Lucero recorded their seventh studio album, Women & Work, at Memphis’ Ardent Studios, where Big Star, Leon Russell, and Isaac Hayes made records in the 1970s.
In addition to being a world-class studio with a great history and great feel, Lucero frontman Ben Nichols makes a more pragmatic point about the studio: “We love recording there because it’s five minutes from everyone’s houses.”
The album, their second recorded at Ardent with producer Ted Hutt, has a big soul influence, though Nichols says the genre has always been part of their sound, even since their self-titled first album and a song like “Wasted.” “There’s no horns on it,” says Nichols, “but it’s that kind of 6/8, slower song, and it always had a soulful feel to me.”
For Women & Work, the band took a layered approach to production, using organ and horns in a more overt nod to Memphis’ soul history, especially the Stax Records catalog – and Dusty In Memphis, which was recorded at Chips Moman’s American studios in Memphis with the house band.
One Stax record that Nichols hadn’t discovered until recently is Delaney & Bonnie’s 1969 debut Home, which has a similar mix of country, soul, and rock, and also features Lucero pianist Rick Steff’s father, Dick Steff, on trumpet. Home’s melting pot of styles “really struck home with me,” he says.
But if Women & Work, which has earned the band their highest chart debut and sales week ever, seems like it covers similar ground as 2009’s soul-infused 1372 Overton Park, one of the big differences is the influence of Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios.
“The title track is just a rave-up. A Jerry Lee Lewis boogie woogie piano rave-up,” says Nichols.
By all accounts, Lucero sounds like a more grownup band on Women & Work, even if Nichols’ lyrics cover the same rock and roll tropes of whiskey and women. It’s a lot different than the early days of the band, which Nichols describes as “flying drunk going a hundred miles an hour,” as the band members learned the ropes of being traveling musicians.
Around 2006, Lucero added veteran Memphis musician Rick Steff to the lineup and recorded Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers. Steff had been the longtime keyboard player for Hank Williams, Jr., and had also worked with indie singer-songwriter Cat Power on the Memphis soul-indebted album The Greatest.
“When we added Rick Steff the musicianship came up a notch,” says Nichols. “We started not being completely hammered before we got on stage. Because Rick was so good, it was so fun to play the songs and I wanted to play them well.”
Nichols remembers the first time Steff showed up at rehearsal.
“I had no idea if it was going to make things more complicated. I had no idea if he’d be able to follow us or we’d be able to follow him. I was a little wary of it. But we started playing and it was instant. He started playing a piano part and it fit in perfectly and naturally. Me and Brian Venable looked at each other with stupid grins. It was that easy in that moment. It injected a new life into what we were doing.”
Then, for 1372 Overton Park, Nichols says adding horns kicked it up another notch. Jim Spake (saxophone) and Scott Thompson (trumpet) have been on the Memphis music scene for decades, having played with soul legends like Eddie Floyd and Al Green. “Those guys are so professional and so good,” says Nichols. “We have to step our game up to keep up with the new guys.”
Working with Ted Hutt, who produced three Gaslight Anthem albums and once was the guitarist in Flogging Molly, added another layer of professionalism. “I learned a lot about songwriting and when to push myself and when to search a little harder,” says Nichols.
“We learned so much from Ted on 1372 that we kind of knew as we were writing these songs what he would critique. ‘This one needs a bridge.’ ‘He’s not gonna let me get away with repeating this.’”
But for the most part, the demos that the band recorded leading up to the main sessions at Ardent sound a lot like the final tracks. Except for one track, the final song “Go Easy,” which Nichols has compared to a Sunday morning coming down and Steff says is one of the best pieces of music he’s ever contributed to (Steff has played on more than 150 records.)
“‘Go Easy’ changed quite a bit,” says Nichols. “Ted pushed it into the gospel direction. I wrote that chorus to sound on purpose like a church song.”
The song starts with a distant organ, and then a strummed acoustic guitar emerges along with the familiar twang of Nichols and Venable’s electric guitars.
By the time Roy Berry’s drums reach the ride cymbal triplets on the chorus, a gospel choir is ringing on high. “Forlornly, but not forsaken,” it goes. “Darling … go easy,” sings Nichols.
It’s a beautiful moment for a band that’s been pegged in the past as a rowdy one-note country-punk bar band.
Nichols says fans are already responding to their new songs, like “Go Easy.”
“We played it for the first time last night in Louisville,” he says the week before the album’s release. “I think it will be a good one.”