Just 22, Nelson has been writing songs and playing that stinging six-string for half his life. And with his band Promise of the Real, Nelson is quickly making the fact that Willie Nelson is his dad an interesting bit of trivia and not the main attraction for curious tune seekers. The blend of raucous, rootsy rock & roll Lukas delivers on his self-titled debut owes as much to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan as it does to The Red-Headed Stranger.
Even so, Papa Willie did inspire his son to become a songwriter.
“I was 11 years old when I wrote my first song, and my dad recorded it,” Lukas Nelson recalls during a brief break from his virtually endless tour cycle—a lifestyle he shares with his dad. “He put it on one of his albums, It Always Will Be, when I was real young, so I figured if it was something he liked enough to do that, then it was something I was pretty good at.”
It’s amazing how a little positive parental reinforcement can influence a kid. And while Lukas did have unique experiences, like living a few months on the tour bus of The Highwaymen [Willie’s supergroup with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings], his dad’s touring meant he grew up mostly with his mother at the family’s Hawaiian getaway. It was on the islands that Nelson’s guitar playing blossomed, thanks to a brief dalliance hooking up with jam-bands, forcing him to constantly improve his chops to keep up.
In another case of “like father, like son,” Nelson is a prolific songwriter. When he hunkered down to record his debut, he had 70 songs written and arranged, and recorded 21 of them. Twelve ultimately made the cut, including scorching covers of Neil Young’s “L.A.” and Hendrix’s “Pali Gap” and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” that have become staples of his live shows.
And really, the live show is the thing with Lukas Nelson. Being Willie Nelson’s kid is enough to get some people to check out your gigs, but it’s the electrifying performances everywhere from small clubs to massive benefit concerts like Farm Aid that have made him a rising star in his own right. And Nelson loves life on the road.
“It has always been easy for me to be on the move,” Nelson says. “I don’t really like to stick around anywhere too long. I’m off for a week right now, and that’s already too long.
“I really love to sit in the back of the bus, where there’s a bunch of windows, and just open ‘em up. I really feel like I get to meet a lot of America the way it was meant to be known.”
On the road, Nelson leads a small band of two percussionists and a bass player, and he rips off at least one wicked guitar run on virtually every song, at times stretching tunes out to lengths that show his jam-band history in order to get to a good played-with-his-teeth solo. The band recently delivered a vibrant take of “Four Letter Word” on David Letterman’s talk show that left the host and his musical sidekick Paul Shaffer stunned, a clip well worth a YouTube search.
Nelson has become a regular visitor to Utah the past couple years, and here, as elsewhere, he’s found what he calls “people who share my views on things,” whether those views are promoting marijuana legalization or supporting Tibetan political exiles.
“I’m just trying to help our communities, and our music brings people together who are like-minded,” he says of his charitable activities. “I’m just trying to give back and give people a little perspective on everything.”
His daddy would be proud.