"Jack Pirtle's is where you go for fried chicken around there."
That's what John C. Stubblefield told tbt* last Wednesday as he checked in from a tour bus headed east from Phoenix back towards his hometown of Memphis, Tenn. The bass player for fast-rising alt-country outfit Lucero is likely 40 years old ("I was born in '75," is all he would surrender) and is responding to a query regarding River City spots to get hot chicken, a Nashville-famous dish that finds the bird doused in a perfectly seasoned, über-spicy batter.
He goes on to name a few tried and true stops, plus the nuances of their hot chicken offerings, but the details get lost in a wonky cellphone connection and Stubblefield's thick, gentlemanly corn-fried drawl, which he's probably acquired from countless nights playing rock 'n' roll in scores of Southern bars with good booze and decent-at-best PA systems. Lucero are taking a short break for Thanksgiving, and they've just completed a two-week swing through Oklahoma, Utah and the west coast. Before that it was a month-long jog up the Eastern seaboard, Canada and the Midwest. They picked it back up on Thursday in Ponte Vedra, and will romp around the South for the rest of 2016 before restarting the machine in February for a swing through the United Kingdom.
Not bad for a group of dudes who, more than a decade ago, started out playing country songs to punk kids in clubs that sometimes only had a dozen people in the crowd.
The guys — guitarist Brian Venable, keys guru Rick Steff, and drummer Roy Berry — arrive at The Ritz in Ybor City on Saturday with Lucero frontman Ben Nichols leading the charge. Nichols, 41, let his heart bleed on the band's new LP, All a Man Should Do. The title is borrowed from a lyric in I'm in Love With a Girl, the closer on Big Star's 1974 masterpiece Radio City. Lucero covers that heart-breaking ballad toward the end of I'm in Love. Big Star are fellow Memphis-dwellers, and drummer Jody Stephens contributes backing vocals on the cover.
Stubblefield admits that Big Star are one of the bands that can still make him shed tears. He didn't admit to crying when Nichols turned in songs for the new album, but a feeling of pride and love is almost tangible even through the muddy cell connection.
"He's growing up," Stubblefield says of his longtime friend.
Most, if not everything, Nichols records is written in first person. Different relationships are explored on the latest set, and Stubblefield says Nichols really exposed the dark and light sides of everything he's been through on I'm in Love.
Critics agree, calling the collection everything from a meditation to a paradox. The Memphis horns Lucero poured heavy on 2009's 1372 Overton Park get reined in to great effect on new songs like I Woke Up in New Orleans, and album closer My Girl & Me in '93 is a tear-jerking, middle-aged look back at the art of f--king up.
The album is a roller coaster, but fans will be ready to ride it on Saturday when Lucero works through a two-hour, career-spanning set split into acoustic and electric sets. Stubblefield says he still feels baffled by the crowds that show up to watch his band play and isn't taking anything for granted.
"[Of course] we're happy for Ben when the albums are done," he said. He goes on to talk about the cycle of taking them on the road, about what it looks like from the stage every night.
"It's amazing, the fans know all the new tunes," he explained. "They sing along to them as much as the old ones. It's been awesome."