With 17 years of band-hood and more than a dozen recordings to its name, Memphis rock-soul-punk-country band Lucero has amassed a catalog that’s impressive in both scope and style. Ben Nichols and crew began the current millennium as garage rockers that knew when to twang and when to yearn, knew when to sip on its highball of whiskey and when to chug the whole damn bottle. But by 2009, with the release of the group’s major label debut 1372 Overton Park, Lucero found an even broader fist-pumping, bottle-hoisting audience with its brassy, juke-jumping horns and a smoother overall style.
While Lucero’s most recent release, the excellent All a Man Should Do, is perhaps the most mellow to date, the band still knows how to crank out soulful, slow-burning tunes, amped-up punk numbers, twang-infused heartbreaks, and butt-shaking anthems. So in honor of the group’s eighth studio album, we’ve compiled 10 of the best songs by Lucero.
So many of Lucero’s greatest songs are stories about parties. Sounds superficial, but it’s not when Nichols digs into the details of why that party is notable. Here the southern boy sings he, “sunk his heart at the bottom of the bay,” before asking one of the Bay Area girls “Do you wake up every morning and thank God for those legs?” This tune’s guitar acrobatics wrap around the Golden Gate revelry in a manner suggesting the party hasn’t yet stopped.
When it comes to subject matter, the combination of alcohol, loneliness, and/or a lost lover is a thankfully bottomless well for Nichols. Here, the sad fellow may be drunk and sad, hungover and hurting, or just sick and tired of being sick and tired. But as a mellow, soulful groove meanders, our narrator admits defeat, and prefers to stay down because the inevitable crash back to the gutter may be too much to deal with. Nichols grizzled delivery conveys a resigned plea that’s powerful in its sheer, relatable simplicity.
Butt-shaking parties are often what Lucero shows end up evolving into by night’s end. This 2012 title track, packed with pace, jubilant horns, greasy guitars, and honky-tonk piano is often the soundtrack to the sloppiest moments of any Lucero party, as evidenced when Nichols encourages all to “drink ‘em down,” only to begin “puking in the aisles.”
This tune from 2002 showed an early glimpse into Nichols’ keen ability to divulge pain without whining, trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do without his love. He’s not kidding when he sings “nights like these tear me apart,” as even the “beer tastes like blood.” With an anthemic guitar riff running majestically along, this gut-wrenching tune manages to rock, and not roll over and die.
This 2005 acoustic album closer transcends songs about love, loss, and parties. This stark tale of sacrifice and a lifelong pain of regret is shown through a lens of a young man after being “drafted at 19,” for World War II. As the narrator and his mates sit quietly at dinner, a preacher attempts to comfort the frightened teen soldiers by assuring them that whoever among that dies in battle will “dine with the Lord in paradise.” But such promises don’t apply, as it turns out, as the narrator confesses to taking “care of myself first,” instead of being around to “get my friends killed.” The song ends with the narrator, old and broken, acknowledging that still living is worse than death would’ve been.
We’ve all been there—the nights out with a combative significant other and things just aren’t going the way we hoped it would. With an authoritative electric guitar thump and dramatic piano setting the stage for a night on the town, Nichols’, after purchasing his lady-friend some “cigarettes and whiskey drinks,” asks the question so many promising Friday nights have come sadly crashing down with, “What else would you have me be?”
This ode to a trusty instrument is as powerful a statement on intimate love as anything you’ll find on a Barry White record. The bare-bones electric strums and atmospheric slide perfectly underlines Nichols’ trademark rasp. Regular folks have faithful pets to sub for the absence of a significant other and here, we realize that Nichols’ “best girl” not only has six strings, but will always be by his side.
Much like Bruce Springsteen, Lucero spills guts in a way that attracts rather than repels. In this somber, melodic letter of apology to his mother, Nichols—who often performs the tune solo—reassures her that he and his brothers appreciate her work, her prayers, and the strong roots she set for them. If Lucero has a love song to a guitar, another one to Mom seems to be in order, indeed.
Indeed, the title track from Lucero’s 2003 album is a worthy tune in and of itself. But even more, the 2014 live interpretation offers everything Lucero, and its fans, love so very much, as the original was recorded before the band employed a regular horn section. The electric energy of a show, mixed with punk guitars backing blaring horns and smooth keys take this beloved track to a higher level than before.
The titular question is reportedly a line Townes Van Zandt would often use on ladies at the bar when it was time for him to turn on the charm. Nichols builds upon the troubled legend’s tortured words by singing, “If I shed this skin of iron and breath of kerosene,” and crafts a portrait of a man putting it all out there to a girl he caught looking him, “square in the eye, more than once tonight.” Musically, the song starts sweetly and swells into a roots-rock anthem, emblematic of all that Lucero does so well.