Story by Rob O'Connor '95
Ben Nichols' classmates at Hendrix might be surprised at how things turned out for the quiet, shy kid who kept mostly to himself.
Nichols, who graduated in 1996, is a professional musician. He is the songwriter and lead singer for Lucero, a band he formed in Memphis, Tenn., shortly after graduation.
Lucero has recorded seven albums in its 13-year history and toured extensively, winning a hard-earned and rabid fan base through high-adrenaline shows that split the sonic difference somewhere between Johnny Cash and The Clash.
Though his musical background is primarily in punk rock, "Lucero kind of blurs the lines," Nichols said. "But there are too many rules in punk rock ... We just do it our way."
Nichols' personal songwriting influences include Tom Waits, while the band collectively conjures impressions of indie-rock cult heroes The Replacements as adeptly as it does classic rock and roll warhorses like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.
In a review of the band's 2006 album Rogues, Rebels, and Sworn Brothers, Stephen Deusner of Pitchfork Media (www.pitchfork.com) writes, "With abrupt shifts in tempo and style and a foundation in rock lore, Lucero's brand of country rock remains unpretentious as ever. But the range and impact of Rogues, Rebels suggest the band has greater ambitions and the chops to realize them."
"I knew music was definitely something I wanted to pursue," said Nichols, whose musical path began with piano lessons when he was very young. He later played saxophone in junior high school band. Around the same time, he got a bass guitar, started learning rock and roll songs and started writing his own songs.
But while he played in a Little Rock band called Red Forty as a student, Nichols never took any music courses at Hendrix or performed on campus.
"I was kind of leading a dual life," said Nichols, who lived on campus, including two years in East Hall and a year in Couch Hall, before his senior year, when he and his roommate Matt Hoffine '96 lived in the Front Street Apartments.
Going to Hendrix was not part of his original plan.
"At first, I wanted to go to school out of state because I thought that was my one chance to get out of Arkansas," he said, adding that Hendrix was the best value of all the schools he was accepted to. "Lucky for me I ended up at Hendrix. I ended up not only appreciating the school, but I also ended up appreciating where I was from more as well."
As a student, Nichols' two hobbies were music and comic book illustration. Among his favorite illustrators and their works are Joe Sacco's books on Palestine and the war in Bosnia, Eric Powell's The Goon, Darwyn Cooke's series based on the crime novels of Richard Stark, and Mike Mignola's Hellboy.
While he didn't perform music on campus, he did pursue his aspiration to be a comic book illustrator through an independent study with former Hendrix art professor Don Marr. The result was a 10-page comic book Nichols illustrated with pencil and India ink, which he later sent to several publishing companies.
"I still have all the rejection letters," he laughed, adding that he hopes to self-publish a comic book one day.
After graduation, Nichols helped with his family's business, Nichols Furniture in Little Rock, before moving to Memphis with the hope of starting a band. He met a guitarist who shared his background and interest in starting a band.
"We wanted to do something different, something more roots-oriented," he said. "So I decided to try to write a bunch of country songs and start a pseudo-country band," Nichols said.
"We took it step by step, first writing songs, then trying to get a live show," he continued.
Lucero played its first concert in April 1998 in a warehouse in downtown Memphis across from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 30 years earlier and now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. The band continued to play live shows until "we started to catch on."
And catch on they did.
Lucero has played some of the country's largest outdoor music festivals, including Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo (Manchester, Tenn.) and Coachella (Indio, Calif.), as well as Memphis in May and Little Rock's Riverfest. The band has played with music icons such as the Black Crowes and Cheap Trick, as well as a veritable who's who of modern bands, such as The Black Keys, The Drive-by Truckers, The Hold Steady and The White Stripes.
The band is part of the 2010 Austin City Limits Music Festival in October. The festival will give Nichols an opportunity to visit with his brothers Matthew, a Southwestern University alumnus and Austin attorney, and Jeff, a filmmaker who used some of Lucero's music in Shotgun Stories, his first feature film.
"Both of my little brothers have excellent taste in music," Nichols said. "But I think they were both surprised to actually like my band as much as they did."
No one is more surprised by the band's success and longevity than Nichols.
"In the back of my head, I knew I really wanted to do this but I never thought I'd make a living at it," Nichols said. "It's insane ... We just had our 13-year anniversary."
