He’s For Real
The final guitar chord and cymbal crash were still ringing as three Fort Worth women delivered their breathless verdicts. Had they been tweeting, they would have used numerous exclamation points and smiley faces.
“I’ve never seen him play — now I’m a huge fan!” Kay Futrell said.
“He’s an amazing guitar player!” Jennifer Ruthesell said.
“It’s his confidence!” Kelly Chappell said.
“And he’s hot!” Futrell said. “He needs to play SXSW!”
“He needs to play in my bedroom!” Chappell said.
Their excited chatter sums up the buzz these days on Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. The frontman is only 22 and still refining his vocals and guitar chops, but he drips charisma and talent and writes with insightful simplicity that’s rare for someone his age. Being handsome and 10 shades of cool doesn’t hurt either. He’s short in stature but carries a big presence in a room with his quiet but self-assured nature, long brown hair, and an eerily familiar set of brown eyes that stare deep into you when he talks.
His band is a couple of years old with two recordings out — the five-song EP Brando’s Paradise Sessions (2010) and a self-titled CD released earlier this year.
Nelson is creating a buzz the old-fashioned way, the way Little Richard, Elvis, and other rockers did it in the 1950s. He tours relentlessly and blows away crowds at every opportunity, just as he did the three gals on the front row at a recent Fort Worth show. None of the women had seen Promise of the Real previously.
“We’re following this band!” Chappell said. “The music was freaking phenomenal — even better than his dad!”
Whoa! (Now who’s using the exclamation marks?!?!) Nelson’s dad goes by the name of Willie. You might have heard of him. If an inspired sculptor ever created the Mount Rushmore of Country Music, he’d carve Willie in Lincoln’s spot.
The young Nelson tries not to get fazed, whether someone’s insisting he’s better than Willie, suggesting he’s riding his dad’s coattails, or calling him “the Steven Seagal of the blues,” as a YouTuber once cracked.
“That was a harsh one,” Nelson said with a grin.
Taking things in stride is part of the resilient Nelson family DNA. Four of Willie’s children performed with their respective bands at the July 4 picnic at Billy Bob’s Texas, and all showed grace and a natural ease with people both onstage and off.
“We learned it from the big guy,” Paula Nelson said.
Willie had to learn it too. Career setbacks, rejection, melancholy, booze, cigarettes, and drugs left their tracks across his early career, but he Zenned his way to a simpler life of weed, golf, and tranquility and smiled his way to stardom. By his 40s he was America’s honkytonk Buddha. His living example helps guide his offspring as they maneuver similar minefields.
Lukas Nelson learned on the job as Willie’s rhythm guitarist during his teens but dropped out and went on a soul-searching expedition several years ago. He needed to come to terms with his heritage and his life, including a painful breakup with his longtime girlfriend. Busking for change in California, sleeping in his car, doing the couch circuit, and hanging with friends seemed as good a way as any to find enlightenment. It worked. He’s back playing in his dad’s country band, recording and touring with his own rock band, and watching the proverbial iron grow hotter while he prepares to strike.
The busiest entertainer at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic was the namesake’s oldest son. Lukas Nelson sat in with other bands in addition to leading his own through a high-energy set that displayed athleticism along with musical prowess. Years spent surfing in Hawaii are evident — herkies off the drum risers, hops, kicks, stage sprints, hair whips. He displays all the rocker moves without appearing postured or hokey. A bent-kneed manner of prowling the concert stage makes him look as if he’s riding an imaginary wave. Conviction rather than forethought appears to choreograph his stage blitzes. It’s refreshing to see.
Earlier that morning, he hadn’t been so animated.
He shuffled barefoot into the Hyatt Place lobby, bleary-eyed and bed-headed, arriving for an interview as promised but not looking too excited about it. He’d been up late performing and partying at Dallas Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson’s home the night before. The musical Nelsons and basketball Nelsons aren’t related but have known each other for years, and both families own homes in Hawaii. Lukas Nelson grew up splitting time between Austin and Maui.
Sunlight shone through a hotel window, and Nelson squinted at it like the enemy. He yawned for the third time in a minute.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
He turned off his phone to give full attention to the task at hand, sipped a cup of black coffee, and after a few more yawns and monosyllabic responses, his natural enthusiasm began to emerge. He’s surely the only barefooted homeless guy who’s been allowed to lounge in the Stockyards Hyatt lobby. Nelson most recently lived in a rental near Venice Beach. But that lease ran out months ago. So far this year he’s been living in his bus, traveling from show to show with his road family — three musicians, a sound guy, stage tech, road manager, merchandise assistant, and driver.
