That Lucero — the rough, ragged, alt-country band led by Ben Nichols' gravel-and-cigarettes voice — was born in the musical hotbed of Memphis, Tenn., has never been a surprise to anybody who'd heard one of the band's songs. Though its most immediate touchstone was — for a long time, anyway — Chicago's Uncle Tupelo, Lucero's music rang with echoes of Southern rock and E Street swagger, and all of the important regional touchstones like Elvis' rock 'n' roll, Stax soul, and Oblivions' garage rock. Though their sound carried cross-country influences, the soul of Lucero has always been Memphis.
"Lucero's always had a good soulful quality to it," affirms Nichols. "It's pretty simple stuff. I think that Memphis soul has always been a subconscious influence."
Now, though, Lucero is wearing that soul influence like a state-flag patch on its sleeve. The band's new 1372 Overton Park takes the resigned, narrative songwriting style Nichols has kept consistent through his band's career, and lets Memphis soul vet Jim Spake push the arrangements farther than a Lucero album has gone before. The session legend, whose credits include work with Al Green and Solomon Burke, brought in a cavalcade of horns and keys. Hearing Nichols' ragged voice buttressed by saxophones and trumpets is novel but natural. The brass bite of Spake's additions rounds the guitars' overdrive.
But it's one thing to bring session players to the recording studio, and another beast to tote the big-band on tour. For Lucero to tackle its current Ramblin' Roadshow & Memphis Revue, old songs need new arrangements, new songs need to be learned.
"Most nights we're going to have about nine musicians on stage," says Nichols. "It's the biggest version of Lucero we've ever had."
It's also the biggest Lucero, the band and the brand, has ever been. With 1372 Overton Park's release handled by Universal Republic, the opportunity for exposure is increased with wider distribution.
This, of course, is in addition to Nichols' ability to tour successfully on his own, and the band's already impressive list of TV placements, including songs in episodes of the CW drama One Tree Hill.
But no matter how far beyond its Memphis origins Lucero's career might arc, the soul of the band is the same; the songs are still Nichols', whether he's alone with an acoustic guitar or sharing a stage with musicians.
"I think the quality of a good song is when you can play it with whatever instrumentation and it holds true," he says.
It's telling that the new album's title is a Memphis address where all of Lucero's members have, at one time or another, called home. No matter how far the band might roam, there is always a yearning for home.
"Having been a band in Memphis for the last 10 years, we ended up playing a bunch of different types of shows with a bunch of different types of bands," Nichols says. Each left its mark and absorbed into the band's overall sound and feel.
On 1372 Overton Park, the big addition is the horns. And, as Nichols suggests, "You add horns, and it makes everything a party."