There’s a point in recent Lucero shows when frontman Ben Nichols pulls back from his anthems of last calls and heartbreaks and leads the band in “Hello, My Name Is Izzy,” a lighthearted country shuffle penned for his two-year-old daughter. Sometimes she even comes onstage, earmuffs on, to dance.
That moment held a special joy for Nichols at the band’s annual Lucero Family Block Party in Memphis in April, where they celebrated their 20th anniversary over two days with support from friends like Turnpike Troubadours and John Moreland.
Nichols had spent the days leading up to the show helping tend to Izzy after rushing her to a hospital in the middle of the night. Doctors quickly diagnosed her with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, an infection caused by a tick bite that can be fatal if left untreated.
“We live on a couple acres of land surrounded by woods and a big ravine on one side, so there’s plenty of animals and ticks around,” Nichols says from home, while his daughter watches cartoons in another room. “We never noticed she had a tick bite, but it was the spots that gave it away.”
By showtime that Saturday night, though, Izzy had recovered enough for a relieved Nichols to take the stage, and for her to make an appearance to the fans who traveled to celebrate.
“There’s usually not a baby running around with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever at most Lucero shows,” Nichols jokes, the scare safely in his rearview. “Everything worked out.”
Moments like that couldn’t have happened at a Lucero concert two years ago, but being a parent changes things. The tug of responsibility and fears that come with family and fatherhood bind the songs on Lucero’s raw, ferocious ninth album, Among the Ghosts (Liberty & Lament/Thirty Tigers), which drops August 3rd.
“I think maybe the reason the record has this darker tone overall, this darker mood,” Nichols says, “is maybe because now, with a family, as happy as I am, now I’ve got something to lose. There’s a new kind of fear that I’ve never felt before.”
Recording in short bursts between tours with fellow Memphian Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price), the band walked away from the horns and boogie-woogie piano that characterized their previous three records — the Memphis-centric 1372 Overton Park, Women & Work and All a Man Should Do. But the band’s signature Americana style remains, pushed into darker territory than they’ve ever explored by the relentless drive of Nichols’ minor-key meditations on life, love and family.
“We can’t not make a Lucero record. That’s the humor in it for me. We’ve played together so long, we only know a certain style.” — Lucero guitarist Brian Venable
Brooding landscapes surround Nichols’ acoustic guitar patterns throughout the album, led by John C. Stubblefield’s nimble basslines, Roy Berry’s understated-yet-pummeling drums and Brian Venable’s scorching guitar leads. Keys player Rick Steff shows his range with atmospheric synths on “Bottom of the Sea” and articulate piano melodies on “Always Been You.”
Tracking live with everyone in the same room at Sam Phillips Recording, just down from their new rehearsal space, brought the band back to their roots. The band started fresh each day with Ross-Spang, without the pre-production and meticulous editing of their most recent work. Nichols usually began sessions with a guitar figure or chord progression, and the band members would join in, feeling out their parts on the spot. The results were immediate.
“Everybody was firing on all cylinders,” he says. “I think everybody played as well as they did because they were comfortable [with the process]. It wasn’t as much pressure. You knew that if you didn’t finish something right away, you could come back in a couple months and finish it.”
Inspired by grit-lit authors like Ron Rash and Larry Brown, Nichols aimed to write lyrics that read less like diary entries and instead told more universal stories. Some of the ideas started at home, while spending time with his daughter, but most came late at night after recording sessions.
Nichols went through three sets of lyrics for the title track — incidentally, the most personal song on the album — before landing on a story of a man torn between his family and his “reckless” world away from home. The music builds slowly and ominously around Nichols’ menacing vocal delivery and Venable’s slashing guitar chords.
The band had the music for “Among the Ghosts” and “To My Dearest Wife,” which premiered here in May, along with the barroom burner “For the Lonely Ones,” before anything else. Nichols says the pair set the tone for the album.
“I think [the record] has a consistent feel to it because the songs relate back to either one of those songs,” he says. “That’s one benefit to writing everything at the same time and while you’re recording. It sounds like Lucero right now, and I really think it sounds like Lucero at our best.”
On “Bottom of the Sea,” the band digs back to their alt-rock youth, wrapping a guitar riff inspired by the Cure in watery, ethereal Eighties reverb, a signature that shows up often on Among the Ghosts.
“That’s one of the flavors that’s mixed in throughout the whole album,” he says. “I wanted a mix of that Eighties sound, kind of like Eighties classic rock plus Eighties alternative all mixed up in one pot, and I think that’s what we got.”
Venable agrees. “We’re free to do whatever we want,” he says. “We can write songs about Butch Cassidy [on “Cover Me”], we can play Cure riffs, we can do whatever the hell, and that’s the beauty of it. We can’t not make a Lucero record. That’s the humor in it for me. We’ve played together so long, we only know a certain style.”
The album’s haunting cover image, taken by tintype photographer Michael N. Foster, reflects the music’s Southern gothic feel. The eerie façade of an abandoned church in the ghost town of Rodney, Mississippi, sitting in flood waters from the Mississippi River gives shape to the metaphorical ghosts haunting the songs.
“I think that’s kinda where this record was,” Venable says. “A lot of it’s, not looking back, just what we’ve lived through. [The image] just tied it together. We pretty much put a face on the music.”
For Nichols, his newfound perspective as a husband and father brings his own ghosts into sharper focus. Where that focus leads the music is often miles away from where Lucero’s been, but never too far from where they started.
“I was worried about how [being a father] would interfere with my writing,” he admits. “I didn’t see it coming, but it actually really expanded the palette that I could work with and the emotional depths I could go to for these songs. It opens up a lot of new doors and it’s reinvigorated us, and I’m excited to see what the Lucero family can come up with next.”