Eight years ago, Austin Lucas was a crust punk unleashing a grinding hardcore cacophony while growling some socially conscious political shit. Now, his lonesome tenor wavers over plucked banjos and ringing acoustic guitars like a cool-night breeze showcasing his new guise as an old-fashioned country adherent. Where will tomorrow find him? Lucas hopes no one can guess.
"There are certain artists that you expect them to do something you don't expect, so you're all right with that. And I'm hoping I'm early enough in my career that I can do that," Lucas says from his Bloomington, Ind., home. "'I don't want it to be, 'Oh yeah, that's that alt-country bluegrass guy.'"
Of course, everyone wants to be Neil Young or Willie Nelson — capable of flitting from style to style without risking their audience. But Lucas is the right kind of guy to do that. While punk satisfied his need for teenage rebellion, he grew up on bluegrass and country, learning to harmonize from his musician father before he could read. (Bob Lucas remains an accomplished, still-touring performer whose songs have landed on two Alison Krauss albums.)
Lucas spent his youth in hardcore bands and eventually traded the States for Prague in 2003. But it wasn't long before the toll of van tours, basement shows, and really loud, highly technical metal-punk began to wear on Lucas and steer him toward the simplicity of one guitar and one mic.
"I got to the point where I missed melody. I missed harmonies. I also really missed traditional verse chorus structure," says the 32-year-old Lucas. "We didn't have any repeated parts, so it was like how technical can we get these riffs and how many riffs can we fit into a song that will go together? I didn't want to do that anymore."
Just as he began to make the transition with his 2006 solo debut, The Common Cold, he got a call from Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan suggesting they do a split seven-inch. Ragan had not only forged a successful solo career beyond his emo/punk act, but helped fuel the folk-punk fire in 2008, leading the annual Revival Tour with its contingent of punk/rock singers gone solo.
"I was really apprehensive about being a part of the folk-punk scene when Chuck asked me to do a seven-inch," Lucas says. "I almost didn't do it. I considered myself more of an alt-country or indie singer/songwriter, like Jason Molina or Bill Callahan."
The collaborative 2008 release Bristle Ridge was a terrific album harmonizing Ragan's baritone with Lucas' keening tenor — a propulsive effort that blended anthemic rock spirit and bluegrass style. The release and subsequent dates on the Revival Tour gave Lucas' career a bit of kick. He'd follow a year later with the evocative Somebody Loves You, a break-up album with a particularly lively energy and spare aesthetic.
Lucas switched things up on this year's A New Home in the Old World. It's the first time he used a proper studio. He recruited musicians from Molina's band, Magnolia Electric Company, and Lucero's pedal steel player Todd Beam, as well as Lucas' sister, singer Chloe Manor.
"This record is a lot more uptempo and bigger," explains Lucas. "Fans are super fickle. That's why I was so concerned when I started going on this path. I know what I was like when I was a teenager. I know it's a departure from what I've done traditionally with really sparse recordings."