“We used to travel in an RV,” he said. “Before that it was a van. Now we got a tour bus. We might go back to the van or the RV.”
Soaring gas prices cramp the gypsy lifestyle for bands not yet hauling in the big bucks. A fill-up for Nelson’s tour bus costs $500. How far will a tank take him?
“Not too far,” he said.
Nelson is nouveau hippie with a fondness for psychedelia and peace symbols. He’s more likely to hug a neck than shake a hand, and his first instinct is to like people. But he doesn’t take crap either and looks like he could represent himself well in a scrap. He’s a native Texan, after all, and grew up pretty wild.
“I explored everything, I tried everything,” he said. “I was an adventurous kid and a completely headstrong, independent person. That made me who I am today.”
What also helped make him is a sprawling, talented family. Lukas Nelson and his younger brother, Micah, 21, were born to Willie and his current wife of 20 years, Annie D’Angelo. Willie also had two daughters, Paula and Amy, with third wife Connie Koepke (to whom he was married during his 1970s and 1980s heyday). Willie and second wife Shirley Collie were married in the 1960s but had no children. Willie had three children — Lana, Susie, and Billy — with his first wife, Martha Mathews (married 1952 to 1960). Billy died in 1991, Susie lives in Austin, and Lana is usually on the road with her dad, writing the Pedernales Poo-Poo, an online travelogue of Willie’s never-ending tour.
Much of Lukas Nelson’s childhood was spent rolling down American highways on his dad’s tour bus. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and other musical icons were regular faces. Not that the aura of celebrity was noticed. Nelson was just a kid on a bus with interesting folks around.
“They were good people. I was around good people, and that’s nice,” he said.
Mention Willie’s bus and most people envision clouds of reefer smoke. Toby Keith even wrote “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again” after a bus visit. I asked Nelson about being a kid growing up in that seemingly adult atmosphere, and he shot me a look that indicated he wasn’t fond of the question.
“It was fine, it was great, it was just a bus,” he said.
Clearly not a name-dropper, he showed no interest in discussing specific stories about the living legends he grew up around and admired so much.
“I just absorbed the music as a kid because I was around it all the time,” he said.
He got a few guitar lessons from his dad beginning at about age 10. When he asked Willie what he wanted for an upcoming birthday back then, his dad said the best gift would be for Lukas to take a serious stab at learning guitar. That’s all the boy needed to hear. He attacked the guitar.
“A lot of the lure was making my dad proud,” he said. “Once I started playing guitar, it was something we could connect with. He taught me a lot. And then I just went off and did my own thing and learned and found other guitar players — Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mike Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton. I got a mix of all those styles.”
His songwriting came even more quickly. He was 11 when he wrote “You Were It,” which Willie recorded on It Will Always Be (2004). The lyrics belied the boy’s youth and forecast a gift for expression:
And I am fine / All the pain is gone / I once had a heart/ Now I have a song …
Soon he was playing rhythm guitar in his dad’s band — it’s called Willie & Family, after all. The new guitarist was far from polished but savvy enough to resist peppering his dad’s songs with rock licks. At some point in each show, Willie would introduce him and give him a few minutes of spotlight. Lukas would play a Stevie Ray Vaughan song or some other blues-rock classic with far more fervor than expertise. His guitar renditions were passable, his voice disconcerting. High-pitched and thin, his vocals veered dangerously toward Chipmunkville.
Nelson hated his voice back then. Thought he sounded like a girl.
“I still don’t like my voice,” he said. “When I listen to [Brando’s Paradise Sessions] — we did that record a year and a half ago — I think to myself, ‘Man I could sing that a lot better now.’ I get better every day — practice, learning to breathe, learning how to soften my voice so it’s not so harsh on the ears, all those things that help you get better with age and time.”
He no longer sounds like a girl or a cartoon rodent. The voice has matured into a nice tenor laced with subtle road grit, something sweetly melodic at a time when most Texas singers are trying to sound as if they gargle with rusty nails and kerosene. Nelson’s voice has strong shades of RCA-era Willie combined with a hint of Neil Young and a dash of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, simmered in a Texas accent that’s been spiced by years on the Pacific rim.
His musical evolution includes a period when he left his dad’s band, tried college briefly, and then dropped out and severed his family financial strings. He supported himself playing acoustic guitar and singing on the streets of Venice Beach for small change. The “Willie’s son” thing was bugging him, and he needed to sort it out in his mind.
