Let’s get the pedigree stuff out of the way first: Lukas Nelson, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Promise of the Real, is the son of Willie Nelson, and he’s spent the majority of the last few years touring and recording with Neil Young. In fact, the band is co-billed alongside Young on his 2015 album The Monsanto Years, and Willie contributed a song and some backing vocals on the band’s self-titled 2010 debut.
That’s a hell of a duo to have as the major figures in your life, especially if you’re a songwriter. Think about it: Your material is forever going to be associated with the guys who wrote “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Helpless,” and “Rockin’ In The Free World,” among literally hundreds of other classics, and your guitar-playing is going to be held up next to two of the best to ever pick up the instrument.
Lucky for Lukas Nelson that he’s damn fine at both. On the band’s new album, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Nelson shines through with a stunning amount of skill and maturity for a 28 year old. Against a backdrop of an epic, massive-sounding production job by John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, Liz Phair, Herbie Hancock), Nelson has cast a wide, and assured, stylistic net, demonstrating equal skill at Hammond B-3-drenched Southern rock (“Set Me Down On A Cloud”), laid-back outlaw country (“Fool Me Once”), folky acoustic shuffles (“Just Outside Of Austin”), and, on the album’s closing track, “If I Started Over,” the type of shimmering, pedal-steel-heavy honky-tonk balladry that made his dad a legend. And yes, from time to time, his reedy-but-powerful voice recalls the Red-Headed Stranger’s thorny, well-worn purr.
“I’ve always thought I could write a good song,” Nelson says. “That was something that always came to me really naturally. When I was really young, maybe 10 or 11, I wrote my first song (‘You Were It’), and my dad liked it so much he put it on his album, It Always Will Be. So I was very encouraged, and said, ‘OK, I can write a good song,’ and I started writing all the time. I practiced that as much as I practiced singing or guitar. I wanted to be as honed-in to that craft as I am at playing guitar or singing. Those things all get better with time.”
Speaking of guitar, Nelson is a demon on the electric six string, playing in a bee-stung, sonorous tone and favoring extended, experimental solos that blend the skill of his father with the heaviness of his tour-mate. Three of the 12 songs on the new album stretch past the six-minute mark, allowing Nelson to do some truly inspired playing. It’s all part of an album that sounds like it could’ve leapt from the fertile creative period of the late ’60s or early ’70s, and that’s exactly how Nelson wanted it.
“I listen to the way that music from the ’60s and the ’70s was made, and I think it was the pinnacle of recorded music,” he says. “It was when people were exploring and experimenting in such an organic and natural way that very spiritual pieces of art came out. That’s back when everyone was doing it as an expression of art. People wanted to be rock ‘n’ roll stars, of course, but they also wanted to express themselves. They had to get this stuff out. They had to express themselves. They were opening up their souls to the world. That music is like church to me.”
Nelson is quick to acknowledge that he’s not alone in the urge to bring a more organic, adventurous feel back to the music industry. “I’m just talking about putting a real concerted effort into making something sound good and not trying to follow any trend,” he says. “There are a lot of bands who are doing that, like Arcade Fire — they’ve started their own trends. But I think there’s been a resurgence of people putting a lot more effort into making art. People like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson and Jack White. I think there are some musicians who are really doing it right out here, and I love that.”
That passion for serving the music correctly has to spring at least partially from his twin mentors, and Nelson is especially effusive when he talks about the effect Neil Young has had on him over the past few years.
“You absorb certain things,” he says. “First of all, you have a shot of confidence knowing that one of your heroes loves what you do and is willing to help you out in any way he can. That’s a part of how you keep great music alive is that you encourage younger generations to follow what you do. I learned that from dad, too: You’ve got to pass it down, and be kind and open to the people that come after you. They’re going to be carrying it on after you, so you have to keep an eye out for those people who are going to keep the spirit alive. That’s important.”
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