The very first verse of Lucero’s new album finds the song’s protagonist standing in a cold and biting wind, not wanting to leave and wondering if the lady in front of him knows that he’s headed out on the road and away from home.
“The first word she said to me was ‘goodbye,'” Lucero frontman Ben Nichols sings over a guitar line that’s all kinds of Southern Gothic. The picture was inspired by his daughter Izzy, and Nichols sounded a little down when asked about whether or not “goodbye” was actually the first word his own daughter uttered to him.
“Yeah, her first word was, ‘bye.’ Not ‘goodbye,’ but [that] works better in the song,” Nichols said. The 44-year-old songwriter has moved away from the soul and horn-driven sound on the band’s last few albums, and in a few hours Nichols will be on a plane headed to Nashville and the Ryman Auditorium, where Lucero is kicking off a fall tour in support of its brand new LP, Among the Ghosts.
“She’s definitely grown up with having to say goodbye. She’ll be two-and-a-half soon, and now she knows that we’re gone. Now she can actually say, ‘No don’t go.’ It’s not getting easier — it’s getting tougher.”
Ben Nichols shares thoughts on the future of Lucero, more before Tampa show at The Ritz Ybor
But Nichols has a big tour to do; it’s how Lucero has earned a devout following in the 20 years since the Memphis-based outfit released its first demos. The plan was never to sell a ton of records, so streaming royalties and the decline of physical sales aren’t giving the band a headache, but the road has always been part of the equation. Nichols admits that there’s usually a little bit of drinking involved, if not before, then during and after a Lucero set — and you’ll most definitely find him wandering the streets of Ybor when the band plays The Ritz on September 23 — but he’s also very open about the fact that he’s got a lot more to lose these days.
On Ghosts, that narrative takes shape on songs like “Always Been You,” “To My Dearest Wife,” and most notably on “Loving,” a quiet, acoustic tune about outcast love and wanting to be good enough for someone else despite being away all the time. Nichols said that the songs keep him company on the road, and that they sound exactly like the kind of thing he wants to hear and sing right now.
“This record is kind of getting back to actual serious, ‘this is what gets me through life’ type of music. Every night singing these new songs definitely helps when I am away from the family,” Nichols said. “It’s just so important to me. I don’t wanna screw it up or lose it.”
Thankfully, Among the Ghosts — which was recorded in live full-band takes over the course of a year at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording — makes Lucero sound like a group heading into a new, even more exciting phase of its career. With co-producer Matt Ross-Spang (who’s helmed records by Margo Price, Amanda Shires, Drive-By Truckers and more) at the controls, the 10-track effort utilizes many of the studio’s cavernous, built-for-reverb rooms in helping Lucero turn in an album that's simultaneously more raw and tender than anything it’s put out in a while. The album’s lyrical matter also finds Nichols moving away from the autobiographical nature of much of Lucero’s catalog. He’s done it before (listen to Nichols’ 2009 solo concept album, The Last Pale Light in the West, which was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), but now more than ever, Nichols is leaning on books, old war letters, movies, and even comic books to help craft stories.
“I don’t know exactly how illegal or immoral that kind of borrowing is, but I think it’s all part of the game, I think everybody kind of does that,” Nichols said. Many artists do, but Nichols has a unique ability to paint a new picture that lends an almost tangible authenticity to his approach. Live inside of the veiled darkness on piano-driven album highlight “Everything Has Changed,” where imagery was borrowed from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of linked short stories that tell the tale of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The song is shadowy, wicked at certain turns, but Nichols is learning how to access that black place and come back to real life, where things are much sunnier now that he spends his days at home hanging out with a two-year-old.
“It’s hilarious, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s like an '80s movie, it’s like Mr. Mom — kind of ridiculous,” Nichols said of his time with Izzy. The darkness is never in there during those parts of Nichols’ days, and that’s the way he wants it to stay. It’s nice, however, to have in his back pocket, and Nichols said that visiting the darkness is actually kind of healthy in a way.
“Dwelling in it is not healthy,” Nichols clarified when asked about the songs which have a healthy dose of that gloom in them.
“When you are happy you can visit that place and really soak it in and really pay attention to it because you are happy. You can really dissect it and let it heal you instead of just bleed you dry because that darkness can definitely suck the life out of you,” Nichols added, as the sound of his restless daughter started to invade the line. Izzy wanted to play, and Nichols wanted to spend his last day at home being a dad instead of the frontman promoting a tour. So he said “bye,” but not before closing with one more note about darkness and the way that life in general can beat you down sometimes.
“It’s nice to be in control of it rather than it be in control of you.”
Lucero w/Brent Cowles. Sun. Sept. 23, 7 p.m. $22 & up. The Ritz, 1503 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City More info: theritzybor.com