Not only did the self-employed professional musician not take any music classes as a student, he didn't darken the door of the Business Department either.
"I never took any economics or business courses, but I wish I would have," said Nichols, who now has two limited liability corporations (Lucero, the band itself, and Liberty & Lament, the band's record label) and one sole proprietorship (Empty Road Music, the publishing business).
"Even though we appear to have this gypsy lifestyle, when it comes down to it, we're small business owners in Memphis, Tennessee," Nichols said. "Heaven forbid ... I never thought we'd do anything that legitimate."
Nichols was a history major at Hendrix and credits some of his early excitement about history to Hendrix alumnus James A. "Charlie" Brown '69, who was Nichols' history teacher at Little Rock Central High School.
His faculty adviser at Hendrix was Dr. David Larson, and he enjoyed European and Russian history classes. He still recalls one of his essays from his senior comprehensive exams focusing on the origins of World War I.
Until three or four years ago, his mother kept waiting for him to apply his degree and be a history teacher, Nichols said. But his parents understand that he is following his own path, he added.
"My folks get it, and they are really supportive," Nichols said. "But they are very happy I have a degree from Hendrix."
His experience as a history major has informed his work as a musician, he said.
"I always looked at history as storytelling," explained Nichols. "I always pictured using my history background as a source of stories."
As a traveling musician, he continues to enjoy history and storytelling.
"That's one of the nice parts of being on the road ... reading in the van," he said.
Nichols is currently reading the second of Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War. Each of the books is about 1,200 pages each, he said.
"It's very impressive," said Nichols, who took Civil War history with former Hendrix professor Dr. Mark Schantz.
Nichols is also a fan of the writer Cormac McCarthy.
"I've read all is his Westerns," he said, citing McCarthy's Border trilogy, The Road and No Country for Old Men.
"Blood Meridian was my favorite," he said. "Someone gave the book to me, and I've read it three or four times."
In addition to Lucero's seven-disc catalog, Nichols wrote and recorded The Last Pale Light in the West, a solo album of songs inspired by his favorite McCarthy novel.
The solo album is a somber cycle of songs including The Kid, Toadvine, and The Judge based on characters from the book. Unlike the road-worn and weary rock songs he writes mostly in first person for Lucero, the solo album allowed Nichols the opportunity to write in a more narrative voice.
The album's stark instrumentation consists mostly of Nichols' acoustic guitar, alongside keyboards and steel guitar, and evokes the austere imagery readers experience reading McCarthy's work.
"It was a fun experiment," he said of the project.
Nichols would like to do more solo albums in the future, but Lucero is his first priority.
"Right now, everything I'm writing is just going into Lucero," he said.
The band's most recent album is 1372 Overton Park. The album's title celebrates the Memphis loft that was the band's longtime home base. Located upstairs from a former drug store, the band lived and rehearsed there for 10 years because "it was cheap," Nichols said. The space also enjoys another connection in Memphis musical history. Elvis Presley rented it to use as his personal karate dojo.
The new album features an expanded sound for the band courtesy of veteran Memphis musicians Rick Steff (Hank Williams Jr., Dexy's Midnight Runners, Pete Townsend and Afghan Whigs) on keyboards and saxophonist Jim Spake (Al Green, John Hiatt, Solomon Burke and Cat Power).
"That they'd even give us the time of day is really cool," said Nichols of the opportunity to work with the legendary Memphis musicians.
One of the songs on the new album, The Devil & Maggie Chascarillo, is based on Love & Rockets, a comic book by The Hernandez Brothers, another favorite of Nichols, which features "excellent storytelling and artwork."
Lucero tours nationally this fall with punk legends Social Distortion and will then record an album of new material.
"It's a constant cycle of record, tour, record, tour," he said.
Nichols' life on the road with Lucero is chronicled in the 2005 DVD Dreaming in America.
As far as his business plan for the next five to 10 years goes, he sees Lucero "doing the same thing hopefully...touring and recording albums."
Instead of being a professor lecturing to students in the classroom, Nichols sings songs he's written to fans who follow the band's music and flock to hear them at outdoor festivals and in smoke-filled bars. He's quite content with the how things have turned out so far.
"I haven't used my degree in any official way, but I appreciate my college experience every day," he said. "I'm doing pretty much exactly what I want to with my life right now and making a small living at the same time...I guess I can't really argue with that."
For more information on Lucero, visit www.luceromusic.com.