Discussions of Lucero’s music often reference their country-punk sensibilities, and the band’s new album, “Women & Work,” has been labeled “Memphis country soul.” But co-founding guitarist Brian Venable begs to differ, more or less.
“We just think of it as rock ’n’ roll,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Southern rock by default, cause we’re from the South, but we grew up on Tom Petty and the Replacements. We tried to have it all categorized at one point, but really, we just wanna be a rock ’n’ roll band. Don’t need any adjectives.”
Of course, without adjectives, we would have no story, so we need at least a few. Let’s start with Memphis, where blues and country intersected and soul fueled the engines of social change. Memphis is a city that respects tradition but also understands the value of moving forward, a frame of reference that informs Venable and his bandmates: lead singer/songwriter Ben Nichols, bassist John C. Stubblefield, keyboardist/accordionist Rick Steff, pedal steel player Todd Beene and drummer Roy Berry.
“It’s the greatest city in the world. I just love it,” said Venable, whose wife and three kids hold down the homefront while the band tours -- which, 14 years and nine albums in, Lucero still does at a rate of around 200 days a year.
“As big as we get nationally, you always wanna be a Memphis band,” he continued. “You get real excited when all the Memphis people pay attention. When you end up in [the blog] ‘It Came from Memphis’ … [in] Memphis, most people who are considered legends outside of Memphis, you end up having coffee with at the coffee shop, not knowing, really, what they do.”
But Lucero’s members knew exactly what they were doing when they went into Memphis’ legendary Ardent Studios and invited local horn greats Jim Spake and Scott Thompson to help out on “Women & Work.”
For its first record on the ATO label, the band and producer Ted Hutt wanted to capture the sound of a town that’s as much Alex Chilton and Big Star as it is Al Green and Stax Records. Somewhere along the way, the group picked up a bit of the Philly rock/soul vibe personified by fellow road warriors Marah, which once billed itself as the last great rock ’n’ roll band. Both bands built early reputations as outside agitators, of sorts, trying to push the mainstream’s buttons. Yet both eventually learned to admit how the mainstream infused their passions; how, as Venable noted, they’re as much a product of what they heard on the radio as what they heard on the streets.
Not that the band members wanted to become pop stars, necessarily. In fact, Lucero had been signed to Universal Republic, which released “1372 Overton Park” in 2009, but the band realized it got a major-label deal rather late -- just when the infrastructure was “failing and fallin’ apart,” as Venable said.
“Unless we were gonna be Rihanna or Taylor Swift or some pop star-type situation that we’re not, they didn’t know what to do with us, and didn’t really want to fool with it,” he said. “And they went from 13 people in the office to three by the time the record’s cycle was done. It was not a good time for the major labels, so we thought we’d jump ship.”
Lucero landed quite safely with ATO, co-founded by Dave Matthews and home to Drive-by Truckers, My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes, Gomez, Patty Griffin and Widespread Panic.
“They liked our work ethic; we liked how they treated bands on the label,” Venable said. “They know a little bit more what to do with us than the other people. They know that we’re a working, touring band. They know how to work that.”
Venable’s work ethic, at least, was handed down from his father, who owns a shoe repair shop. Venable left the band for a time because he’d gotten discouraged playing “$5 cover” shows (which subsequently became the title of an MTV series in which Nichols starred).
“I thought it was gonna be the four of us against the world,” he said, recalling the band’s early days as a foursome. Venable had tired of the endless compromising and decided to get out — right when his dad was diagnosed with cancer.
“So it worked out that I could cover for him while he recuperated,” Venable said. “Then I realized I missed it and had been part of something that I needed to see through to the end.”
He’s absent from the band’s early recordings, but has been back in the fold for years — and he’s proud of the band’s latest effort, which he describes as a concept album covering what happens during the span of a weekend. It goes from the anticipation of Friday night to the dancing and romancing of Saturday and the take-it-easy relaxation of Sunday.
That’s exactly how this record feels, too. It ramps you up, fills you with foot-moving, hip-shaking energy, then puts you down easy so you can rest. If there’s any place where they know from both partying and its aftermath, it would be Memphis. After all, in that town, music is used to thrill your soul — and save it, too.