Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real met at a Neil Young show. After the concert, Lukas, drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Merlyn Kelly and some friends adjourned to Kelly's practice pad in Seal Beach, Calif. They jammed into the wee hours and went surfing in the dark. It was so much fun that, when a stingray zapped Nelson, he shook it off just to keep the night alive. The next day, he wrote the lyrics for "My Own Wave": "So much left to show/ But the music never slows/ It goes and goes."
Knowing they'd found something real, Nelson says, "We started the band that night." Recruiting longtime family friend and percussionist Tato Melgar, the foursome spent the next six months playing on the beach for anyone who'd listen. Then they decided to hit the road.
Nelson intended for the band to pay their dues. "I'd just read [Hermann Hesse's] Siddhartha—I needed to leave a place of comfort and go out and feel the extremities of both sides of humanity. I wanted to sleep in cars, on couches and get to know people. I felt like my parents had already given me a fulfilling life; I didn't want to have to ask them for money." And that's an admirable sentiment, considering Nelson's father is living legend Willie Nelson.
So in fall 2008, POTR lit out in LoGerfo's old pickup, calling themselves Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, inspired by a verse from Neil Young's "Walk On": "Some get stoned/ Some get strange/ But sooner or later/ It all gets real."
On tour, Lukas bared his soul, and used his teeth to play ripping extended guitar solos inspired by his guitar heroes Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and J.J. Cale. The band played as though they'd forged a telepathic connection. The crowd embraced POTR's open, joyful vibe and sincere, raucous country-rock tunes. It took five months before they saw any money, but finally, proceeds from a soundboard-recorded EP, Live Beginnings, enabled POTR to upgrade from a truck to a dangerously rickety RV.
That's when Willie and his wife Annie intervened: "They didn't want us to kill ourselves in that RV." The Nelsons gave the band one of their buses, but left the fuel, maintenance and driver expenses to them. That was a deal Lukas could live with.
In June 2009, the group released the Brando's Paradise EP, featuring "My Own Wave." Kelly left and Corey McCormick joined in time for the band's eponymous first LP. The group logged hundreds of shows, including appearances at Farm Aid, Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit, and Stagecoach. Their fan base dubbed themselves "Realers"; April 2012 brought the group's second album, Wasted. The band played 250 shows, picking up more new fans—like Neil Young, who came to POTR's show this time.
Although Young and Willie had been friends for years, Lukas "didn't know Neil that well"—they'd only met a few times in his life. Since connecting backstage, however, Young has become POTR's guru. "He's given us a ton of advice," says Lukas. "Besides my father, Neil is my biggest influence. My father is who I go to when I'm looking for spiritual advice and the roots of who I am, musically. In life decisions, I look at what my father has done. Technically and musically, I look at Neil, too."
Mutual admiration led Young to invite the band to back him up on his 2015 album, The Monsanto Years (Reprise), which is credited to Neil Young + Promise of the Real. POTR toured with Young to promote the record, and will do more shows with him soon. In the meantime, they're finishing their upcoming third album, and they've released Realer Bootlegs Vol. 1 (PromiseOfTheReal.com), a stopgap EP to pacify fans while POTR talks with record labels. For business reasons, Lukas is mum on which labels they're meeting with. Otherwise, he's about keeping it real.
"That's a promise Neil made, and it's a promise we make: We'll deliver reality whether it's sadness, happiness, boredom, good friends, inspiration ... whatever it is, we'll deliver it musically."