In Texas, no man casts a bigger shadow than the legendary Willie Nelson. A pioneer of outlaw music, one of the genre’s finest songwriters, and the state’s favorite pot-smoking hippie, there’s no denying the influence that the Red Headed Stranger has had on Texas music. But at present, Willie’s long been part of the old guard, a relic of country music’s better days, and now his son Lukas is preparing to step into the spotlight.
In his own right, Lukas Nelson is one of the finest musicians in Americana right now. He’s got a distinctive timbre that offers just a hint of his Daddy’s own unique voice and an incredible ability to pick the fire out of a guitar, not to mention a naturally inherited talent for songwriting. And now, after sharing the stage with his father, Lukas Nelson is finally getting ready to step out on his own alongside his band, Promise of the Real, with their much-anticipated, self-titled debut album.
Due this Friday, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (Fantasy/Concord) is already a contender for one of the best Americana offerings of the year, fusing together a diverse blend of sounds with classic country sensibilities to produce a uniquely appealing sound. Its first track, the slow-burning “Set Me Down On a Cloud,” sets a tone that Nelson says was intended to introduce the world to his band. “It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written,” he says. “And I think it allows the listener to understand the new band, the new additions, and the new production. The sound quality is so expansive, yet it’s a song that allows us to be free and jam a little bit, just like we do in a live setting.”
The song that’s likely to have the most impact for the band, though, is “Find Yourself,” a smoldering, blues-fueled track that features backup vocals from Nelson’s friend and totally minor celebrity Lady Gaga. Nelson first met Gaga, whom he calls Stefani as if she were just some mere mortal, when working on the forthcoming feature film called A Star Is Born. In the film, Nelson and Promise of the Real appear as lead actor Bradley Cooper’s backup band (along with producing much of the music in the film) and Gaga plays Cooper’s love interest. After hearing “Find Yourself,” Nelson says, Gaga fell in love with the song.
“Stefani [Germanotta, Gaga's given name] and I became friends, and we started writing together. She came to one of my shows, and she loved 'Find Yourself' and wanted to record it with us,” he says. “I insisted that she sing background, because we didn’t want to exploit the fact that she was on the song. It’s a really good song on its own, and whether Lady Gaga is on it or not, it’s a song that means a lot to me. The trick and the idea, though, is that it’s actually me talking to myself from the woman’s point of view. It’s not me telling a girl I hope she finds herself, it’s her telling me. It’s cool to have her on the chorus because it’s a reflection on how I should be acting and feeling.”
Of course, Gaga is just one of many stars that Lukas Nelson has worked with. Alongside Promise of the Real, Nelson has toured and recorded extensively with Neil Young. It’s a pretty ideal situation for a young, up-and-coming musician to hone his talents. “I felt drawn to him inexplicably,” he says. “When we played together, it felt like we’d been playing together forever. I don’t really know how to explain that, but I felt confident in my abilities and my approach was similar to his approach.”
That said, Nelson’s experience with legends like Young frequently results in his music or talents only being described in the context of other artists. Instead of allowing his talents to stand on their own, much of the media coverage surrounding this new album has described Nelson either as “Willie’s son” or “Neil’s collaborator.” Fortunately, it isn’t something that really gets under the ever laid-back Nelson’s skin.
“I’ve had to deal with that my whole life, and it doesn’t really bother me,” he says. “It actually helps me because it gets a little fire under my ass to write really good music and to play really good live shows so that any time anyone sees me live and or hears my songs, they stop making those comparisons. I feel validated in my artistry, I’m comfortable in my own skin artistically. Now I’m just trying to bring that music and that art to as many people as possible.”
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But Nelson does feel obligated to honor his musical history, especially as it relates to his father. Outside of the noticeable sonic influences, though, much of Willie’s influence on this record is subtle, like a twangy guitar solo on “Just Outside of Austin.” “A huge part of my life is my father. I’m lucky to have a relationship with my parents that many people don’t. I intend to keep his memory and his music and his art alive forever. It’s brilliant music, it’s brilliant songwriting, and there’s a reason why he’s one of the most famous country or just plain artists that’s ever lived. It’s his prowess as an artist, and I intend to keep playing his music forever.”
As he approaches his own work, though, Nelson draws a great deal of inspiration from what’s going on in his own life. To listen to Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real is to hear a guy who’s working out a lot of feelings about love and life, but most importantly, how to be loved. It’s especially evident on “Forget About Georgia,” a classic heartbreak song written about one of Nelson’s own relationships that went south. “The art itself is like taking a picture of where my soul is at any given time, and I don’t know that I’m any closer to figuring it out,” he says. “There’s no answer, really, to the question of love, because it changes day to day. After writing this record, I hope I’m better at it, I’ll just say that.”
Time will tell whether or not Promise of the Real is the one that makes Lukas Nelson a household name, at least for Americana fans. But one listen to this record makes one thing abundantly clear: Lukas Nelson is carrying on the rich musical tradition that he was born into, but only on his own terms. And that's going to be a pretty damn exciting thing to watch.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real will perform at the 15th annual ZiegenBock Music Festival, Saturday, October 14 at Sam Houston Race Park. Their new album will be released Friday on Fantasy/Concord Records.