Lucero recorded on Big Star’s old turf. “It makes perfect sense,” Nichols says. “We were going in the direction of Big Star, which is also extremely important Memphis music, with a more subtle, complex and nuanced kind of sound.”
Yet when it comes to his core musical influences, Nichols says, “They’re probably still similar to what they’ve always been.” He cites Tom Waits, the Pogues, the Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Social Distortion among his inspirations, favoring singers with similarly weathered voices. “I’ve never taken the best care of my voice, but I’m not trying to sing like someone competing on The Voice,” Nichols says. “What I do is appropriate for the music.”
At least Lucero has cut back from a previous pace of 250 shows per year. “In the old days, we all lived in the same crappy kind of warehouse with no central heat or air and broken windows, and we toured around in a white cargo van with a loft built in the back,” Nichols says. “We never thought it would last this long. It’s still the best job on the planet, and we’re still having a blast.”
Lucero plays the Copenhagen Beer & Music Celebration at City Hall Plaza on Sept. 24.