talking memphis with lucero

lucero: rick steff, brian venable, ben nichols, todd beene, roy berry and john c. stubblefield.

When you are part of a band bred in a music-rich Mecca like Memphis, Tenn., the sounds surrounding you – not to mention the history surrounding them – unavoidably become inspirations.

The members of Lucero recognized those sounds when they set about recording their debut album over a decade ago even if they didn’t exactly prioritize them. A punk-savvy outfit, the band’s live show plugged into a roots music sound gone haywire. Call it cowpunk. Call it turbo-charged honky tonk. Call it pure rock ‘n’ roll immediacy. Whatever the tag, Lucero was initially consumed more with music of the moment than with examining influences within their hometown.

Then something curious happened. When listening back to that self-titled debut, which was produced by the late Memphis/Mississippi roots music guru Jim Dickinson, Lucero found soul, R&B and Sun Records-style charm had nestled into the songs as if by osmosis.

“It had been several years for me personally, since I had listened to our first record,” said Lucero bass guitarist John C. Stubblefield. “We’ve been playing a lot of the songs off of it for years. But going back and listening Lucero with fresh ears, I rediscovered a lot of things.

“I had almost forgotten I was playing upright (bass) and that some of the production values were, in retrospect, a huge homage to the whole Sun Studio thing. Over the years, we started discovering new aspects of Memphis music.”

As time passed, Lucero’s reputation as a rave-up live act grew – especially regionally. It has been favorites for years in Louisville (culminating in a featured spot at Forecastle earlier this month) and Lexington (where it will headline Saturday at Buster’s). Such growth was both figurative and literal. The band gradually began absorbing a wider spectrum of Memphis musical tradition while steadily adding members. Rick Steff was brought in to augment the core Lucero quartet in 2005 on keyboards. Two years later, pedal steel guitarist Todd Beene made the band a sextet. Then with 2009’s 1372 Overton Park album, Lucero added the two-man horn section of Jim Spake and Scott Thompson.

“Yeah, we should call ourselves the Lucero Orchestra now,” Stubblefield said.

“I don’t really know how to describe the Memphis influence exactly. It’s a unique vortex. We were definitely blessed for our first album in being able to go down to Jim Dickinson’s studio, the Zebra Ranch, in Coldwater, Mississippi. I mean, Dickinson and all those guys were part of a Memphis country blues society that was going on. It was a scene where these younger white kids were discovering these older blues guys all over again.”

For its new Women & Work album, Lucero called upon the help of two Memphis institutions. The first was the famed Ardent Studios, where the album was cut. Aside from serving as the one-time recording home for acts from the legendary Stax label (Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and Sam and Dave, among them), artists as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Big Star and Leon Russell have made records there.

”We had an A&R (artist and repertoire) guy from the label on our last record who was saying, ‘You should go to New York and work with this guy’ or ‘Go to L.A. and work with so-and-so.’ So we kind of put our foot down with this one and said, ‘We’ve got a world class studio right here.’”

The other institution graces the album art for Women & Work. It’s the Arcade Restaurant, a fabled Memphis eatery located just down the street from Lucero’s practice studio.

“It’s is in this downtown area that’s experienced quite a resurgence,” Stubblefield said. “It’s kind of an arts district. There’s all kinds of history with people coming and going. Elvis had a booth at the Arcade for years. It was even Joe Strummer’s favorite spot to eat breakfast while he was making (the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film) Mystery Train. He actually wound up staying around town for a few months after the movie wrapped just because he liked the neighborhood so much.

“We’re just giving the Arcade props because it definitely nourished us, literally, through the whole writing and demo process of the new album. We wanted to give something back.”

Lucero performs with Those Crosstown Rivals, Alone at 3 a.m. and Jollett starting at 9 p.m. July 28 at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom. 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 day of show. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to www.bustersbb.com.

 



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