Alt-country acts don't fuss with the wheel laid down by Gram Parsons. Rather,they lap on a few coats of modern alloy, and in so doing, create some of themost traditionally American new music of the decade. Like the blues, the countrytradition is neck-deep, and the thin margin between respectability and rehash canonly be overcome with basic tools-songcraft and delivery. Tennessee's Lucero isone alt-country band that, for the reasons above, are well-loved by the fewwho've been turned onto 'em. The band began its slow ascent from the seedy punkunderground in 1998, facilitated largely by frontman Ben Nichols' killer songsand an audible affection for East Bay punk bands like Jawbreaker. If BlakeSchwarzenbach and Paul Westerberg raised a love child in the South on a steadydiet of moonshine and heartache, that child may have been Nichols. Whereas Wilcoand Ryan Adams have backed away from the twang with each successive release,Nichols' voice and the band's Western roots are unrepentant. Nichols laid thefoundations for Lucero in Little Rock, Ark., with a little-known band called Red40. "We never went on tour and were only together a few years," he says of theband, which lasted from 1994 to 1996. "It's amazing how much that stuff's kindaslowly leaked out all over the country now. "There are some similarities in myvoice and the songwriting, but that was more my attempt at an East Bay punkband." Seven years later, he and Lucero seemed to catch a break when New York'sTigerstyle Records released their third album, That Much Further West. Though thelabel had garnered some underground buzz with releases by The Album Leaf andAmerican Analog Set, they folded shortly after releasing That Much. And it leftLucero with that much more work to do on their own. So they re-released theirfirst-ever recordings (called Attic Tapes, because that's where they gathereddust for awhile) on their own imprint, Love Lost Records. The next album of newmaterial, Nobody's Darlings, is finished and scheduled for a May 24 release onLove Lost, in conjunction with East-West Records. Nichols' soulful tales are sovividly Southern you can smell honeysuckle, hear the beer-can trickle of a nearbycreek and imagine a damn-pretty Southern girl is waiting to hay-roll to themood-setting static of a transistor radio. He's got a deeply personal approach tosongwriting, evident on tracks like "The War," which he played solo to closeshows on their last tour. The song is a tale of his grandpa, who fought inEurope. "I didn't know him but was always interested in him and heard storiesfrom my grandma and dad," Nichols says. "I started writing letters, trying tofind out about his service record, which was hard because his records had beendestroyed in a fire in '73 and he never applied for benefits. "He was the onlymember of my family that drank or smoked or anything, and I sometimes wonder whathe might think of me, what I do and how I live."
Lucero plays with Honorary Title and Communique at the Casbah, 9 p.m. on March14. $8. 619-232-HELL. www.lucerofamily.net.