Lukas Nelson can't help it that he's Willie's son. Of course, that fact certainly hasn't hindered his career as leader of Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, whose self-released second record, Promise of the Real, has sold more than 20,000 copies and kept the band on the road 250 days the past year.
Talking to 23-year-old Nelson and 28-year old drummer Anthony LoGerfo is almost like talking to Cheech and Chong or some old hippies, all laid-back and talking about karma and good vibes, about doing what you love and being real.
Two years ago, young Nelson dropped out of Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles, where he was pursuing a liberal arts degree with a concentration on classical guitar, after three semesters.
"I just got bored," drawls Nelson from the family home in Maui. "I've been on the road for a big part of my life, and I just was ready to move around, do something else. College wasn't really inspiring me."
Bandmate Anthony LoGerfo remembers Nelson calling to say he'd dropped out of school. They'd met about three years earlier through a mutual friend at a Neil Young concert.
"Lukas and I just hit it off," LoGerfo, who was playing drums with some jazz bands in Switzerland at the time, recalls. "We were very much on the same page about a lot of things — philosophy, music, how to live life. And he called that day and said, 'Hey, I decided to quit school, do you still want to do that band thing we talked about?'"
"This was a real band from the very beginning," says Nelson. "We were all friends before we started this, so it makes it easier to all get along and to make creative decisions. Everyone feels like they're a part of something bigger than any one of us, not that this is just a job working for someone."
LoGerfo explains something possibly more telling about how this all happened: "We're all surfers. That was the first thing that brought us together. When we're not on the road, we surf. And that's why we're based in Los Angeles instead of Austin or someplace else."
While that facilitated the friendship, LoGerfo recalls Nelson as "being very grounded for someone who was only 18 when I met him. He was just a real down-to-earth guy."
Nelson began playing guitar when he was 12. He asked his father what he wanted for his birthday, and Nelson Sr. said he wanted his son to start learning to play guitar so they could play together.
"So he started showing me chords, the basics. And once I'd gotten some of that figured out, he would have me practice and later play along with him on these difficult Django Reinhardt things. He kept stressing that once I learned to play that stuff, I could play anything. And he was right, it really pointed me in the right direction as far as playing guitar and how to think about music."
Once he'd learned to play, Nelson began to work out to some of his heroes, like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix.
"Those guys just pushed the envelope so far so fast," says Nelson. "Jimi especially heard the possibilities so differently and was able to construct things other great people hadn't even thought of."
Nelson finally got proficient enough that he would join Willie's band onstage and, while Willie left the stage to take a break, Lukas would lead the band through a tune like Vaughan's "Pride and Joy."
Vaughan's music and the rock side of Bob Dylan inform the Promise of the Real more than Willie's music does, although the elder Nelson's lyrical and vocal stylings are in evidence and he sings on two tracks, the bluesy semi-honky-tonker "Sound of Your Memory" and the somewhat biographical "Fathers and Mothers." But Willie in the mix or not, Promise of the Real is very accomplished for someone only 21 when it was recorded.
Vocally and lyrically, the album is very much Lukas Nelson's show, as he plays all the lead guitar parts, handles all the singing and wrote 90 percent of the material. That doesn't bother LoGerfo.
"He's just so talented we're kind of in awe of him sometimes," says LoGerfo. "But in that van, he's just one of the guys. That's what's very special about him, given where he comes from, all he's seen and been around."
LoGerfo is no newcomer, either, picking up the drumsticks when he was ten years old.
"I grew up on all kinds of music, but my emphasis for a long time was orchestral. I've played with symphonies and done stuff like that, toured with all different kinds of artists."
One thing both men agree on: They are road dogs.
"This is how we make our living," says LoGerfo, "and right now it's a thing that's growing, so we'd gig every night if we could. When Lukas first called me, he said we were just going to get a van and do it. And that's how it's gone so far."
Nelson agrees. "I basically grew up on dad's tour bus, and I guess I picked up a desire to move. I get bored easy, and I like being in a new town every night. So we play as many dates as we can."
In between gigs, however, they've recorded another album and are shopping it around to some labels.
"The current album, which we did entirely on our own and put out on our own little label, has sold over 20,000 copies, so we're hoping to get some serious label interest for this next one," LoGerfo explains.
The band assembled in Nashville for the latest recording, and while all the members are credited as producers, they also sought help from Nashville veteran and Grammy-winning songwriter Jim "Moose" Brown.
"Moose has played with so many people, and he's friends with my pal Jamey Johnson, so it was a natural hook-up for us," says Nelson. "He's a great keyboard player, very musical, and he's done so much work over the years, he's seen it all. So his experience level and ideas really gave this next album a boost."
LoGerfo says the band hopes the next album will move them up another notch in the food chain.
"This is what we've all committed to do," says LoGerfo. "This is how we plan to feed our families, make a living, take care of our commitments in life. Fortunately, as a band, we are all on the same page, all pulling in the same direction. Long-term, hopefully down the road we'll do well enough to start giving back the way Willie and other people do. If music is going to be your life, you want to do it the right way."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.