When Lucero's singer-guitarist Ben Nicholls answers the phone, he's Austin, Texas, where he's taking advantage of his last few days off to visit his brother. His voice sounds hoarse. That, in and of itself, isn't a surprise: Love it or hate it (people seem to do both in equal measure), his throaty, “coal miner's son” voice is unmistakable. But, in this instance, he just sounds tired.
That's not surprising, either. What started as an experiment in seeing if a bunch of hardcore kids could play “pretty country songs to piss off hardcore kids” has become a way of life for Nichols, guitarist Brian Venable, drummer Roy Berry and bassist John C. Stubblefield. The band has logged nearly 200 shows a year since 2001, slowing down only to record five full-lengths and a brilliant live record (2005's Dreaming in America). Last year's Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers was a sprawling rocker that critics have hailed (and mocked) as grandiose and indulgent. Almost Springsteen-esque.
“Our fans have been pretty lenient with us,” Nicholls chuckles, “letting us experiment with slightly different types of songs, like putting piano on Rebels and Rogues. There's been piano on every record except [2005's] Nobody's Darlings. But this time, we had a guy named Rick Steff [who's played with everyone from Cat Power to Dexy's Midnight Runners] playing it. That really started the [Springsteen] comparisons.”
The comparisons are valid, but not for the obvious reasons. Lucero's early records wed tuneful, Southern-fried country rock to early emo's sound and subject matter from Nicholls' life--love, loss and the whiskey that accompanies both. On Rebels and Rogues, Nicholls turns the focus outward, embracing the gritty-yet-redemptive themes found on Springsteen classics like Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.
“The older songs are all pretty much based in reality,” he ackowledges. “On the last couple records, I've begun writing from a less personal perspective--looking outside of my own life for inspiration.”
The results aren't bad for a bunch of guys whose first move as a country-rock band was to cover a Jawbreaker song. Nicholls is up front about the fact that Lucero began life as an intentional departure from a hardcore punk scene that had become somewhat stifling. Musicians make intentional departures from their roots all the time (remember Moby's Animal Rights?), but both hardcore and Southern-rock fans tend to expect an awful lot of authenticity from their performers.
“For better or worse, I think most music today is much more self-conscious or self-aware than music in the past,” he says. “We get asked a lot about whether we consider ourselves a Southern band, where we fit in, so to speak. Lucero as a whole was a conscious choice to try and write slow, pretty country songs--which at that point was something new for me.”
Hell, Lynyrd Skynyrd's main early influences were The Beatles and The Yardbirds. In turn, The Beatles and The Yardbirds were playing a more palatable version of the “Southern” rock Bo Diddley and Ike Turner crafted years earlier. So it shouldn't ruffle feathers that Lucero draws equally from Fugazi and “Freebird.” And it shouldn't surprise anyone that, seven years into it, what was once an experiment is now simply Lucero.
Or, as Springsteen once sang, “You get used to anything/ Sooner or later it just becomes your life.” Lucero plays with Bobby Bare Jr. at Brick by Brick on Sunday, Oct. 21. Doors open at 8 p.m. $14. 619-275-LIVE.