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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lucero Gets Soulful

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For years, Lucero has been tagged as an alt-country group, but ask frontman Ben Nichols about the label and it's obvious he's always seen his band in a different light.

“When we started, we got lumped in with the alt-country stuff,” Nichols says during a recent phone interview. “And for sure there's a Southern accent to what we do, and I think that's the main reason. And we're not offended by being included with that genre, but I think from the very beginning there was always something else in there. We say punk rock, which (guitarist) Brian (Venable) and I definitely were fans of before the band, but we're also huge indie-rock fans. At least in my brain, there's just as much Archers of Loaf in there as Johnny Cash or Ryan Adams or whatever.”

The talk of stylistic labels is timely these days because 1372 Overton Park, the band's seventh and latest album, shows that the group isn't afraid to steer its music in new directions.

The Memphis-based band decided to explore the music that most defines its hometown, bringing a strong dose of classic soul into its rocking sound.

One way the band did this was by adding horns, which were arranged by Jim Spake, a veteran of the Memphis music scene, having worked with musicians including Al Green, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis.

But to Nichols the soul influence goes deeper than the use of horns. The B-3 organ work of Rick Steff also gives several songs a soulful accent. And Nichols also credits producer Ted Hutt for helping to bring out some of the more subtle soul elements on 1372 Overton Park by pushing the band to add bridges and other song structure elements that enhanced the soulful feel of some songs.

The presence of a proactive producer like Hutt was something new for Lucero as well. While the band has worked with producers before (notably the late Jim Dickinson on 2005's Nobody's Darlings), the band gave Hutt, known for his work with The Gaslight Anthem, plenty of latitude to offer his expertise.

“He was always very opinionated, and it was a new experience for us,” he says. “Everybody had to give up a little bit of control and have a little bit of faith in kind of going with Ted's direction. That was a new thing for us that me and the guys had to get used to. Everybody is really happy in the end with the results.”

Nichols and his band mates have plenty of reason to be happy with 1372 Overton Park, which is named after the address of a house that until this album had served as headquarters for the band, as well as the residence for all four group members at various points over the years. For all of the talk about Memphis soul, it's still primarily a rock 'n' roll album in the gritty tradition of past Lucero albums. The horns, though, are a major presence, adding a layer of soul to the many more-rock-oriented songs and deepening the soulful feel of songs like “The Devil and Maggie Chascarrillo,” “Goodbye Again” and “Sixes and Sevens,” a strutting track that is steeped in soul from top to bottom.

“It's territory that we hadn't gone into before,” Nichols says of “Sixes and Sevens.” “But you've got that crazy B-3 sound on there. Then combined with the horns, it's a rock 'n' roll song rooted in kind of jump R&B, in a way—at least as close we're going to get to it.”

To recreate the album's soulful tones, the group has enlisted a pair of horn players for its current tour, in addition to pianist Rick Steff and pedal-steel player Todd Beene, who have essentially become band members.

“It allows us to go to different places musically than before,” Nichols says of adding the extra players to the group. “We've got Rick Steff on the piano. The addition of him alone, it really made the band more confident overall. And it definitely added another layer to what the show does, so it's worked out really well live.”

Lucero performs as part of the Warped Tour on Tuesday, July 19, at the Marcus Amphitheater.