“After our first performance, I wasn’t sure they would have us back,” jokes Lucero vocalist Ben Nichols from Riot Fest’s Rise Stage, referring to the band’s 2014 appearance in Humboldt Park. It’s Friday night, and the band have just finished their sound check. To my right is a person who’s clearly come straight from work, muddy boots still on, standing alone and tall. To my left is a leather jacket with tassels that blow in the wind as the temperature drops. I sneak a peek at their white cowboy boots and red lipstick. Lucero makes music for sad cowboys, but today, we are all happy.
In the south, where I’m from, Lucero are as common as sweet tea and biscuits. I’ve been seeing them since I was a teen in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Nichols wrote Lucero’s “Best Girl” while visiting his brother at Wake Forest. The band have always had a homegrown attitude, and even here at Riot Fest, they’re the same. The crowd size, like the many times I have seen them before, is intimate. There’s adequate room to move around, and many people are watching alone, like me.
Lucero is equal parts punk, soul, alt-country, and rock ’n’ roll. Hailing from different parts of the Mojo Triangle, every member of the band brings a different musical influence, and it’s a Memphisian sound through and through. They’ve been diligently making music and touring for more than 20 years, and have released 11 albums; the latest, Among the Ghosts, came out last year. The band open their set at Riot Fest with the title track, a catchy, upbeat tune that exemplifies their ability to play soft and loud music simultaneously. The sound of this album is more refined, more grown-up than their previous releases. Nichols, who has a toddler daughter, has clearly been influenced by his growing family in his songwriting. Don’t get me wrong, there are still tracks about drinking, but there are fewer songs about causing a ruckus. Nichols didn’t have much to lose before, but with the introduction of a family, he does, and much of the album mirrors these new emotions. And typical of Lucero, a few songs on the album are historical and slightly political.
“For My Dearest Wife,” another song from Amongst the Ghosts, is about Nichols’s wife and written from the point of view of a Civil War soldier writing to his family back home; “Cover Me” follows an army deserter. It’s easy to assume a southern band from Tennessee would support the Confederacy, but Nichols told Billboard in 2018 that they would never use the Confederate flag in any promotional work or artwork: “We just don’t agree with it.” As a result, “For My Dearest Wife” mentions “battles” briefly but is more about Nichols simply missing home. Nichols’s songs about his grandfather, “Joining the Army” and “The War,” have resonated with military personnel and people overseas, though these songs are mostly anti-war.
Active-duty military and veterans make up just one of the followings Lucero have amassed over the years. “All Sewn Up” pays homage to tattoos, which has resulted in a Lucero fan tattoo cult. “The tattoo guys, the BMX guys—I’m not sure exactly how we picked them up. But we have these sort of subcultures,” Nichols told Vice. “Our fan base is definitely made up of the entire spectrum of political views. We’ve got a little bit of everybody coming to the shows.”
Though the band themselves have shied away from political statements or branding themselves as a political band, Nichols told Shindig that “The night [Trump] was elected I sure threatened to become a political band and write political songs.” But the group decided to take their politics local and put their resources to use in their community. “I don’t take things for granted quite like I used to,” Nichols says. Lucero avoided their political-leaning tracks before a Riot Fest crowd that included rockabillies, flat-brimmed hats, and longhaired hippies. “Texas & Tennessee” and “Chain-Linked Fence” aren’t radio hits, but they are Lucero hits as the crowd two-steps and sings along. Pulling on heartstrings is Lucero’s area of expertise, and they do so effortlessly.
I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $10 to see Lucero play the past eight times I’ve seen them. As a late teen, I would attend shows in small, cramped spaces in my small, cramped southern town. But my first time seeing Lucero outdoors in the sunlight, surrounded by a multitude of people, mirrors the sound of their new album. Where the past shows sounded a lot like “Raising Hell,” this new show sounds like “Everything Has Changed.” The sound is still emotional but more polished. And Lucero will undoubtedly always be rock ’n’ roll. Their commitment to one another and their history together are obvious. Their sound is still hard, as Rick Steff’s keyboards bring an ease to the heavy topics that Nichols’s gruff voice bellows. It is admittedly odd not seeing the alt-country band under a neon sign, but this atmosphere somehow fits the bill. Their new songs reflect love and soft companionship, much like the festival spirit.
Nichols’s voice begins to give out two songs before the set is over; it cracks during “Tears Don’t Matter Much” as the crowd helps him carry the words. He shakes his head, laughing. We laugh along, too. It’s clear that Lucero are still the four drunk punks we’ve always known. v