The late '90s was a period of awkward transition for the Memphis music scene. The Antenna club was gone. The crushing art-rock sound championed by indie darlings such as the Grifters and the Simple Ones imploded into a million little pieces. The Oblivians disbanded and new-wave revivalists the Clears broke apart at the height of their popularity while space-rockers Delorean disappeared altogether.
As Memphis' old guard gave up the ghost, a new order began to emerge. Metal staged a comeback and math-rockers His Hero Has Gone became a momentary favorite. The Hi-Tone Café booked swing and honky-tonk, inspiring Memphis artists such as Lucy Nell Crater (Meagan Reilly), the Bluff City Backsliders, and Cory Branan. Posters featuring pentagrams and goat heads began to appear about town, advertising a satanic-sounding band called Lucero, and given the climate and the over-the-top iconography (not to mention the presence of former Joint Chiefs drummer Roy Berry), most people assumed Lucero was going to be another tongue-in-cheek metal band. Most people were wrong.
Lucero was a rare bird. The band didn't spring fully formed from the suburban metal crowd, nor was it nurtured by the more eclectic Midtown music scene. The band came of age in the grimy bustle of Memphis' downtown revival, when today's high-dollar lofts were still bare-boned garrets occupied by artists looking for work and cheap rent. Lucero's throaty frontman, Ben Nichols described Lucero's urban plowboy sound as the result of an emo brat (Nichols) trying to write country songs with a hardcore kid (Brian Venable). And true enough, their earliest coffee-house sets were sloppy, high-lonesome extravaganzas that stretched from early evening to early morning, countless whiskey bottles passing from the band to the crowd and back again. And with each epic show, the band evolved into something just a little different.
"I'll never forget the first time Lucero played Barristers," says longtime Memphis music promoter James Manning. "I think they may have had eight songs and they may have made it through six of them, but you could tell even then that these guys were going to be big. The second band hadn't even started yet when they came up and asked me if they could book another show. I said, 'Hell yeah!'"
Hell yeah was the right answer. Several years, six albums, and two documentaries later, Lucero, who long ago traded in their country sound for straightforward Southern rock, is teetering on the brink of legitimate stardom, and their latest, best-sounding album, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, could be the thing that puts them over the top.
"We'll have friends or people from Memphis who'll show up [at out-of-town shows] and they'll see 'Sold Out.' And all I can tell them is, we're a national act now," says Lucero guitarist Brian Venable. "You've got to get your tickets in advance."
Venable is in transit, heading to what he suspects will be a sellout at San Francisco's Slim's. "We used to play the Bottom of the Hill," he says, recounting packed shows at the storied club. "But then we got too big." His words resonate with "What Else Would You Have Me Be," the opening track of Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers. It's an emotional travelogue where Nichols buries his heart at the "bottom of the hill" and shouts out to the girls he's loved down on Beale, all the while announcing Lucero's seamless transition from brilliant bar band to estimable recording artists.
Venable says the new record incorporates sounds and ideas the band has always wanted to use on other records but which never quite fit. At first listen, it plays out like a reworking of Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, with nods to Asia, Blue Oyster Cult, and Steve Earle's not-quite-Celtic guitar jangle. Through it all, Nichols sings (as he has always sung) about the explosive mixture of sweet-faced girls and hard liquor.
"We're a rock-and-roll band. We spend 200 nights a year in bars," Venable says, explaining why subject matter may be a bit limited and offering no apologies for the band's rowdy reputation.
"There are some places where people buy beers two at a time: one to drink, one to throw," Venable says. He describes wild nights in Philadelphia and a freaky mob in Detroit where fans broke beer bottles against the stage then pounded on the broken glass. He compares it to the polite, attentive crowd in Portland, Oregon.
"Portland's hard," Venable says. "There were some people from Philly [who had been following the band on tour] at the show, and they started spilling beer and stuff and they got thrown out. We gave them T-shirts and said we were sorry and told them we'd get them up on stage next time."
If their shows have gotten wilder, their sound has become more refined, and Venable gives a lot of the credit to producer (and former Camper Van Beethoven frontman) David Lowery.
"There was this whole time when we were recording, and I didn't think he was paying attention. But then he started singing the song, and he really knew it," Venable says, also crediting Rick Steff, whose shimmering keyboards take some of the pressure off Lucero's hardworking rhythm section, brightening the sound and giving Nichols' smoky vocals a bit of breathing room.
It was something of an open secret, in Lucero's earliest days, that Venable -- in no way a trained or experienced musician -- played guitar the way a phonetic speaker imitates a language they don't really understand. Although his skills are now enviable, he's still self-deprecating.
"It helps that I'm able to build my solos in the studio, note for note," he says. "Then I can learn them and actually be able to go out and play them right. Nobody knows I'm used to going out there just terrified."