Shred Headed Stranger
Known to some for backing Neil Young and his dad, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson is a rising star who rocks a mean electric guitar on his new album with his band, Promise of the Real.
By Christopher Scapelliti | Photos: Drew Anthony Smith
Growing up, Lukas Nelson didn’t get to spend much time with his dad, Willie Nelson. The country superstar was logging miles on the road, and Lukas and his brother Micah were dividing their days between the family homes in Austin and Maui. Around the time he turned 11, Nelson figured out a way to strengthen the bond with his father: He took up guitar and started writing songs.
“It seemed like something I could do to get closer to my dad,” Nelson says. “He was gone a lot, so I felt the need to just do what I could to spend more time with him, because I really loved him. I felt like that could be a great career to choose, because I could make him proud and I could travel a lot—it would be kind of a win-win. It’s a giving career.”
The 28-year-old has given considerably to his vocation over the past 10 years, and lately it’s been giving back generously. In 2015, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real—the band he fronts—won notice and praise when they backed Neil Young on his album The Monsanto Years and its subsequent tour. That run included a performance at the first Desert Trip music festival in October 2016, where Nelson met actor Bradley Cooper, who invited him to write songs for his new upcoming remake of the classic film A Star Is Born. The movie, which also stars Stefani Germanotta—a.k.a. Lady Gaga—is scheduled to come out in September 2018 and includes Nelson and his group as Cooper’s backup band.
But undoubtedly for Nelson, the highlight of the past year has been recording his band’s fourth and latest album, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. The record features a dozen songs penned by Nelson that skew closely to guitar-fueled country rock, which the band imbues with deft touches of soul, psychedelia and even gospel. For fans of Seventies-style rock, the album satisfies with lengthy excursions on which Nelson shreds with abandon. “This album is like cosmic country soul,” he says. “This is my roots.”
That mix of styles derives from the disparate musical influences Nelson absorbed from his dad—whose tastes range from Ernest Tubb to Django Reinhardt to Frank Sinatra—as well as from his mother and musical “uncles” like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. “Music was all around me,” Nelson says. “I grew up on it. We used to sit there at night and listen to Hank Williams, watch videos of the Grand Ole Opry, and listen to Django. And then we’d play chess. That was our indoctrination into music.”
From his mother, Nelson picked up a love of rock, soul and pop. “She taught me a lot about the rock and roll culture” he says. “Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Motown—all of that.”
By the time he was 11, Nelson had written his first song, a tune called “You Were It.” His dad liked it so much that he recorded it on his 2004 album, It Always Will Be. By the age of 13, the youngster had begun taking lessons from Maui-based gypsy-jazz guitarist Tom Conway and was woodshedding eight to 10 hours a day, digging deeper into the music of his heroes, who include Hendrix and Vaughan as well as Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale. Within a year, Nelson was good enough to tour in his dad’s band, achieving the goal he’d set for himself when he took up the guitar.
Despite feeling certain that his future was in music, Nelson spent a year attending L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University in 2007. While there, he saw a concert by Neil Young, whom he knew from the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts presented by his father, Young and John Mellencamp. At the show, Nelson met drummer Anthony LoGerfo, and the two began jamming together. Soon after, he dropped out of college and formed Promise of the Real with LoGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, and original bassist Merlyn Kelly, who’s since been replaced by Corey McCormick. The band’s name was inspired by a line in Young’s 1973 song “Walk On”: “Sooner or later it all gets real.”
It was probably inevitable that their Neil Young connection would come full circle. In 2009, Promise of the Real began playing annual stints at Farm Aid, where Lukas befriended Young’s former bassist, the late Rick Rosas. “He told Neil about us, so Neil asked for my email,” Nelson says. “And we started talking.”
Soon after, Young enlisted the group, as well as Nelson’s brother Micah—a guitarist who performs with the band Insects vs Robots—to help him record The Monsanto Years, on which the veteran rocker railed against socially destructive forces ranging from corporate greed to cultural homogenization to the use of GMOs. The band came off the album’s tour charged up and ready to make a new disc of their own. “There’s something about our band now,” Nelson says. “It has more grit. I think it just comes from playing live with Neil and being around his energy.”
Nelson contributes much of that grit with his guitar tones. His main instrument is a sunburst 1956 Les Paul Junior that he acquired through Young’s guitar tech, Larry Cragg. Aside from replacement tuners, it’s all original. “I first saw it, and bought it, at TRI, which is Bob Weir’s studio in San Rafael.” Nelson’s other guitars include several Gibson handmade reissues—a second Les Paul Junior, a pair of Les Paul Standards, and a Les Paul Special—and four Fender Stratocasters, all of which he plays through new Magnatone reissue amps. He also has a Rockbridge acoustic whose model designation he can’t recall. “I’m not really a gear head, to be honest,” he admits. “I’m not into pedals; I don’t know what models my gear is.” When it comes to choosing a guitar, he has a simple formula: “If it’s pretty, I like it,” he says. “If it sounds good, I love it.”
Listeners who discovered Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real through The Monsanto Years might expect them to carry a banner for social justice. In reality, most of the songs on their new album are about love and loss, presented in a range of emotions and attitudes. “Forget About Georgia” recounts a doomed love affair with a woman named Georgia whom Nelson met in San Francisco. At the time he wrote it, he was touring with his father and had to suffer performing “Georgia on My Mind” each night on the road—“which made it literally impossible to forget about her,” he says.
Tragedy was the source for “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” the album’s gorgeously cinematic opening track. Though it could be interpreted as a love song, Nelson wrote it for a friend who lost a child. “They were in their driveway, and they accidentally ran over their own three-year-old daughter,” Nelson relates. He met the family a year after the accident, when they came to one of his shows. “The next day, I got a five-page handwritten letter from this woman. She told me what had happened, and she said that my show was the first time she’d been able to feel anything positive since that had happened. She asked me to write a song about it, and so I did. And that was ‘Set Me Down on a Cloud.’ ”
And then there’s “Runnin’ Shine,” a generational anthem about doing what it takes to stay alive in changing times. “The phrase ‘runnin’ shine’ could mean so many things,” Nelson says. “It’s just about doing what you wanna do in life, and it’s about being true to yourself, and it’s about family tradition. There’s so many themes there.”
The song is about as close as Nelson gets to a topical subject. “We speak our mind about what we think is right,” he says. “But what I like to say in my songs is said in a more subtle, non-accusatory way. Right now I’m writing a lot about love and letting go, and things that I was going through the last couple of years. Eventually, maybe I’ll write some kind of ‘protest record,’ but it’s not gonna be deliberately that way. It’s just gonna be what comes out.”
For now, Nelson and his group are spending a lot of time on the road and looking forward to the release of A Star Is Born. And then there’s the new Neil Young record he and Promise of the Real just wrapped up in mid August. “It’s gonna blow everybody’s mind,” Nelson says. “I mean, The Monsanto Years was like a call to arms. This is a real studio record that’s really well recorded. We did it at [Rick Rubin’s] Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The songs are just incredible.
“So that’s gonna come out at some point, and I know Neil will wanna tour. And then the movie will come out. So the next year should be pretty interesting.”