Role Models: Ben Nichols on Tom Waits

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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photo by James Minchin

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ben Nichols is the frontman for Memphis alt-country band Lucero, who just released their first-ever live album, Live From AtlantaNichols has also recorded a solo EP titled The Last Pale Light in the West, which drew influence from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

I can’t tell you the first time I heard Tom Waits. It seems like he was a presence that had simply always existed. Kind of the way I always thought of him as older than he actually was. To me, he is just one of those fundamental elements that has always been and always will be. I’m sure he was part of the music I discovered between the ages of 12 and 15. Those years when I was too young to drive myself to the record store but old enough to know that music existed outside of what they played on the radio. Those years I was dependent upon mix tapes and late night cable TV. Whenever it was that I came across him, it was a life-changing event for me, whether I recognized it at the time or not.

I am in no way a Tom Waits expert; I’ve just been a fan for a while now.  When Brian Venable and I were starting our band Lucero, back in 1998, we had a few artists that we shared an appreciation for and whom we wanted to look to as inspiration for our own songs, and Tom Waits was one of those. We didn’t know much about the genre of music we were attempting to participate in, but we knew that if we tried to combine Tom Waits with The Pogues, Johnny Cash, and The Replacements we’d at least have a good time.

After playing in bands for a number of years that seemed to only get louder and faster, Brian and I were both looking for something else, a type of music that we could grow old a little more gracefully with. I remember driving from Memphis to Little Rock listening to “Blind Love” from the album Rain Dogs and saying to myself, “That right there is the type of song I’d like to write in this Lucero band.”

Now, that is all well and good but I’m still trying to write a song like “Blind Love.” In the 16 years I’ve been writing songs for Lucero, I am still struggling to achieve what appears to come so naturally to Tom Waits.

There are people who are born a Tom Waits and there are people who are born wishing they were Tom Waits. I, unfortunately, am not a Tom Waits, but man I wish I was. I am drawn to his work and his personality for the same reason everyone else is. I want to know where all the stories come from. I want to tell all those jokes. I want to have all those experiences. I want to tap into all of that well-earned wisdom. I want Tom Waits to be my uncle or my big brother and I want him to let me tag along on his travels and have him show me the ways of the world. A world that was old and dangerous and forbidden, a world my parents always tried to shield me from. A world that is hidden from our everyday view that maybe doesn’t exactly exist anymore. And I guess in a way, that is what his records do. They allow me to visit that place.

I think I remember Tom referring to himself in an old interview as a curator. I feel like that is an extremely apt description for him. There are bits and pieces of America that have been disappearing for decades now and he helps tell their stories. There are sounds of an older world in his songs and there are the words of the underdogs and the outcasts who live in that world. It is all a very real world that once existed and possibly still does, but it is wrapped up and hidden underneath this everyday world that we constantly see. It’s a place that not just anyone can take you to. Tom Waits is our tour guide, our host in this world. He is the curator.

As much as I love the world that Tom Waits paints so vividly in his songs, as much as it inspires me, I can’t get there by myself. In my own songs, I have my own world. I want it to be as fully realized, as memorable and as meaningful as Tom Waits’ world. I’m desperately jealous of the way he sees the world and how he puts it in a song. But when it comes down to it, all I have are my own experiences and stories and my own way of seeing things.

So. I deal with it. I take the inspiration and run with it and try to write my own songs. I have to face up to my limitations and write around them. I try to be as honest as I can. I try to have as much fun as I can. I never go very long without listening to some Tom Waits records. And actually, I just realized the best part about writing this essay …  it made me want to stop typing, pick up a guitar and try to write a song, cause that’s what listening to Tom Waits makes me want to do.

This article appears in our November/December 2014 issue. Subscribe here

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