Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

The Son Shines:
Sooner or Later, You’ll Love Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

With a father that transcends country music superstardom, it’s tempting to hitch Lukas Nelson’s growing legacy to nothing but Willie’s. His father’s celebration of kinfolks with his Family Band triggers these comparisons for longtime fans of the Nelsons. As established by Lukas’ eclectic musical take on one of his father’s favorite topics, “High Times,” he’s keeping the family tradition alive with a rocking band that deserves to be viewed as more than the next new saviors of country music.

Lukas threw himself into playing guitar and writing songs as a pre-teen after discovering rock ‘n’ roll and the blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix inspired him to pick up a guitar and remain influences on his sound. He saw playing music as a means to connect with his constantly touring father, which proved true upon joining Willie’s band as a 13-year-old.

At age 28, Willie’s son is his own man, with a band great enough to grab Neil Young’s respect and a recent major label debut, simply titled Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (Fantasy).

Promise of the Real is Lukas’ backing band, featuring close friends and, occasionally, younger brother J. Micah Nelson. “We’ve got a lot in common, and my brother and I play together whenever we can,’ Lukas says. “He plays with us a lot, but he’s also got his own band called Insects vs. Robots. He does a lot of great things on his own.”

Hitting the road with friends and relatives purposefully mirrors a key to Willie’s career longevity. “Dad had a bass player who didn’t even play bass when he met him,” Lukas says. “He just had the best leads, so he thought he should play bass. It’s more about finding people you can be friends with on the road than finding the best musicians. Oftentimes when you do it that way, everyone has their own ego and then they want things a certain way. When you are friends, you can grow together.”

Lukas’ band of brothers and friends formed after a chance 2008 meeting with drummer Anthony LoGerfo at a Neil Young concert. After bonding over their love of Young’s music, the fast friends named their new band Promise of the Real in tribute to a line from Young’s “Walk On,” the opening track of 1974’s On the Beach.

As if by fate, Lukas’ band became solid enough to catch Young’s attention one year at Farm Aid. They backed him on his 2015 album Monsanto Blues and a couple of subsequent tours.

In an early October interview with the Austin American-Statesman, Lukas revealed that the band has recorded another album with Young, who’s laid low most of 2017 due to alleged health issues. Nothing’s confirmed yet regarding the album or live shows, although Lukas said the band kept next summer a clean slate to give full priority to Young’s tour.

Lukas and his band’s new album is great on its own merit, so it’s exciting to know that Young’s recurring stamp of approval will expose it to a broader audience. The value of this well-timed announcement may prove to be incalculable.

For his own music, Lukas approaches the road, the studio, and other elements of the life he’s always known first-hand with lessons learned by observing the various legends in his life.

“The most that I learned from my dad was how to stay healthy on the road,” Lukas says. “With Neil, what I learned was how to keep your music authentic and how to stay real – how to be true to who you are and keep your integrity in the music. He also taught me about not overthinking the music, too.”

Lukas’ take on authenticity doesn’t seem to shun the mainstream. His dad’s music and image help define the very fabric of mainstream music, after all, and Lady Gaga counts among the guests on the new Promise of the Real album. Instead, it’s more about following your heart instead of following trends. After all, a well-written song can pay off more in the long run than a calculated career move, and the Nelsons can certainly write enduring tunes.

Lukas comes across in conversation as a mild-mannered hippie, in the best possible way. He’s a spiritually-aware old soul who’s deeply in love with all sorts of music and, thanks to chunks of his life spent living in Hawaii and California, surfing.

He’s also down to talk about his dad – a topic that might’ve grown old by now for other famous peoples’ kids. After asking about his love for soul music reached a dead end, he eagerly answered my out-of-the-blue question – Did you ever meet Georgia’s own Ray Charles? “I met Ray at dad’s 70th birthday party,” Lukas says. “That was at the Beacon Theatre in New York. There’s actually a video of it online where you can see it’s Ray and dad and Leon Russell all singing together.”

“Georgia on My Mind,” a song synonymous with Willie and Ray Charles, helped inspire one of the better songs on the new album. “Forget About Georgia” is about Lukas getting over a girl named Georgia while having to hear her name sung on stage every night while on tour with his dad. You know, typical young man problems – if that young man happens to be Willie Nelson’s son and band mate.

Another album cut reminiscent of other Nelson family music is “Set Me On a Cloud.” It’s a heartbreaking tale of loss that borrows a lot of sonic cues from the gospel greats that inadvertently invented American popular music. It’s not a far cry stylistically from songs on such overlooked albums like Family Bible and Spirit, which both feature dad singing gospel while aunt Bobbie plays piano.

For something more county-sounding, check out “Just Outside of Austin.” It’s among the strongest evidence to date that Lukas inherited Willie’s songwriting talent. Except it sounds more like a late ‘60s Jimmy Webb composition than something from within the family. The lyrics (a tribute to Austin) and arrangement sound like something Glen Campbell would’ve recorded when he was at his greatest. Also, that sweet acoustic guitar accompaniment comes via Willie and the most famous guitar in country music, Trigger.

The rest of the album finds Lukas and his band keeping it real by incorporating a variety of influences. For instance, “Die Alone” is sung and played with all the fervor of the Texas bluesmen that inspired ZZ Top, making it a different-flavored ode to the Lone Star State. Other tracks incorporate everything from classic Southern rock (“Carolina,” featuring Lady Gaga) to honky tonkin blues (“Four Letter Word”). It’s a proverbial variety platter, informed by how American roots music has intertwined with popular songs since the birth of the recording industry.

In addition to his recent solo album, Lukas and Micah appear on Willie’s new archival release Willie’s Stash Vol. 2: Willie Nelson and the Boys. Issued on Oct. 20, the album collects unreleased recordings from 2012’s Heroes sessions. Covers of the four great Hanks – Williams, Locklin, Cochran, and Snow – make up a bulk of the album. Hearing the three talented Nelsons harmonize on “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” is a real treat, allowing a new generation to show respect for their parent’s radio heroes.

Lukas’ working relationship with Lady Gaga extends beyond one album track. He appears in and provided musical input for the forthcoming A Star is Born remake, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. If those names aren’t cool enough for you, rest assured that Sam Elliott plays a prominent role.

A potentially huge 2018 sets up well for Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. A high-profile tour with Young and a mainstream movie should add even more exposure to the band’s pursuit of authenticity, setting up a road to their next horizon, sans loads of compromising.

In the meantime, Lukas looks forward to touring on his band’s first major label album, building on the grassroots fan base he’s built from a young age, alongside friends and family. With each tour, fans of Lukas himself, not just his surname’s legacy, grow in numbers. “It’s already paying off in so many ways, and it’ll just get better as long as I can stay healthy and write good songs and get out there,” he says. “We’ve got quite a good little following nowadays. It’s always assuring to gain a few more followers.”

Photo by Myriam Santos.