Similar to the rule that says you have to kiss under mistletoe, legend has long had it that if you go to a Lucero show and buy frontman Ben Nichols a shot, he has to do it.
“I’m sure I’ve declined shots at some point in the past,” Nichols jokes. “But not as many as I’ve taken.”
Lucero — a celebrated alt-country outfit with a rock edge — is entering its 25th year since forming as a rowdy bar band in Memphis, Tennessee, and Nichols has mellowed a little since the early days. He even showed up early for a 9 a.m. interview with Boulder Weekly, in which he opened up about his early songwriting, like “Little Silver Heart,” the first track from Lucero’s first album.
Nichols was in his 20s when he wrote the opener’s pivotal line: “There ain’t no strength left in this heart of mine.” But looking back at age 49, he sees a through line connecting that earlier, gloomier version of himself and the artist he is today.
“I might have been leaning in a little hard to that whole kind of melancholy view on life in the early stages of Lucero. What I am proud of is 98% of those songs I can still sing on stage and put my heart behind,” he says. “I can stand behind the lyrics I wrote 25 years ago — most of the time. There are a few things that bug me. I’m happy with where we are and what the music does for me, and we’re lucky we get to make a small living out of what we do.”
One of the things Nichols and Co. get to do is play notable venues around the world, including the purportedly haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park on Saturday, Jan. 21. The band will take the stage during a weekend event called Westerns and Whiskey, a three-day blowout combining whiskey seminars, Western craft markets, movie screenings, live music and more.
Nichols has never been to the Stanley but says he’s a fan of The Shining, Stephen King’s novel inspired by the iconic hotel. He’s certainly enjoyed whiskey over the years, and Westerns too. Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-violent Western novel Blood Meridian was the inspiration for Nichols’ 2009 solo album, The Last Pale Light in the West.
“His phrasing and stuff, it’s like reading the Bible,” Nichols says of McCarthy. “It has a King James Bible ring to it, which I thought was perfect for the story he wanted to tell [in Blood Meridian],” he says. “I went through the book and underlined all my favorite lines I thought would sound great in folk songs. I stole a bunch of good lines from it and wrote songs around those really great Cormac McCarthy lines. Sometimes we get one or two into a Lucero set, but usually I save those for the solo shows.”
Violence — death, really — is almost a character of its own in Blood Meridian, and Nichols’ songs breathe some humanity and grace into the killers portrayed in the book, which has been deemed by many to be too violent to get the silver-screen treatment. The songs even found an unexpected place in Nichols’ personal life.
“When my daughter was born six years ago, I didn’t know any lullabies, so just carrying her around at night and trying to calm her down, I sang the Blood Meridian album a capella, kinda just fake lullabies, and changed the cadence a little bit,” he says. “‘Last Pale Light in the West,’ the title track, actually works pretty well as a lullaby. Sometimes I’ll do that at [Lucero] shows, to end the night on a quiet note.”
The new Lucero album, Should’ve Learned by Now, is decidedly not quiet. The first song from the new LP (due Feb. 24 via Liberty & Lament/Thirty Tigers) is a straight-ahead rocker titled “One Last F.U.”
“Singing a song with that kind of attitude, it’s definitely cathartic and it feels good,” Nichols says. “It’s nice to indulge in from time to time, and I think it’s a good rock ‘n’ roll song. …There’s nothing sacred on this record. There’s nothing precious. It’s kind of a goofy rock ‘n’ roll record in the best way, hopefully.”
With the band’s latest release on the horizon, Nichols looks back on 25 years of Lucero with the satisfaction of a proud, accepting parent.
“The idea of getting in a dirty rock ‘n’ roll van and being in a band, there was a romantic quality to it, and it was kind of like being in a gang. I wanted the gang kind of aspect to it,” he says. “We are what we are. You get what you get with us. We’ve been lucky that at least our hardcore fans have stuck with us for quite a while. I don’t know if Lucero is quite what I had in mind when I started, but it’s the band I got, and my voice is maybe not what I would’ve wanted to use as an instrument for the rest of my life, but it’s the one I’ve got. It worked out alright. I’m not complaining.”
ON THE BILL: Westerns & Whiskey Concert: Lucero. 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21. Tickets here.