Brian Venable grew up on the self-proclaimed hillbilly country music of Dwight Yoakam and the Dust Bowl sorrows of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. On a walk home one afternoon in Memphis, Tennessee, he found a stack of vinyl abandoned on a street corner. Hauling the lot home, he listened transfixed as the new-wave whirls of Joe Jackson and the blistering rock of Jason & the Scorchers came to life on his turntable. Without formal instruction, he later picked up a guitar and figured out on his own how to play.
“If you want to do anything, it’s there,” Venable said by phone from his Memphis home. “You just have to figure out how to do it. It might not be the correct way.”
Influenced by the songs of his upbringing, the drinking wallow of Tom Waits on “Blind Love” and the discovery of punk in high school, Venable said he aspired to start a band that sounded like a “twangy Christie Front Drive,” melding what he called “the hee-haw” of his early favorites into a sound he regretted once labeling “country emo.” He and a few friends started playing music together, formalizing as Lucero.
In 1999, the band spent a weekend at a local studio recording “My Best Girl,” a tongue-in-cheek homage to a guitar, and a rustic, rumbling cover of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle.” Landmark Records in Little Rock, Arkansas, released 500 copies of the debut 7” record. A few months later, Lucero laid down eight tracks on an eight-track as a soundtrack to Eight Paces to Jackson, a film crafted by vocalist Ben Nichols’ brother Jeff who was studying filmmaking at the University of North Carolina. They kept writing and playing, making demos and home recordings, compiling The Attic Tapes in Venable’s father’s attic.
Lucero released their self-titled full-length in 2001 with Memphis label Madjack Records, staking out their tract on “Drink ‘Till We’re Gone,” “Raising Hell” and “All These Love Songs.” The yearning of their songwriting and live-for-the-moment lyrics confessed their country upbringing underpinned by a DIY spirit. The band had friends at Memphis College of Art with access to silkscreens, and Venable said they scoured the dumpster behind Permanent Records Co., a local laminate-plastic business. Salvaging cardboard and other supplies, they repurposed their finds to produce limited runs of shirts and posters.
The band’s star shone bright. At the 2000 Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, Lucero shared the stage with Foo Fighters and the Allman Brothers Band. They played the fest again the following year, with Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Offspring. Beginning to tour farther from home, Lucero made their way to Providence in 2002, opening for the North Mississippi Allstars at The Met (then located at 130 Union St.). For Lucero’s comfort with country and blues, the earnest confidence of their second full-length, Tennessee, bared a punkier strength. Churning through “Sweet Little Thing,” “Ain’t So Lonely,” “Old Sad Songs,” and a lineup of other head-shakers and singalongs, the album toiled through the ups and downs of whiskey and beers, open roads and love known through the dimmer of tears.
Lucero claimed the stage alongside the twinkling indie of Appleseed Cast, the clapalongs anthems of Against Me!, the hellion blasts of the Reverend Horton Heat, and the relentless force of Hot Water Music. They crisscrossed the country, their van’s mileage creeping upward while playing dive bars and old theaters and holding their own at the CMJ Music Marathon, Bonnaroo, SXSW and other festivals. During their first 10 years together, they released five full-lengths, re-released their demos and signed with Universal Republic. In the decade since their major-label debut, 1372 Overton Park in 2009, Lucero recorded three more full-lengths and a live album on independent labels while playing more than 1,000 concerts across the United States and touring in Australia, Canada and Europe.
“The band has been long-time New England favorites,” said Pete Cardoso, founder of Ghost Town Studio in Pawtucket, who has designed posters for Lucero over the years. “Because they started off playing here in local bars basically, they built up a following through the years that keeps growing strong.”
“I don’t know what it is,” said Venable, “but Northerners love Southern music.”
Lucero’s legacy in Providence outlasted many of the venues that hosted them, including Jake’s Bar & Grille, the Living Room and Jerky’s Live Music Hall. They played the current Pawtucket incarnation of The Met in 2012 and 2013, joined Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy and Conor Oberst at the Newport Folk Festival in 2014, and made a stop at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel on tour with Clutch and the Sword in 2017. Plans to return to The Met the following winter were cancelled after Nichols’ grandmother passed away and a nor’easter snarled travel up and down the Eastern seaboard.
“Providence for us goes way back, even before Lucero,” he said. “It’s like half of Little Rock, Arkansas, and half of Memphis live in Providence. A lot of people went there for school, and they stayed.”
