Lukas Nelson is Stepping out of His Father’s Shadow with Promise of the Real

Shred Headed Stranger

Known to some for backing Neil Young and his dad, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson is a rising star who rocks a mean electric guitar on his new album with his band, Promise of the Real.

By Christopher Scapelliti | Photos: Drew Anthony Smith

Growing up, Lukas Nelson didn’t get to spend much time with his dad, Willie Nelson. The country superstar was logging miles on the road, and Lukas and his brother Micah were dividing their days between the family homes in Austin and Maui. Around the time he turned 11, Nelson figured out a way to strengthen the bond with his father: He took up guitar and started writing songs.

“It seemed like something I could do to get closer to my dad,” Nelson says. “He was gone a lot, so I felt the need to just do what I could to spend more time with him, because I really loved him. I felt like that could be a great career to choose, because I could make him proud and I could travel a lot—it would be kind of a win-win. It’s a giving career.”

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The 28-year-old has given considerably to his vocation over the past 10 years, and lately it’s been giving back generously. In 2015, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real—the band he fronts—won notice and praise when they backed Neil Young on his album The Monsanto Years and its subsequent tour. That run included a performance at the first Desert Trip music festival in October 2016, where Nelson met actor Bradley Cooper, who invited him to write songs for his new upcoming remake of the classic film A Star Is Born. The movie, which also stars Stefani Germanotta—a.k.a. Lady Gaga—is scheduled to come out in September 2018 and includes Nelson and his group as Cooper’s backup band.

But undoubtedly for Nelson, the highlight of the past year has been recording his band’s fourth and latest album, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. The record features a dozen songs penned by Nelson that skew closely to guitar-fueled country rock, which the band imbues with deft touches of soul, psychedelia and even gospel. For fans of Seventies-style rock, the album satisfies with lengthy excursions on which Nelson shreds with abandon. “This album is like cosmic country soul,” he says. “This is my roots.”

That mix of styles derives from the disparate musical influences Nelson absorbed from his dad—whose tastes range from Ernest Tubb to Django Reinhardt to Frank Sinatra—as well as from his mother and musical “uncles” like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. “Music was all around me,” Nelson says. “I grew up on it. We used to sit there at night and listen to Hank Williams, watch videos of the Grand Ole Opry, and listen to Django. And then we’d play chess. That was our indoctrination into music.”

From his mother, Nelson picked up a love of rock, soul and pop. “She taught me a lot about the rock and roll culture” he says. “Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Motown—all of that.”

By the time he was 11, Nelson had written his first song, a tune called “You Were It.” His dad liked it so much that he recorded it on his 2004 album, It Always Will Be. By the age of 13, the youngster had begun taking lessons from Maui-based gypsy-jazz guitarist Tom Conway and was woodshedding eight to 10 hours a day, digging deeper into the music of his heroes, who include Hendrix and Vaughan as well as Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale. Within a year, Nelson was good enough to tour in his dad’s band, achieving the goal he’d set for himself when he took up the guitar.

Despite feeling certain that his future was in music, Nelson spent a year attending L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University in 2007. While there, he saw a concert by Neil Young, whom he knew from the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts presented by his father, Young and John Mellencamp. At the show, Nelson met drummer Anthony LoGerfo, and the two began jamming together. Soon after, he dropped out of college and formed Promise of the Real with LoGerfo, percussionist Tato Melgar, and original bassist Merlyn Kelly, who’s since been replaced by Corey McCormick. The band’s name was inspired by a line in Young’s 1973 song “Walk On”: “Sooner or later it all gets real.”

It was probably inevitable that their Neil Young connection would come full circle. In 2009, Promise of the Real began playing annual stints at Farm Aid, where Lukas befriended Young’s former bassist, the late Rick Rosas. “He told Neil about us, so Neil asked for my email,” Nelson says. “And we started talking.”

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