Music

The Prodigal Son Returns

Austin Lucas learns from mistakes, finds peace at home

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Austin Lucas
might've been born to country music; there's no telling since a fire ate the records. The son of bluegrass producer/musician Bob Lucas (famous for his work with Gillian Welch), Lucas grew up a short distance from the stage. Like many a young man, he rebelled against the only thing he'd known, and wound up in Prague making hardcore punk. That's just prologue, of course. The prodigal son always returns—it's who he is.

A dozen years ago Lucas returned to his roots, musically and physically. He came back to America, performing acoustic country/folk sets in unlicensed squats, basements and living rooms to crowds in the single digits to dozens. He was at the bottom rung of the music ladder before an older punk rocker gave him a hand up.

"I don't want to say 'very bottom,'" he said. "I think that's one of the most valid and best, you know, places that an artist can exist."

Nonetheless, he left that behind when Chuck Ragan, who made his bones with punks Hot Water Music, asked Lucas to collaborate on his second post-HWM roots album, Bristle Ridge. Then, Lucas joined Ragan on his inaugural Folk-Punk Revival Tour in 2008. He played alongside Tim Barry (Avail), Ben Nichols (Lucero), Jesse Malin (D Generation), and Laura Jane Grace (Against Me!), among others. It was a dramatic lift up and induced a case of altitude sickness.

"Everyone was telling me about how great I was and how I was the next big thing and I was like, of course I am," Lucas recalled. "I'm really lucky my trajectory for success didn't actually explode right then, because I was in critical danger of permanently becoming a shitty person."

"I was an anxious, overweight nerd who as a young person had felt very misunderstood," he added. "I had been searching for people to understand me from the time I was a very young child until then, which was in my late 20s. Then, all of a sudden, people are understanding me... And everyone was like, 'We get you, you're amazing!'"

The change in stature went beyond fans. Suddenly the suits knew who he was and wanted to meet him. They told him he was great. He wanted to believe it.

"It's important to love and believe in yourself, but I let it go to my head. I'd never had anybody give me that kind of praise before, but I've always been hungry for it," Lucas said. "Of course, that didn't last. Soon people thought I was a dick. And then all of a sudden, I got knocked down a few pegs. So I've just been sort of slowly but surely, the gradual thing from that point."

The foundation of Lucas' unvarnished style is his muscular, raw-boned baritone, at once forceful and uneasy like a tall, muscular person in a cramped elevator. As he has grown more comfortable in his skin, he has increasingly made his bare-wire sensibilities manifest in richer, emotionally forthright lyricism.

The stark, spare acoustic guitar of Lucas' first couple albums (such as The Common Cold in 2006 and Somebody Loves You in 2009) gave way to the looser-limbed, livelier bluegrass-inflected A New Home in the Old World and the crisp, up-tempo indie-country swagger of his New West debut, Stay Reckless.

But like with Chuck Ragan, success didn't sit easily with Lucas. Settling in Nashville in the wake of divorce, he leaned into the substance-abuse crutch. New West passed on the early demos for his eventual breakthrough concept album, Between the Moon & the Midwest, then dropped him. It was the kick in the pants he needed.

"There have been a few enormous setbacks over the course of my career that have been detrimental to my career, but enormously beneficial to me as a human being," Lucas said.

In 2016 Lucas released Between the Moon & the Midwest, a rich, dynamic story of a love triangle featuring guest vocalists Lydia Loveless and Kelly Smith, to broad acclaim. Last year he followed with Immortal Americans, an ode to the small-town America that birthed him, which ranges from the haunting homespun morality tale "My Mother and the Devil," to the inflamed passions of "Monroe County Nights" and nomadic traveler, "Killing Time."

"The last couple of records have really shown me who I am, what the creative process means to me, what kind of artist I really want to be and what kind of a person I really want to be," Lucas said. "The truth is that, like, I'm a slow learner."

After Nashville, Lucas returned to Bloomington, Indiana, where he was born and raised, to bring his story full circle. He sobered up, began learning martial arts and training others. The experience was revelatory. He'd always shunned physical activity as something "for jocks," only to discover that greater confidence in his body and more assurance in his life went hand-in-hand.

"For years, I tried to pretend that I was more gregarious than I was and it wasn't until I was willing to admit how socially anxious I was that I was able to start moving towards being the person that I was trying to project into the world," he said. "One of the things that really helped me was martial arts. Honestly, boxing has changed my life."

Lucas returned home to Bloomington, having traveled halfway around the world only to discover the truths he was seeking right there in his backyard.

"I went all over the world looking for community and like, I ran away from this community that was already an amazing," he said. "That doesn't mean that I didn't broaden my community into a global community, which I'm very, very grateful for, because it gives me a lot of the insights, but I realized that the place that I wanted to be was the place that I started."

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