I’d stay with you tonight my love I’d stay the whole night long But the boys are playing those old sad songs and I must sing along I hear the snare drum’s slow sad march I hear those fiddles cry And I must go to them my love or else I’d stay the night—Lucero, “Old Sad Songs”
Fans are crowding the stage, elbow-to-elbow, in a Louisville rock club. Singer Ben Nichols of Memphis’ Lucero stands at the mic, his face covered with sweat, and glances skyward with a wry smile. “It’s nights like these, make me sleep all day,” he sings in a gravelly voice that belies his boyish looks. The scene takes place about 10 minutes into Dreaming in America, a documentaryabout Nichols and his bandmates. It’s the first real glimpse of Lucero in their home away from home—the rock club.
Filmmaker Aaron Goldman followed the four Memphians around as they toured the country, watched their record label go under, recorded a new album with celebrated producer Jim Dickinson and wrestled with the implications of signing an “incubator” deal with Warner Brothers. Through it all, the film returns to those grungy clubs—to the stage, to long performance shots of an exhausted, going-for-broke Nichols and of sweaty, screaming fans raising their beers above the jostling fray.
In some ways, Dreaming in America could tell the story of any touring band, any bunch of underdogs on the cusp, working their asses off to achieve some elusive ideal of success. It’s a chronicle of sacrifice, and that’s what makes Lucero’s story, which is at once ordinary and emblematic, so readily identifiable.
The guys in Lucero are always going somewhere, leaving someone. That’s what happens when you tour 150 to 200 days a year just to be able to pay your rent. That road-weary life is there in the music—the sternum-rattling drums, the rugged guitars, Nichols’ sandpapery voice, the undeniable country soulfulness. In the words, too: Nichols can write a line so mournful and nostalgic that it makes you feel like you’re facedown on the barroom floor, even when you’re safe at home.
Nichols jokes self-deprecatingly that Lucero’s catalog consists of 60 songs about girls and two about his grandfather. The band’s material is a landscape of sweet girls, sad songs, bourbon and rock shows. Sometimes, it even feels as if Nichols had this one dance, with this one girl, in this one club, one night and it was worth a thousand songs. She became every girl shouting her drink order over the noise, sitting on a chain-link fence, listening to his drunken apologies, or looking forlorn as he says goodbye again.
There has always been a disparity between how Lucero sound in the studio and their raucous performance style. Not so with their third album, Nobody’s Darlings, a record that hums along with the momentum of a live show, each song opening with a distinctive, angular hook or one of Roy Berry’s idiosyncratic drumbeats.
“On the earlier records, a lot of it was a little bit quiet and a little bit slow,” Nichols explains. “After seven years of touring and playing together, the live shows have become a little more rowdy and we wanted to make a record that showed that. There will always be the more heartfelt, slower songs, but rock ’n’ roll is really fun to play.”
Nobody’s Darlings takes their aesthetic and gives it a big shove forward. “We definitely didn’t want to keep making the same records over and over again,” says Nichols. Jim Dickinson, the producer of sessions for everyone from Big Star to The Replacements, helped the group make the album, despite the fact that they had no record deal and no way to pay him. The record is clean and raw, especially when, re-creating the reckless intensity they exude onstage, guitarist Brian Venable’s distorted, in-your-face hooks duel with Nichols’ voice for prominence.
In terms of the songwriting, Nichols moves beyond himself and into other people’s shoes, becoming those sweet girls, and even his grandfather on “The War.” The best example of how Nobody’s Darlings expands on Lucero’s previous records, though, is “Bikeriders.” Over an assertive drum line and a crunchy guitar melody, the song—inspired by a book about 1960s biker gangs—tells the story of a woman and her rough-and-tumble boyfriend.
“In the past, most of the songs have been pretty confessional,” says Nichols. “Actually telling a more in-depth story in a song is a tough thing to do and I’m trying to get better at it. I’m just now starting to get comfortable thinking from someone else’s perspective.
“The reason I picked up the book in the first place was because they looked like friends of mine,” Nichols went on. “You know it was decades ago, but they looked like people I had grown up with.” The song’s themes—destructive relationships, terminal love, leaving home—are familiar territory, but the narrative style, like many aspects of Nobody’s Darlings, feels like a significant step forward.
“It’s what I’ve wanted to do forever,” says Berry, seated at his drum kit in Lucero’s loft. “I’ve kind of set myself up for it. I don’t have but $150 rent—no bills, no credit card, no car, no family, no dog, none of that.”
In the song “Tears Don’t Matter Much” (off Lucero’s album That Much Further West), Nichols writes about the musicians to whom he loves to listen: “I’m just another Southern boy who dreams of nights in NYC, and I sing along, I still sing along.”
For now, Lucero continue to tour 150 to 200 nights a year, to play each night until they have nothing left to leave out there. They’ve had those nights in NYC and make enough money to get by, so maybe that’s an OK place to be. “Business-wise, we don’t have to be Wal-Mart or Microsoft,” says Nichols, trying to put things into perspective. “We just want to be a decently run small business…and we’re getting really close to that.… We aren’t looking to take over the world anymore or nothing. We’re just hoping that we can continue to do what we like to do.”
Back to that scene in the dark club in Louisville, during that same song, Nichols leans into the mic, with an ironic grin, throws up his hand in a gesture of mock-nonchalance and sings, “It’s nights like these, I feel like giving up.” Delivering that line with everything he’s got is the exact opposite of giving up, and he knows it. It’s nights like these, when you’ve got a drink in one hand and your guitar in the other, when the crowd knows every word and you can feel the bass in your chest and the buzz in your head, that make resignation impossible.