Where would the current generation of alt-country and Americana artists be today if it weren’t for Ben Nichols and Memphis-based alt-country band Lucero? The earnest songwriting you see from artists like Jason Isbell, Matt Woods, John Moreland, and Justin Townes Earle, to the reckless abandon in performances from Austin Lucas and American Aquarium, Lucero’s influence is smattered across stages, interwoven into lyrical runs, and mashed into the melodies of so many bands who had Lucero records blaring from their speakers during their formative years of music discovery that the music of today wouldn’t be nearly as potent without them.
Of course all the classic influences like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt are still there, as well as the alt-country gods like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. But Lucero’s journey puts them in that sweet spot where right as many of today’s emerging Americana stars were learning their licks, it was Lucero they were leaning on. Who knows how many great songs and how much bad singing they’ve inspired, but nobody can sing bad as good as Ben Nichols, except maybe Tom Waits.
Lucero has released twelve albums since 2000, getting their big shot on a major label back in 2009 when they signed with Universal Republic. But looking back now, that had to be a lark for both Lucero and Universal. Lucero’s place is in the trenches, and over their now 17-plus year run, they’ve hit the road as hard as anybody—another attribute they’ve passed down to many younger bands. But they’ve had their successes too, and have “made it” if anyone has in that quasi country rock space that bands never seem to launch to the big time from, but burrow down in with a bunch of loyal fans who’d bleed for them if called upon and will pack out a theater.
Lucero’s new album from ATO Records called All A Man Should Do finds the band in prime form. That’s easy to do when you’ve had virtually the same basic lineup since inception. Ben Nichols, Brian Venable on guitar, John Stubblefield on bass, Roy Berry on drums, and Rick Steff on keys make up the long-standing nucleus of the band that can’t help but let their Memphis roots show, including incorporating horns into their music when they can.
Wherever you run into great songwriting, it tends to involve someone unburdening their soul with very personal stories and knowing how to deliver them. That’s what All A Man Should Do exemplifies in its ten tracks. In songs like “Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles,” “My Girl & Me in 93′,” and “I Woke Up in New Orleans,” you don’t have to squint to see these songs come straight from someone’s heart to stain the recording with authenticity.
At the same time Lucero throws you a curveball on this new record when they perform a rare cover—“I’m In Love With A Girl” by the fellow Memphis-based cult favorite 70’s band Big Star. They even convinced original Big Star member Jody Stephens to sing backup on the tune. It sticks out a little bit in the track list, but has its own personal meaning to the band, especially since this album was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis—only outshone by Sun in Memphis for legendary recording spaces.
The song “Throwback No.2” is where you really hear the Memphis influence come through, and though the song starts off kind of simple, it rises with horns to become one of the best tracks, again punctuated by the personal nature of the material. But for my money, “Can’t You Hear Them Howl” is where All A Man Should Do hits its high water mark. A Lucero melody isn’t going to reach out and grab you, but it slowly seeps into your bones until you crave it like barbecue. “Young Outlaws” was about the only time on the record it felt like the melodies were more borrowed.
Perhaps still too young and hungry to regard as legends, but wildly influential in the alt-country/Americana field and beyond, Lucero is a must for your audio library, and All A Man Should Do is another worthy addition.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)
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