Back in the early 1970s, former Otis Redding manager Phil Walden saw a new breed of rock bands springing up across the South in the college towns and biker bars. He had a vision: He would gather this new crop under his wing, put them on his own label and rake in the bucks.
The Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Delaney & Bonnie and others would become the cornerstone of Walden's Capricorn Records, and the stable defined the very essence of Southern rock. Walden's was a Southern musical dynasty unequaled since Stax.
In the last decade, nothing less than a reinvention of that sound has taken place in many of the same places - an infusion of new post-Clinton cross-cultural Dixie to match the longhaired swagger of the Ford years. Wide-brimmed leather hats and hipster beards are joining together in down-home harmony, but with more distortion.
And a rowdy group from Memphis, Tenn., called Lucero has been at the heart of it. Slugging it out in bars and clubs across America since 1998, the band has honed a hard-driving, raucous sound built around singer Ben Nichols' gravel-shredded vocals - like Keith Richards' dad fronting the loudest bar band you've ever seen. No matter when or where you catch Lucero, it always seems like Saturday night in the coolest bar in America.
Lucero will perform Sunday, April 22, at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, followed by a show Tuesday, April 24, at the Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. in Harrisburg.
Despite its legend, the group earned its greatest fame with the 2005 documentary "Dreaming in America," which chronicled the band's struggles with money, mismanagement, label indifference and their own demons in the midst of a dying record industry.
After a couple years of sorting out their business problems - or at least choosing to make more realistic ones - the group began expanding its sound, adding piano and organ to "Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers" (2006), pedal steel and horns to "1372 Overton Park" (2009).
With its new disc, "Women & Work," the merger of rock and soul, country and punk seems complete. It was bassist John C. Stubblefield who brought veteran Memphis keyboardist Rick Steff into the fold and began the band's transitional period.
On the phone from Memphis, Stubblefield explained how the group has found its groove. "On this album, it's definitely a more realized, organic sound than we've ever been able to reach before," he said. "We've definitely grown into this palette of sound, but it took some time."
Some critics have dismissed the band for trying to turn itself into a Southern version of Hold Steady and, coincidentally, Nichols did add backing vocals to that group's last full-length album. But part of the magic of "Women & Work" is its variety, from loose Van Morrison soul to Jerry Lee Lewis barrelhouse to swinging country.
When Nichols sings to a lonely woman in a bar waiting on someone who never shows - which seems to happen a lot in his songs - you just know its someplace where people talk slow and it's always warm. Though his roots are in Arkansas, Ben sings of his adopted Tennessee with the assured fervor of a native.
They even recorded at Memphis' famous Ardent Studio, the room where Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers tracked. The room's distinctive woodiness can be heard on albums by Big Star and the Replacements, Rufus Thomas and North Mississippi Allstars, and it gave "Women & Work" its unique feel.
For the band members, it's been a process that is as much about coming to terms with their home as much as their muse. "We all grew up in the South, and we all grew up playing in bands," Stubblefield said.
But as young punkers, they wanted to be from anywhere but the South.
"We would sit and wish we were from southern California. I guess growing up with Elvis Presley shoved down your throat, you kind of take it for granted. The problem is, you end up wishing away everything that is special about where you are from.
"But over the years we've come to embrace Memphis and the whole region. It's been part of our makeup all along."
For about a decade, Lucero rehearsed and lived, clubhouse style, in a drafty Memphis building that once served as the King's karate dojo. They've since moved to better accommodations.
"It allowed us for a long time to do what we've been able to do. It allowed the four of us to split $600 a month in rent. But it had no air conditioning and no heat," Stubbelfield recalled with a groan. "So we loved being there, but only in the spring and in the fall. That's probably partly why we spent so much time touring, because just about anyplace else was more hospitable the rest of the year."
The band earned its reputation by playing more than 200 dates a year in any and all venues, in any and all states of sobriety.
"Touring in the middle of winter was better than being at home," Stubblefield said.
"It definitely makes you appreciate it a lot more. You get out into middle America to places you've only heard of that are pretty cool, but then you start to realize where you're from is pretty cool, too."
"Women & Work" came out in early March on ATO Records, which began as a boutique label created by Dave Matthews in 2000, but has become the home for numerous forward-looking groups from the new New South.
"It seems like a really good place for us," Stubblefield said. "There is a common thread there with us and a few other bands like My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers."
So is ATO the new Capricorn?
"It's certainly not exactly the same thing, but it is kind of interesting. I just hope it makes sense in the long run for us," Stubblefield said. "Those are both established bands that have had considerable success, so maybe that bodes well for us."
For tickets to the upcoming Lucero shows, visit luceromusic.com.