Music | Unknown Here: Lucero frontman Ben Nichols might be the best songwriter in the country; just don’t tell him | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Music | Unknown Here: Lucero frontman Ben Nichols might be the best songwriter in the country; just don’t tell him


There’s a little room—a break room, actually—in the back of Ben Nichols’ family furniture store. There’s not much to it: a few tables and chairs, little else. All the good stuff—the plush couches and mattresses, the fancy tables—is out in the Little Rock store’s warehouse. Nichols doesn’t go there. He sits in that little room; it’s like the Lucero frontman’s version of a nexus. All his high-school bands practiced there, all the way back to his first group when he was 14. So has Lucero, the country-dosed side project that, in the last decade, has turned into a cult phenom and perhaps America’s last great rock band. Nichols wrote most of the group’s songs in that room. He even made a pilgrimage there last fall, when, after a couple years of focusing on touring rather than writing, he decided to bunker down there to see if he still could write.

“That space is a key part of me,” Nichols admits. “I can’t write on the road. I get distracted. So I have to go there, where no one will hear me. I can stay up all night and be as loud as I want to be—just be as obnoxious as I want. It’s the place I can always go.”

In fact, Nichols is getting ready to basically move into that room in a few months. It has been two years since Lucero’s last record, Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers—the longest stint in the group’s history without a disc. Part of the reason: Well, the Memphis-based quartet doesn’t really leave the road, often playing 200 plus shows a year, usually to a devoted crowd equally split between mohawks and Stetsons.

The other part: After years of struggling for something other than critical attention—the title track from Nobody’s Darling (2005) sums up Nichols feelings about all that—Lucero is beginning to turn a once tiny group of obsessive fans into some serious crowds. There are still the devotees, the ones who literally tour with the band for a while, Deadhead style. Even a few fellow musicians have gone gaga over the group, like Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who once bragged about tailing Lucero for a week. But there’s a growing group of average folks, the kind who find solace in Nichols’ snarling voice and sad-sack songs. They get sucked in by tracks about growing up, feeling lost and drinking constantly. They get addicted to the band’s blend of American icons: Lucero finds the through-line between Bruce Springsteen, Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash. And they get a kick out of buying Nichols and the rest of the band a never-ending stream of shots while the group is onstage.

“I think that’s why people like us,” Nichols offers with a laugh. “They’re fascinated with watching me slowly drink myself to death.”

Really, it’s simpler than that. The band’s discs are rock like it was meant to be. While other groups like Wilco and The Hold Steady go for the cerebral cortex as much as they do the gut, and the Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket worry about making statements as much as simply rocking out, Lucero has always been about the pains and pleasures of ripping back a scab. Nichols doesn’t worry about how songs might be interpreted; he just lays things out there. He didn’t care about the political context of a song like “Joining the Army,” from the 2003 breakthrough That Much Further West, or the dreamy everyday heroism of a character sketch like “I Can Get Us Out of Here,” one of Rebels’ standout tracks. He just took those basic emotions—making Grandpa proud by enlisting, trying to get a girl to like you for all the right and wrong reasons—blasted them with the kind of beer-swinging songs that make you feel as American as a Fourth of July parade.

“I just try to write songs that are simple,” Nichols says. “We all go through the same basic day-to-day stuff. If you can find a way to tastefully write about that, a simple but tasteful way, people identify with that. Plus, I always had a taste for sad bastard songs, and people like those.”

Which means that, when Nichols finally sets up camp in that little room in a few months, prepping for what hopefully will be a new Lucero disc by early 2009, he’ll be writing about the same things he always does: broken hearts, hard luck and hard living—with just a dash of sad bastard for good measure.

“I’m getting sick of myself, really,” Nichols laughs. “But if that’s what people like, give them what they want.”

LUCERO The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East, Tuesday July 29, 10 p.m.