Lukas Nelson’s not a household name, nor does that seem to be his intent. Instead, he’s looking at a long-term career in the music biz, and he’s not afraid to put in the time to make sure that happens. If Lukas Nelson is lucky, he just might enjoy the same decades-long run as his father, country music great Willie Nelson.
“You always got to tour. That’s just going to be my life forever, and I’m happy doing that. I just tour all year long. I’d tour every day if I could,” says Nelson, the frontman for Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. He’s friendly but not vociferous, and most questions are answered in a sentence or two, with a measured baritone that’s as easy on the ears as the breakers near his Maui home. “Sure, a couple days off here or there. A week, two weeks. But after that I get antsy and I get bored. I want to go out.”
To want to leave Hawaii, you must really love what you’re doing, and that’s the case for Lukas, who dropped out of Loyola Marymount University to pursue his dream of making music. The decision was deeply informed by his discovery of the Hermann Hesse classic Siddhartha, which recounts the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment.
“He’s a brahman’s son, basically a rich guy’s son, but a spiritual rich guy, and he ends up leaving the house to go and find himself. He becomes a beggar and then the suitor to this girl and marries and then leaves and then he eventually becomes enlightened. The idea is you can’t live in comfort all the time. You have to explore your life,” says the 24-year-old Nelson.
Sure enough, right before his sophomore year, he dropped out. He forswore his father’s money, and vowed to get by on his own. “I just decided to leave school and not take anything from anybody except I got a couple grand from a good friend and I made that last nine months,” he says. “I lived in my car, slept on people’s couches, made friends, and just had fun. It wasn’t bad at all. I was just living without for a while.”
It’s obviously no surprise Lukas wound up a musician. Among his first musical memories is being on the road with the Highwaymen, his father’s supergroup with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. He was just six.
Then when he was 11, inspiration struck and his career in many ways unfolded from there. He wrote the song “You Were It,” which appeared on Willies’s 2004 album, It Always Will Be. The song features some pretty impressive prose for a sixth-grader: “You could bring out the worst in everyone you knew/ But no one could ever get the worst of you/ And I am fine, all the pain is gone/ I once had a heart, now I have a song.”
“It was a pretty good song, and so my dad liked it and said ,’Well, shit, I’ll put it on a record,'” says Lukas. “I just wrote it and it felt natural. It didn’t take me long to write. I had a melody stuck in my head.”
A year later, his dad bought him a guitar and began showing him how to play it. But it was no Big Note Songbook for Lukas, no sir. Willie taught him the basics then started him out with the music of Django Reinhart, arguably the finest jazz guitarist of all time.
“I learned the Django stuff early and some old standards like ‘Stardust,’ and that helped me get a strong foundation musically,” he says. “It was an idea just to be able to spend more time with him doing what we both loved to do.”
From there Lukas developed a deep love for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rugged blues and the noisy electric folk of Neil Young. Both influences are prominent on Lukas’ two full-length studio albums, along with less frequently indulged interests like groovy tribal jams, languid cosmic country, and ’70s-inflected blooze boogie.
After an EP and a live album, Lukas released a full-length debut in 2008 with the band Promise of the Real. (He’s since moved his own name out front.) The phrase references the Neil Young song “Walk On,” which features the line, “Some get stoned/ Some get strange/ But sooner or later it all gets real.”
“It’s a reference for us keeping our humility throughout everything. For bad or good, we’re going to be real. We’re going to be who we are,” he says. “We’re taking Neil’s promise and applying it to our band.”
Last year, Nelson and his band released Wasted, an eclectic, somewhat uneven 17-track album. While the scope’s impressive, it feels unfocused at times, as on the nine-minute “If I Was the Ocean.” One of the best tracks is the equally as long “Don’t Take Me Back,” which begins like Young’s “Welfare Mothers” before going all roadhouse bluesy in the break. It’s followed by the very cool garage-psych track “Wasn’t that Great,” which evokes Cream.
Lukas is a prolific writer and reckons he has perhaps a half-dozen albums’ worth of material already written. This fall, he and his band have set aside some recording time, and they’re hoping to have their third album out sometime next spring or summer. They haven’t settled on a name for the new disc yet, but they’ve got a good idea which songs they’ll be recording.
In the meantime, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real churn through the highway miles. “The idea is you’re not really able to appreciate what you have until you truly understand what you have,” Lukas says. “And you don’t know what you have until you know what you’ve been missing. And you don’t know that until you see what else is there.”