With the release of their new album, 1372 Overton Park, onetime alt-country quartet Lucero have concluded what might be the most prolific and productive past decade of any Memphis musicians. It's the band's seventh full-length album since forming a little more than a decade ago and its first full-fledged major-label release, for Universal Records.
The album's title alludes to a period of change for the band — professionally and personally. It's the address of the second-story Midtown loft that has served as a living and practice space for the band over the past decade. Last month, singer Ben Nichols — the last member of the band still living there — moved out, buying a house in the same Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood.
"It was time to go," Nichols says. "I'd been there since 1999, so I'd done my 10 years."
At one time or another, all four core members of the band — Nichols, guitarist Brian Venable, bassist John C. Stubblefield, and drummer Roy Berry — had lived there. For a few years early in the decade, they all lived there together. The ragged space was referenced on "Raising Hell" from their debut album and had served as a location for some minor recording and preproduction work. Most recently, some scenes between Nichols and actress Claire Grant were shot there for Craig Brewer's $5 Cover series.
Signing to a major label and saying farewell to their longtime home base aren't the only changes connected to 1372 Overton Park. After recording their previous album, 2006's Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers, in Virginia with producer David Lowery, Lucero stayed home for this one, recording at the city's signature studio, Ardent, for the first time. It was a decision driven, in part, by the arrival of Venable's son — the first Lucero baby — a few months before recording began.
The band says that being on Universal hasn't changed things much.
"The one thing that was different was that [before officially recording] they wanted demos of all the songs," Stubblefield says.
A longtime Lucero associate mentioned this change to me last spring and suggested it would have a beneficial impact on the band's songwriting and recording habits.
"It turned out to be really helpful, I think," Venable says of demo-ing songs before heading into Ardent. "We made this record differently. We spent more time on it."
The biggest sonic difference on 1372 Overton Park — recorded with British producer Ted Hutt — is the introduction of horns, played on the record by local session aces Jim Spake and Marc Franklin. This is new territory for Lucero but not surprising given how they've been expanding their country-punk bar-rock sound in recent years.
This evolution began with the addition of keyboardist Rick Steff, who joined the band to record the Rebels album and became a fifth full-time member. Over the past couple of years of touring, the band has added a sixth member: Little Rock-based pedal-steel player Todd Beene.
With horns added to the mix, elements of soul and country mingle easily in Lucero's new music — unsurprising from an "alt-country" band that long ago had a slow-burn cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" in their live sets. "Goodbye Again," a ballad originally slated for the band's second album, 2002's Tennessee, is in this vein.
"For Tennessee, I thought it was too country, but [with horns and keyboards] it turned into a really nice soul song," Nichols says.
The biggest departure on the album is the swaggering blues-rock anthem "Sixes and Sevens."
"That's one of those tricky ones where everyone filters the song through their own personal taste," Nichols says. "I'm thinking Steve Cropper and a bit of the Beatles' White Album. But if you come at it with different touchstones in mind, you could think it's a really crappy jam-band song. I don't think it is, but some people will hear it that way."
"It's a lot of fun, but it's one of those songs we used to mess around with but wouldn't play," Venable says.
"We've grown up and gotten over ourselves," Stubblefield explains.
"We were worried [the album] would be a little too jammy, so that gave us a direction," Venable says of the challenge of incorporating horns into the band's sound. "It gave us something to focus on. It became our soul record, our Memphis record."
This theme continues on a two-month national tour the band is launching this week, with an opening show at the Levitt Shell. The tour, dubbed the "Lucero Ramblin' Roadshow & Memphis Revue," will feature dual local openers at each show.
The first leg — and the Shell show — will include the hill-country-blues Juke Joint Duo and fellow $5 Cover star Amy LaVere. The second leg will feature Jack O & the Tearjerkers and John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives. The Juke Joint Duo will return for the third leg, along with young local rockers the Dirty Streets.
"We'd had an offer to go out with [fellow Hutt-connected band] the Gaslight Anthem, but we didn't want to do that with the record coming out," Nichols says. "We wanted to do our thing."
"Part of the benefit of getting to this level is being able to curate our own shows and take out bands that we want to take out," Stubblefield says.
The band will also bring horns on the road and have been spending time at Young Avenue Recording prepping for the tour. The Levitt Shell show will be the first time the band performs in public with a horn section.
The show at the Shell also will be free.
"Memphis has allowed us to do what we do, and this is a way to show our appreciation, to just open it up to everybody," Stubblefield says.
Steff cites the historical linkage of recording the band's "Memphis album" at Ardent and opening the tour at the Shell, joking that the band should finish the tour at the Orpheum.
"Yeah, I guess you don't get much more Memphis than that," Nichols says.