Among those friends, Venable said, were Lee Buford and Chip King who went on to found the Body, a metal band that called Providence home for its formative years before moving to Portland, Oregon. Buford ran Landmark Records, the label in Little Rock responsible for putting out the first Lucero releases.
The band’s connections to Providence musicians were palpable in December 2019 when Lucero played a three-night holiday series at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass. The Huntress and Holder of Hands were scheduled to open, having joined Lucero earlier in the year in Boston and again in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. Due to an emergency, the venue said, Ian O’Neil of Deer Tick ended up filling in for two nights instead of Huntress. Matt Charette, a Boston-based singer-songwriter, opened the third night.
“I’d take the Huntress and Holder of Hands on tour with us every day for the rest of our lives,” said Venable. “Their record was this cathartic love letter.”
Lucero are now working their way up from Huntsville, Alabama, on a 22-date tour with singer-songwriter Jade Jackson. Scheduled to return to The Met on Saturday, February 22, their stop in Pawtucket marks the only New England show. Jackson played in Worcester, Mass, and New Haven, Conn, in 2017 while opening for Social Distortion, but the upcoming visit with Lucero will be her first time in Rhode Island.
“All I know is everybody likes her,” said Venable. “We try to find people we like.”
Jackson taught herself guitar as a teenager near San Luis Obispo, California. Like Venable, she grew up on the sounds of Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens. Also drawing influence from Hank Williams, Mazzy Star, and the Smiths, she played in a rockabilly band in high school and went on to record two solo albums, Jade Jackson in 2009 and Vintage Heart in 2011. She left home to attend college at the California Institute of Arts in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles. Days after her 20th birthday, Jackson fell from a rope swing while hiking in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. She suffered a fracture in her back and kept the trauma of her experience, and of her recovery, quiet for years.
After ANTI-, a subsidiary of Epitaph Records, released her album Gilded in 2017, Jackson opened up about those bleaker days, describing her fear of developing a painkiller dependency following her medical care. In an interview with NPR, she spoke of spiraling through depression, anxiety and disordered eating, encouraging others with similar struggles to seek help. Her second full-length on ANTI-, Wilderness, wove a lyrical narrative of her trials alongside shots of wanderlust and of unrequited, and unrequired, loves. The tracks burst with a rock rhythm and poppier flair still grounded in the shared territory of country and punk.
“As a songwriter, I’ve explored the dark and honest storytelling in both genres with great admiration,” said Jackson days before starting her tour with Lucero.
In 2018, writer Chris Parker excavated the genealogy of “cowpunk” for No Depression, a quarterly print journal on roots music, defining the sound as one that “encompasses all types of rowdy rock and roll influenced as much by the country greats as by punk, garage rock and new wave.” As Lucero celebrated two decades together with the release of Among the Ghosts, a robust and haunting album, Parker placed the Memphis mainstays in a lineage between the Bottle Rockets and Flogging Molly. Nearly a year later, another No Depression contributor, Jim Shahen, celebrated Jade Jackson within the same ongoing narrative, noting her “punk-rock bona fides” and “skills as a throwback ’70s-style country chanteuse.”
While Jackson nourishes a burgeoning musical career, though no stranger to writing or performing music, and Lucero look back on two decades of recording and touring, both artists know the struggle of mending broken bodies. Jackson came out the other side of her fall fighting to heal not only her back but also her being. Venable recalled confronting the deaths and addictions of loved ones, marking six years of sobriety, knowing an incomparable life as a father, and continuing to make music with Lucero.
“We might be old dudes playing dad-rock pseudo-country,” said Venable. “We only did 60 shows last year, and this year we’re going to do even more.”
In the past when Lucero made it to The Met, Cardoso’s Ghost Town Studio designed event-specific art. In one print, a lumberjack wielded an axe and a keg. In another, a classic motorcyclist traveled alone under a full moon. For the current tour, Salvador Verano Calderón, who runs Amor de Verano Studio in Mexico City, designed a poster for all of their dates. Beneath the headliner and opener, a body of water swallows the band’s van. Even as the vehicle drowns, an accordion and a guitar stay afloat. From the roof, a vintage gramophone continues to send songs upward and outward for as long as it remains above water.
“If there’s a good melody, you can read the phone book and get sad,” said Venable. “I don’t care how hardcore you are, somebody’s going to break your heart. We hit on that human feeling.”
Lucero and Jade Jackson play The Met (located in Hope Artiste Village, 1005 Main St, Pawtucket) on Sat, Feb 22. Doors at 8pm. Show at 9pm. All ages.