The Wild One: Lucero's Ben Nichols is Inspired by Motorcycles and Memphis

As the singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitar player for a hard-living, continent-crossing rock band, Lucero's Ben Nichols has found what doesn’t kill him gives him plenty to write about.
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It was 2016, and Ben Nichols, the rough-hewn frontman of Americana rockers Lucero, weaved his 2007 BMW R1200GS through late-season snow and sleet over high Rocky Mountain passes on the western leg of his Bikeriders solo tour. Well above the tree line, the sheer cliffs fell away as he climbed through the icy mess. He thought that would be the worst of it. But the temperature soon dropped 20 degrees, and winds barreled around Nichols and the half-dozen other riders on the trek at 70 mph.

“The wind was so fast that it was like trying to ride underwater,” he says. “When those gusts catch you, you want to slow down, but the slower you go, the easier you tip over. I thought I was going to die.”

As the singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitar player for a hard-living, continent-crossing rock band, Nichols has found what doesn’t kill him gives him plenty to write about. Reclined on a vintage couch in his 1920s Craftsman bungalow in Memphis, Nichols picks out the repeating figures from Lucero’s “On My Way Downtown” on an Epiphone Sheraton. The battered Takamine acoustic he carried in a waterproof bag on those early Bikeriders tours rests in a corner opposite his first guitar—a parlor-sized Harmony Stella. Nichols has always had a penchant for living on the edge of the moment. Like his grandfather, whose trials in World War II inspired the Lucero live staple, “The War,” he didn’t follow the rest of the family into conventional lives. Instead, his rebellious streak emerged early in Conway, Arkansas, with a taste for motorcycles and music that began with idolizing Fonzie on Happy Days, and spinning classics like “Rock Around the Clock” from his dad’s 45 collection.

“From the earliest time I can remember, I’ve loved rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “I’d play those records on my record player when I was just three years old. Then, I’d get on my rocking horse and I’d ‘ride, ride, ride.’”

Nichols bought the Stella from a kid on his school bus for five bucks, and then picked out the rudimentary notes of “Louie, Louie.” After discovering punk rock in high school, the DIY attitude he found at punk shows fit his sense of adventure.

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“Downtown Little Rock was abandoned at the time,” he says. “There was a riverfront park, and the power was always on at the gazebo. Bands just started taking a P.A. down there, plugging it in, and playing shows. The cops never showed up. Nobody cared.”

Nichols followed a girl he knew from the scene to Memphis, where he met his future Lucero bandmates. At the time, he was trying to write simple, direct tunes like his heroes Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. He also found inspiration in the Pogues, and songs like “Blind Love” by Tom Waits and “The Living Bubba” by the Drive-By Truckers. When he discovered The Bikeriders—a Danny Lyon photo book of a pre-Easy Rider motorcycle club—he wrote a song about it for Lucero’s 2005 album Nobody’s Darlings.

“It was the golden era before motorcycle gangs were all shootouts and drug deals,” he says. “The members had seen The Wild One with Marlon Brando—they all loved that movie—but they were in the clubs to work on bikes and ride together. They looked like people I knew from the punk-rock scene in Arkansas in the old days.”

Soon Lucero was logging more than 200 shows a year, and signed record deals with Universal and ATO. As the band evolved, horn flourishes boosted their roots-country sound with a confident Memphis R&B swagger, and Nichols’ gravelly bark smoothed into a soulful, ragged croon. And he finally bought his first motorcycle, a 1977 BMW R100/7 he still owns. Between tours, he began branching out more on his bike, taking trips across the Mississippi River into the Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains of rural Arkansas. As he yearned to ride farther and longer, he bought the RG1200GS, and he began booking low-key solo gigs in towns where friends and family lived to break up the trips.

“Whenever Lucero has a break, I strap the guitar to the back of the bike, and I go off by myself and play acoustic shows,” he says. “If I want to go see somebody, I book shows in that direction. If I want to see the mountains, I book the tour that way. It’s the most liberating thing.”

Lucero’s newly acquired headquarters are in Memphis’ Edge district, a neighborhood of aging brick warehouses and auto shops near downtown. The one-time AC Repair Shop sits near Sun Studios, where impresario Sam Phillips recorded the pioneering single “Rocket 88” in 1951, and piloted early rock-and-roll’s Mount Rushmore—Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley—to stardom.

“For a few records, I let Memphis influence the Lucero songwriting a little bit more, and it was really fun,” he says. “I didn’t think I would write songs with that kind of swing or groove.”

A few blocks away is Sam Phillips Recording, the studio Phillips established when he outgrew Sun back in 1960. Between tours, Lucero is recording its next album there with Matt Ross-Spang, who earned a Grammy for engineering Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free.

The stakes feel different these days. After all, snow and ice couldn’t bring Nichols down, and though the winds may have given him a scare, they’re blowing mostly in his favor these days. Nichols was recently long-listed in Grammy voting for his song “Loving” from the 2016 film of the same name. His songs have also appeared in the film Mud, and the title track to his solo release, The Last Pale Light in the West, narrated the ruin and reckoning of The Governor, the villain in season four of The Walking Dead television series.

Music has always given reason to his roaming, and Nichols continues to just ride, ride, ride.

“There’s that freedom,” he says, “and you take the ride wherever it goes.”

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