Anyone who heard Lukas Nelson playing the streets of Venice Beach a couple of years ago might have wondered if he was related to Willie Nelson, given the vocal similarities.
On the other hand, who would suspect that Willie Nelson’s son would be busking for bills?
But after Lukas dropped out of Loyola Marymount University, where he was enrolled as a music student, mom and dad (yes, that’d be Willie Nelson) played tough love and cut him off. So Lukas Nelson found himself living out of his car, trying to make it — like so many others — as a musician in Southern California.
Despite dropping out of school, Nelson had already had a musical education, thanks to his father and his dad’s friends— people like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, (Willie’s former Highwaymen band mates) and Bob Dylan.
Now Lukas, born to his father’s fourth and current wife, Annie, leads Promise of the Real, a blues-rock band which released its self-titled debut album in December. And the 22-year-old has made a name for himself as a shredding guitarist.
Nelson, who appears on the same bill as his pops in the Country Throwdown at the Pozo Saloon next week, talked about songwriting (he wrote his first, “You Were It,” for his dad before his teens), touring with his dad’s friends and his dad’s famous beat-up guitar, Trigger.
Q: You traveled with the Highwaymen growing up, riding on buses. What kind of stuff did they do? Were they playing music on the buses, playing cards?
A: I’m sure they played cards a lot. I was, like, 5 years old or less when they were touring so I don’t remember that much. But I remember seeing Johnny and Waylon. And I remember Jessi Colter used to want to paint my nails. She was just teasing me, but I was afraid of her because she’d have these colored pencils. And we’d be on tour in Australia or wherever, and every time she saw me, she’d grab my hands.
Q: Did you ever hear “On the Road Again” performed on the bus?
A: Never have heard that.
Q: It seems so right, doesn’t it?
A: I don’t know about that. He played it every night.
I don’t usually play my songs on the bus, unless it’s for somebody else. I’ll play new songs I’ve written, maybe—or, you know, new things I’d want to show people. Or I’ll play a lot of Neil or Stones. Just sing-a-longs.
But I just seriously doubt that he was sitting around playing “On the Road Again” on the bus.
Q: Your dad asked you to learn guitar for his birthday. So he wasn’t one of those bitter musician dads that tried to discourage the kids from getting into the business?
A: Not at all. He’s never been bitter in his life.
Q: You got your lessons at 11, wrote your first song at 11 and joined your dad’s band at 13. Were you like a quick study or did you just hit it that hard?
A: I just loved it so much that I learned fast.
Q: How nervous does a 13-year-old kid get when he’s on stage with all those guys?
A: I wasn’t nervous at all. I never had that stage fright. I’ve always been comfortable onstage. When I was a really little kid, we used to go up on my dad’s stage, and I used to play percussion. With the Highwaymen, too. My brother used to play harmonica when he was three. It was just a musical family.
Q: As a kid what did you do with the royalty money from the song “You Were It?”
A: I don’t even know if I got much. I’m not getting checks from that one anymore. But there’s a song that my dad and I and my brother wrote together called “Over You Again” that was on that record “Moment of Forever,” produced by Buddy Cannon. I remember one time I was completely broke, and I didn’t know what to do — I didn’t know how I was going to make the rent. It was causing a lot of anxiety. And I got a call from the office saying that I had a package from FedEx. And I opened the package, and it was a check for exactly how much my rent was.
Q: When you were in college, did you feel there was nothing they could do for you at this point because you’d grown up around all these musicians?
A: Yeah, well, I felt like I already knew how to play music. And as much as I love and appreciate and respect classical music, that’s all they taught there. So I didn’t want to learn classical music, I wanted to go out and have a career and then maybe one day go back and learn all that.
Q: After college, you did some street performing. I’ve talked to a few other well-known people who did the street performing thing and it really helped them out. What did it do for you?
A: It taught me how to work a crowd — at least on an acoustic guitar. I think every musician should know how to sit on the street and play and gather a crowd and make a few bucks — in case it doesn’t work out with the record company.
Q: So you had a band and you’d go out and do your own thing with the busking?
A: Yeah, at that point, Promise of the Real wasn’t getting a lot of gigs. So in between I’d sleep in my car and play on the beach.
Q: What you play is more blues rock, but people still call you country. Is that kind of odd?
A: I don’t understand why people call me country. They want me to be country, maybe, because my dad’s country. I play country music — I can. I did a country album with my dad, and I wrote a few country songs that are on it, and that will come out in the next year. But I don’t really play any specific genre of music. I like electronic music, I like hip-hop, I like dubstep, I like jazz, I like classical music. And I one day hope to incorporate all of that in one album.
Q: You turned down a chance to play for Bob Dylan. How long did you agonize over that decision?
A: Well, it just happened real quick. I knew I didn’t want to leave my band. I love Bob Dylan a lot — I love him to death. And that’s all I can say about it. And I think he understands that it wasn’t out of disrespect. It was just out of the fact that I’m doing my own thing. If I were to die tomorrow, I want to die knowing I’m playing my own music. And Bob is one of my biggest influences. I stop short of worshipping him. He’s incredible.
Q: I noticed on your song “All The Pretty Horses” there’s a definite Dylan influence.
A: Yeah. Actually, that song directly came from me listening to a song called “Nettie Moore” on the (Dylan) album “Modern Times.” Really good song.
Q: When you were growing up, what was the policy with Trigger — was it “hands off” or were you allowed to play it?
A: Oh, I could play it. I used to play it all the time when I was a kid. It’s got a great tone.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.