Lucero’s Women and Work Shakes and Shivers

Lucero leader Ben Nichols’ hardscrabble barroom vignettes have piggybacked busted hopes on relentless resolve for more than a decade. The 38-year-old continues dropping earthy poetry on the page as his band combusts with fiery rock ‘n’ roll behind him. Clear evidence: 1372 Overton Park. Lucero’s thrilling, muscular masterpiece channels pure heart and soul for nearly an hour.

Now, competition knocks.

The Memphis-based sextet’s Women and Work might be their finest effort yet. The new collection admittedly lightens Nichols’ lyrical load but the band forsakes no potency. Women and Work shakes and shivers with singular punch. Everything simply works. At least “Like Lightning” and the title track should be required listening for any aspiring bar band.

‘Women and Work’ was the first song to come together,” Nichols said when we spoke recently. “Once we’d written that, I went, ‘All right, let’s go in an old-school rock ‘n’ roll direction.’”

CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing “Like Lightning.”

Nichols: “Like Lightning” actually started off as a country-flavored song. It had a completely different beat and rhythm to it, and I was gonna make it a very traditional country song, but we were rehearsing and John C. (Stubblefield) started playing this Thin Lizzy bass line. The song went in an entirely different rock ‘n’ roll direction, which went perfectly with what we were trying to shoot for on the Women and Work album.

Did you find a common lyrical theme taking shape as you wrote?

The lyrics on “Like Lightning” and “Women and Work” and a few other songs, I’d view those as rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. They’re not the intense, emotional lyrics of some of the older Lucero records. They’re more fun, which sounds cheesy and awfully dangerous to say out loud, but I think this is the most fun Lucero record we’ve done.

Did you purposefully go that direction lyrically?

Well, I hadn’t written anything in a while since 1372 and that last solo record (2009’s Last Pale Light in the West), and I hadn’t been writing much at all, just kind of writer’s block or whatever. Then we had to write the songs. Our friend Marcus Kuhn has this television show called The Gypsy Gentlemen. He’s a tattoo artist who travels around the world going to exotic places and visiting tattoo artists. He wanted some music for his show.

Of course, he needed it the same day. So, we went down to a friend of ours’ studio and wrote and recorded two songs in one day. One of them he used as his theme song and one was “Women and Work.” So, it was like, “All right, we’ve got this theme song and I’m gonna go downstairs and write one more quick one and we’ll record whatever we’ve got.”

How long did it take you to write “Women and Work”?

I wrote it in probably 20 minutes. Like I said, I just wrote really simple, traditional rock ‘n’ roll kind of lyrics, whatever I had written down in my notebooks, and threw it all together. It really worked when we put everybody else on it. I let myself be a little less serious. I was intentionally a little freer with my writing. I didn’t sweat it quite so much and I think that actually paid off in the end. I think that opened up the inspiration, and I was able to write some pretty good songs after I eased back a little bit.

Do you think having the horn section has helped free you up, too?

Yeah. Once we nailed the sound for Women and Work, it did. With Rick (Steff)’s B-3 and piano, the barrelhouse, Jerry Lee Lewis stuff, and Todd (Beene) on the pedal steel plus the horns, it gave a way to play pretty much any kind of song we want. We have all the elements to go almost any direction. Just having access to the horn section definitely influenced the songwriting.

“Go Easy” certainly is a departure for you guys.

Yeah, we’ve never had a song that’s so gospel-influenced before. My little brother (Jeff Nichols) was doing a movie called Take Shelter. I’d written a couple songs for that film and “Go Easy” was the song he didn’t use. So, we ended up reworking it and using it on Women and Work. Most of the song was there, but it was (producer) Ted Hutt’s idea to try to do a different kind of chorus. So, I wrote a very simple, traditional gospel chorus.

I think the lyrics are inspired by Moby Dick lines, something that sounded like it was not exactly religious but sounded like it could be. It was his idea to make it an over-the-top gospel number. It’s become the final song for the live sets lately.

I remember you closing with that at Hardly Strictly (Bluegrass Festival), right?

Yeah, we did. It’s funny. We’ve got so many songs in our catalog and so many types of songs that it’s easier to make everything flow properly if we’ve got two hours to play a show. When you’re playing a 40-minute set like that, you end up playing songs like “Tears Don’t Matter Much” back-to-back with “Go Easy.” It can be a little jarring, but, yeah, I still wanted to close our set with something a little more heartfelt.

We’ve talked before about Townes Van Zandt. Do you still draw from him as a lyricist?

Definitely. Townes Van Zandt will always be an influence, even with Women and Work in a backward way. I think for a while after 1372 and Last Pale Light in the West, I’d been trying to write like Townes Van Zandt just because I do respect him so much and he speaks to me on such an emotional level.

I think the liberating part of Women and Work was that I realized that I had to stop trying so hard to copy the style and emotional intensity and just take it back a notch and write some rock ‘n’ roll songs. There’s some emotional stuff on Women and Work, but it sounds more like me right now, as opposed to the Ben Nichols who was, yeah, listening to Townes Van Zandt every night eight years ago.

Listening to Townes every night can mess with your head, no matter who you are.

For sure. Definitely. It seeps into not only your listening and your mindset, but then all of a sudden you find yourself drinking by yourself at the bar for eight hours every night for way too many nights in a row.

Or drinking by yourself at home every night for eight hours.

Yeah, or drinking by yourself at home. It can definitely weigh you down, but he’s got it so spot-on it’s so easy to go to those dark places with him.