Discussions of Lucero's music tend to reference country-punk sensibilities, and the band's new album, Women & Work, has been labeled "Memphis country soul." But guitarist and cofounder Brian Venable begs to differ, more or less.
"We just think of it as rock 'n roll," he says. "Southern rock by default, 'cause we're from the South, but we grew up on Tom Petty and the Replacements. We tried to have it all categorized at one point, but really, we just wanna be a rock 'n roll band. Don't need any adjectives."
Of course, without adjectives, we would have no story, so we need at least a few. Let's start with Memphis, where blues and country intersected and soul fueled the engines of social change. Memphis is a city that respects tradition, but also understands the value of moving forward, a frame of reference that informs Venable and bandmates Ben Nichols (lead vocals, songwriting), John C. Stubblefield (bass), Rick Steff (keyboards, accordion), Todd Beene (pedal steel) and Roy Berry (drums).
Women & Work is the band's first album for ATO, a label co-founded by Dave Matthews that's home to Drive-by Truckers, My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes, Patty Griffin and Widespread Panic. After their last album was released on Universal Republic, band members realized they'd gotten a major-label deal late in the game — just when the infrastructure was "failing and fallin' apart," as Venable puts it.
"Unless we were gonna be Rihanna or Taylor Swift or some pop star-type situation that we're not, they didn't know what to do with us, and didn't really want to fool with it," he says. "And they went from 13 people in the office to three by the time the record's cycle was done. It was not a good time for the major labels, so we thought we'd jump ship."
ATO's a better fit for a band that, after 14 years and nine albums, still plays around 200 days a year. "They liked our work ethic; we liked how they treated bands on the label."
Venable's personal work ethic was handed down from his father, who owns a shoe repair shop. In fact, the younger Venable left the band for a time because he'd gotten discouraged playing "$5 cover" shows (which subsequently became the title of an MTV series in which Nichols starred).
"I thought it was gonna be the four of us against the world," he says, recalling the band's earliest days. Having tired of the endless compromises, he decided to get out — right when his dad was diagnosed with cancer.
"So it worked out that I could cover for him while he recuperated," Venable says. "Then I realized I missed it and had been part of something that I needed to see through to the end."
Women & Work was recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios and prominently features local horn greats Jim Spake and Scott Thompson. The music echoes Alex Chilton and Big Star as much as it does Al Green and Stax Records. From the Friday night expectations of "On My Way Downtown" to the Sunday morning vibe of the gospel-chorused "Go Easy," it captures the spirit of a city that knows more than most about partying and its aftermath.
"It's the greatest city in the world," says Venable of his hometown. "As big as we get nationally, you always wanna be a Memphis band."