He’s eternally proud of his dad and their relationship, but Lukas needed to find his own footing. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha had touched him. The book describes a man’s spiritual journey based on the life of Buddha, a prince who purposely lived like a beggar to achieve enlightenment.
“I wanted to feel like everything I did in my life was my own doing, just for my own personal satisfaction, my own personal inner peace,” he said. “I needed to see what it was like to be without, so that I could better understand it when other people were without. So I could feel more compassionate. I always was compassionate, but it came from a deeper place after I felt what it was like firsthand.”
He performed on sidewalks, the beach, the boardwalk, wherever people would listen. “It’s not a bad place to be busking,” he said. “I wasn’t in Africa having to go get a bucket of water out of the river to last my family for a week. I went a couple days without eating, which was fine. But I had a lot of friends, so that rarely happened.”
Original songs mixed with covers of Neil Young, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan made up his busking song list, although he was compelled to add a few current pop songs. “There’s one song I didn’t necessarily like but that all the girls wanted me to play,” he recalled. “It’s called ‘Hey There Delilah’ by the Plain White T’s. I kind of changed it and made it into a song I thought was a little less poppy … anyway, not my proudest moment.”
His eventual revelation during that time of soul-searching isn’t particularly earth-shattering, but it gave him comfort.
“I was amazed at how resilient the human soul is,” he said. “You really don’t need much to be happy. What you need are friends. You could have nothing in the world, but if you’ve got people who care about you and you care about them, you will be completely rich inside. That’s what I found out.”
Solace in his heritage came next, which allowed him to re-join Willie’s band, start his own, and enjoy both trips. “The reason I play with my dad is because not only do I love his music but it’s the only time we get to hang,” he said.
Any suggestion that his success is a product of nepotism mostly rolls off his back now.
“I just needed to know for myself that I wasn’t riding on anybody’s name,” he said. “Once I know for myself, I could give a shit what anybody else thinks. I knew I didn’t want to ride on anybody’s coattails from a young age. It just didn’t materialize to a complete thought until I started talking to people who wanted to know about my life, like you or other interviewers, people who want to connect me with my dad always, which is natural, it’s fine, it doesn’t bother me.
“… Well, I get bothered sometimes, but it never ruins my day,” he said with a smile.
Now he’s sideman to a country icon and frontman to Promise of the Real, the name serving as a constant reminder to keep it real and stay humble. The music veers from blues-rock with Hendrix flourishes to folk Americana to space country. His sound can’t be pigeonholed, which can hurt a band’s ability to land a major record deal. Nelson isn’t concerned.
“I don’t have anybody telling me what to do,” he said. “I can go out there and play polka music if I want to.”
Fortunately he hasn’t yet resorted to polka, but his song list respects few boundaries. He doesn’t make his guitar scream on every song, just when it’s appropriate. And when he screams, he screams, and he’s not above using tricks like playing guitar behind his back or with his teeth. He smiled widely to show off a trophy.
“See, there’s a chip there,” he said, pointing to his right front tooth, which broke a year ago when he was biting his strings too hard. “I got a mouth guard a while back, but I lost it. The mouth guard really helped. It was a plastic thing I put around my teeth so it wouldn’t chip.”
He lost the mouth guard after a week. Where? Nelson thought for a second and said, “Somewhere in America.” He hasn’t had time to see a dentist to get another one. In the meantime, he still plays with his teeth because he likes it, fans like it, and there’s nothing better than rocking a joint.
If a major-label offer comes along, he’ll listen, but he feels no compulsion to rush into anything.
“It’s got to be a good deal,” he said. “If they want me, they’re going to know I’m a fucking live wire … excuse my language. They can’t tell me what they think is going to sell. If they push me enough, I think I can make them a lot of money, and that’s all they care about anyway. A record company is a company. … They’re not musicians, they’re executives. They want to make money. I understand that. I want to make money too, but I’m going to do my own thing and be happy in my life.”
Doing their own thing is a common theme among Willie’s children. The first offspring to appear on stage at last week’s picnic was Amy Nelson, half of the Folk Uke duo that also features Cathy Guthrie (daughter of Arlo). The duo’s folk isn’t kumbaya-esque. They kicked off their set with “Shit Makes The Flowers Grow,” while Guthrie’s young daughter, Marjorie, ran around the stage like it was her personal playpen.
