Lukas Nelson will introduce himself to country fans this summer by joining his dad on Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown tour. At 22, the younger Nelson has absorbed his father’s love of music yet he has always been eager to step out on his own.
Through his childhood, Lukas traveled with his father’s band and even stepped onstage to play Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix covers on guitar. But in his late teens, he left school to try to make a living in music, purposely refusing to ask for help from his parents. In 2010, he released his revealing debut album, Promise of the Real, named after his band.
Lukas is very proud of his father, though, as well as the lessons he was taught growing up. He says his parents kept him grounded and gave him a solid foundation, even amid the unusual circumstances of life on the road. And while Lukas’ music leans more towards rock than country, he still sees similarities in the way music has a constant presence in his life as well as his dad’s.
A few weeks prior to the tour, Nelson stopped by the CMT offices to talk about growing up on Willie’s tour bus, what he thinks about fame and how songwriting comes in handy in a pinch.
CMT: Being a young artist, is the Country Throwdown tour your biggest opportunity yet?
Nelson: I’ve been playing with my dad’s band since I was 13 years old, so I’ve played some big shows. I mean, we did Farm Aid. But this is different. And I’m friends with Jamey Johnson, so it will be fun.
You spent a lot of time on the road with your dad as you were growing up. What do you remember of life on the bus?
There are a lot of early memories from out on the road. That’s how I grew up. I still am on the road. I’m on the same bus now that I grew up in, so that’s kind of cool. But I grew up around some really, really great musicians and I feel like I absorbed a lot of that. Maybe it was subconsciously, though, because I didn’t really understand a lot about what they had accomplished in their lives at the time. But I started getting it as I got older.
When did it sink in that you had a famous dad?
Early on. As soon as I was self-aware, I guess. There’s that period when you don’t really remember anything, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “OK, we’re going to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway with Jimmy Carter.” And “We just did the Kennedy Center Honors.” And “Ray Charles was just on the bus” and all these people like that. I got exposed to a lot that way.
Having such a unique perspective on it, what did you learn about fame?
Fame is a vapor. We’ve got a little sticker on the bus that says “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, and riches take wings. Only one thing remains and that is character.”
Do you have any desire to be famous like your dad?
No, I don’t. The only thing that fame brings is that it reaches a lot of people. So in that sense, yeah, I want to reach a lot of people because I feel like I play a type of music that makes people happy, and I want more people to be happy in the world. I’m happy, so when I play, I feel like that goes out to other people. I just feel like my band, The Promise of the Real, is a way of bringing people together and feeling good in a time when there’s a lot of negativity around.
For fans that might like to see your opening set at Country Throwdown, how do you describe your music?
I consider it rock ’n’ roll in the same way that Neil Young would be rock or Bob Dylan would be rock. They were songwriters and the songs speak for themselves. It’s more like song-oriented music than it is genre-oriented.
Speaking of songs, one of your recent ones has a spooky story behind it. Can you explain?
Well, I wrote it on March 3, 2011, and it’s called “When the Ocean Takes the Earth.” I was sitting in Hawaii and I said, “One day this ocean is going to come back and just take over again.” And a week later, a tsunami hit Japan. It brought a lot of different emotions out. It was trippy. It could have been a coincidence but I don’t feel like it was. I felt like I was meant to write that song. We put it on a compilation disc for the Red Cross and then we released it on our website with all the money going to charity.
Your dad sings on two songs on Promise of the Real, including one called “Fathers and Mothers.” I imagine any parent would love to hear their child sing it to them. What was on your mind when you wrote it, and how have your parents responded?
Actually it was Christmas Eve and I needed a present to give them. (Laughs) I had been on tour and I wrote them that song and sat down and played it for them next morning. It turned out to be my dad’s favorite one.View photos from Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown tour on May 27, 2011 in Philadelphia.