But Nelson and company are now back on the road, in the midst of a lengthy tour which will bring them to the House of Blues on Monday, November 8.
Like many musicians, Nelson did his best to use the forced down time constructively, writing songs while hanging out at his parents’ house in Texas. Those parental units would be his mom, Annie, and his dad, that Willie fella. What emerged was the album A Few Stars Apart.
Speaking by phone from – thankfully – the road, Nelson says that Stars is different from his previous efforts, which often featured the band stretching out on blazing guitar workouts. This time, the mood is more intimate, more thoughtful.
“Every record that we’ve done has had a lot of extended jams. And I’m really into that, I love it. But at the same time, I wanted to make a record that was just about the songs. Just about the songs and lyrics and melodies, and not have any fluff around it,” Nelson reflects. “I think there’s only one guitar solo in there.”
This philosophy led to a certain amount of prioritizing. “I consider myself, first and foremost, a songwriter. And a guitar player, and a performer and a singer — all that second. So I wanted to show people more of that side of what I do.”
While none of the songs addresses the pandemic specifically, the lyrics offer reassurance. Cases in point include the opening track, "We'll Be Alright" and "More Than We Can Handle," in which Nelson sings, "She told me God won't give us more than we can handle / She said, 'I fell in love with you because you're strong' / She told me God won't give us more than we can handle / But at least we've got each other if I'm wrong."
A Few Stars Apart was recorded at Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A, a facility built by Chet Atkins in 1964, where artists including Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Leon Russell, and the Monkees have cut records. Does working on such historic ground influence the music making? “It does, in the same way that a full moon makes a difference. It’s the energy you get in certain places and environments,” Nelson explains.
“You buy vinyl, right? You have a record player, you lift the needle, you put it down, and you sit on the couch and you listen to it. It’s a completely different experience than just having your phone sitting there on the table or putting it though a Bluetooth speaker or whatever. There’s a lot to be said about environment and ceremony. Set and setting, if you want to use a psychedelic term.”
A Few Stars Apart is brief by CD standards, 11 songs clocking it at around 35 minutes total. In other words, about what one finds on a vinyl LP. In an era of overfilled discs, its brevity is refreshing. It is a cohesive collection, with a feel that might be described as “comforting.”
“We chose the best songs to fit the vibe,” Nelson says. “I think that’s how we were all feeling. We needed to be comforted. And so we created this piece of art that was based on what we needed to feel in our own souls at the time.”
As a songwriter, Nelson takes inspiration when and where it occurs. “I just wait for it to strike, and then it comes. It’s almost like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. You’re just sort of like, ‘Oh, here it is!’ It’s ironic because I think it comes in moments of clarity. For example, when I meditate, I’ll sit down and then suddenly get really clear. And then a song will start coming, and I’ll be like, ‘Fuck!’ And then I gotta get up and go write the song. And then I don’t get to meditate," he says, chuckling.
Having spent many of his formative years around Austin, one wonders what Nelson's mindset might be when he plays back in Texas. The experience could be either more comfortable or more stressful. “It’s more relaxing,” Nelson says. “I’d say it’s more like coming home. But I put the same amount of energy into whatever, wherever I play. At a certain point, the stage becomes the field, right? It’s the football field or the soccer pitch. A stage is a stage, and you play the best show you can possibly play on every stage.”
So what’s it like being back in front of live audiences after all this time? “I’m glad that we’re doing it again, because I think it’s part of the human experience,” Nelson says. “It’s indispensable, because it’s as old as cavemen sitting around drumming together.”
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real will perform at The House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, on Monday, November 8, at 8 p.m. For information, call 888-402-5837 or visit houseofblues.com/Houston. $25 - $49.50.