Amy Nelson introduced Marjorie to the crowd and then dedicated their next song to the girl, before catching herself. “Well, maybe not,” she said as the duo broke into “Knock Me Up.” That song was tame compared to the next, “Motherfucker Got Fucked Up.” The women’s sweet harmonies add an ironic humor to the salty lyrics. The crowd ate it up. Well, mostly.
“Those girls cuss a lot,” a disapproving guy in a cowboy hat said to no one in particular.
After the set, Amy hung out backstage with sister Paula, who has fronted the band The Guilty Pleasures for seven years, and their mother, Connie.
“The picnic is always a treat because we get to see each other,” Paula said. “Usually we’re all working in different directions.”
Then it was Paula’s turn to perform, and she walked through a door that led directly to the stage. Within minutes her voice could be heard singing with the trademark Nelson sincerity and skill.
“I guess it’s in their blood,” Connie said.
Amy attended the inaugural July 4 picnic in 1973 while still inside her mother’s womb. “I think I remember it being very hot,” Amy said with a laugh. “I was born two days after the first picnic.”
Seeing Marjorie Guthrie romping onstage reminded Amy of her own childhood. She and Paula used to sing harmonies with their dad during the gospel portion of his set, something Lukas and Micah would do years later as kids. Even though the girls and boys are half-siblings, there’s nothing halfway about their affection for each other.
And it’s obvious they’re all smitten with Lukas.
“As talented as he is playing and singing, he’s that good of a guy too,” Connie said. “He’s such a gentleman. He’s got the same qualities I’ve seen in Willie for years.”
“He writes extremely deep but still full of light,” Amy said. “He reminds me a lot of Dad. Lukas writes often, and he writes well. He’s a good soul, a wise kid.”
So wise in fact that Amy, who is 16 years his senior, goes to her younger brother for advice.
“Dad is a very unifying person, and so is Lukas,” she said. “They’re teachers. They’re meant to be listened to because they have a lot of important things to say. And they say it pretty.”
Lukas Nelson’s younger brother is an artist, and during Promise of the Real’s set that afternoon, Micah set up an easel and canvas and painted on stage.
“I try to be an open vessel,” he said, relying on “the energy of my brother’s music” to guide his hand. By set’s end he’d painted an American flag (hey, it was July 4 after all) but with a big peace sign replacing the field of stars.
Now these four youngest siblings, along with various other nieces and nephews, are considering touring together to promote a collaborative CD called Family Album.
Connie sees a common strain running through them all.
“It looks like Willie can’t put out anything but good kids,” she said.
When Promise of the Real takes the stage, Lukas Nelson and his band join in a tight circle, their heads touching. Then they take their places. Nelson straps on a Fender Stratocaster and steps up to the microphone. “How y’all doing?” he says to the crowd of several thousand people.
He hit the opening lick to “Four Letter Word,” the first song on his new CD and a barnburner that he’s performed on the Jay Leno and David Letterman talk shows to much acclaim. The crowd is floored. The band keeps pushing the bar higher and higher for 30 minutes, finishing to huge applause.
Sometimes the feedback isn’t so warm. Nelson is a living vessel after all, hardly a finished product. Some songs are better than others. Some shows are better than others. Regardless, he isn’t interested in know-it-alls, like an online critic who wrote “somebody should take that guitar away from Lukas and beat him over the head with it.” Or the guy who approached Nelson after a show and characterized his guitar playing as “scale oriented” and “riff based,” a
contradiction in terms.
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Nelson said.
So, what is Nelson’s approach to guitar?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just close my eyes and hope for the best.”
That, uh, “plan” appears to be working. The day after the July 4 picnic, local media praised the Promise of the Real. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram said Nelson’s “moody, psychedelic brand of Southern rock was an early highlight.” And the Dallas Observer, which was critical of the festival in general, praised the young ax man as the “highlight progeny” with “his daddy’s voice” and “wailing guitar skills.”
By the time those reviews appeared, however, Nelson was on the road again, gone into the distance on his way to another gig even as the buzz he’s generating keeps growing louder.
“I’m really focused on doing my own thing and being with my own band,” he said. “I’m having so much fun. I’m not getting rich but I’m making a living compared to where I was. I just want to ride this out as long as it will take me, and hopefully it will be forever, because they’re my brothers.”
He’s got his head on straight, dodging the demons that haunted his father many years ago, and winning and breaking the hearts of fans — three Fort Worth women in particular — along the way.