"I started writing cheating songs when I was too young to have any idea what I was writing about – broken hearts and things like that. I just think it was something I already knew, something I had experienced in another lifetime." – Willie Nelson
"I had a song that I wrote when I was 10 called 'You Were It.' Dad liked it so much that he put it on one of his albums, It Always Will Be. That's when I knew I had a knack for it, so I kept writing all the time."
We're aboard the Honeysuckle Rose, one of the world's most famous tour buses. The voice being caught on a digital recorder is familiar, soft-spoken and reedy. Given the reference to "dad," the redheaded singer/guitarist seated across the breakfast booth shaking off sleep interrupted for this interview amidst family photos, children's drawings, and a heady herbal aroma isn't Austin's most famous and beloved musical ambassador.
Meet Lukas Autry Nelson, 26, Austin-born and Abbott, Texas/Maui-raised eldest son of Willie Nelson and his fourth wife, Annie. Since dropping out of Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University in 2008, the young troubadour has performed relentlessly with his band, Promise of the Real, which counts a pair of studio full-lengths and an EP centered on his slashing roots guitar and wailing vocals that remind you at every turn whose DNA he carries. Third POTR long-player Something Real arrives later this year, and next week debuts The Monsanto Years, credited to Neil Young + Promise of the Real, plus its attendant summerlong Rebel Culture tour.
Currently unfolding around the bus, parked in Willie's personal town/ranch of Luck just outside of Austin in Spicewood, is the annual Heartbreaker Banquet, a South by Southwest day party opened to the public for the first time. Across three stages and amidst food trucks and concessions selling all manner of Willie merch including Willie's Reserve, the brand of potent smokeables currently sold in states that have legalized weed, the Nelsons host a mix of family friends (Butch Walker, Angel Olson), the talk of SXSW (Leon Bridges), and family acts like Lukas' Promise of the Real and younger brother Micah's math-rock outfit, Insects vs. Robots. The siblings cap the night joining their father and aunt Bobbie Nelson onstage in a literal edition of Willie Nelson & Family, delivering a more freewheeling set than papa has likely played in a while.
Needless to say, it's all a long way from "You Were It."
The song's a doozy. It could have come from the elder Nelson's pen. Like cheating songs no child has any business writing, Lukas crafted the kind of sad song and waltz his parent jokes no longer sells:
"You could bring out the worst of everyone you knew/ But no one could ever get the worst out of you/ But now I am fine, all the pain is gone/ I once had a heart, now I have a song."
A sixth-grader wrote that. No wonder Willie gave it a masterful performance on the album. By the time Lukas was 13, he was on the family payroll as a rhythm guitarist on the road again.
"I've been making music my whole life, really," he muses. "I had a dream when I was a really small kid, like 6 years old, that I was on a stage. It was a dream, so there were, like, millions of people. I was super-scared and shy, and something told me to shrink down into my chest."
He tucks his head down.
"And I look out at the crowd. My awareness ... It was as if my eyes were in my heart, looking out through my chest, rather than in my head. So, when I shrunk down, I felt like faith cradled myself into my own heart, looking out. So, I never was afraid. I never had stage fright, after that.
"I was really young when I started singing. Then I began playing guitar. I was really small, but I knew that's what I wanted to do.
"I've had a couple of different people give me guitar lessons over the years. My dad taught me some of the first chords I ever learned, and then a guy named Tom Conway, who's out here now, he taught me some stuff in Maui. Mostly I'm self-taught, just sitting and listening to Hendrix and Stevie Ray. Those are all my heroes, musically: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, all those guys.
"I find myself to be a writer first and a guitar player second. But they complement each other. Performance is some part of that, too.
"I read this book about Muhammad Ali called King of the World a long time ago. It talks about how Muhammad would say, 'There's so many people out there doing the same thing, trying to make it.' Every champion has an idea of something about himself that gives him an edge over everybody else. For me, that's songwriting.
"Because I don't feel I'm the best guitar player in the world, although I do feel I'm a good guitar player. There's a lotta great guitar players out there, and there's a lot of great performers. I feel with the songwriting, however, that I do have something which will make me memorable through the crowd, so to speak."
Promise of the Real remains a world-class band. Drummer Anthony Logerfo, Corey McCormick on bass, and percussionist Tato Melgar back a totally wired rock & roll frontman whose grand flying scissor kicks really get audiences going. Lukas Nelson is also a vicious, biting lead guitarist, spraying jagged blue notes across every surface.
Even as ladies stagefront swoon in the presence of the energetic bandleader, the songs connect with their audience. They can't help cheer a song like "The Joint" from second disc Wasted:
"I'm going to sit around and smoke my pipe/ And make sure I'm still alive/ I'm gonna smoke my joint all night/ And feel alive."
The tracks he previews from Something Real are heavier, more dynamic, evoking late Tulsa groove master J.J. Cale guesting with Led Zeppelin. Convenient, considering Nelson acknowledges Cale's influence, as well as recording Something Real in a manner similar to a Zeppelin classic. Recording in a Victorian mansion owned by a pal, the group put drums and amps in different rooms, capturing a live ambience.
"There's this song called 'Forget About Georgia' that I think is one of my favorites," offers Nelson, cuing it up on his phone. "There was this gal, and her name was Georgia, and we had a thing. Then I had to play music with my dad, and I would think about her every night."
Issuing from the device is gentle stuff, centered around a prominent bass drum and a plucked guitar:
"Well, I sure as hell didn't love her as much when I met her/ Much as I was just captured again and again/ She could turn her eyes away and still hold me under/ Forever beauty and mystery pulled me in/ Whenever she told me her name, I knew I'd die slowly/ I knew I was destined to live with this pain every night/ For each night, I sang with my father trading off/ We cried her name and her memory under the lights/ And each night I pray I forget about Georgia/ 'Cause she'll never love me like I know a love's supposed to be."
"It's kinda like an answer to 'Georgia on My Mind,'" Nelson smiles, bashfully.
Neil Young's The Monsanto Years reaches stores sooner. Recorded throughout January and February at Oxnard's Teatro studio – the converted Mexican movie theatre where Willie cut his 1998 LP of the same name with producer Daniel Lanois – Lukas describes the experience as "incredible."
"We spent six weeks surfing in the morning. Then we'd get in the studio with Neil. It's the most amazing six weeks ever. We did a live recording – no headphones or anything. We recorded it analog, then [mixed it] straight to digital. It really turned out great."
When Neil Young conscripts an outside band to work with him, such as Pearl Jam or Booker T. & the MGs, they mostly morph into a substitute Crazy Horse. Moments of The Monsanto Years resemble Young's long-serving garage bashers, while others hearken Harvest's country/folk, but Promise of the Real – augmented on disc with Micah Nelson's guitar – retains its distinctive identity throughout. Cuts like the title track wouldn't be out of place on one of their own albums. That's notable considering the songwriting's entirely Young's.
"You've gotta really listen to the lyrics," Nelson urges, suddenly becoming more animated and passionate. "What Neil's addressing is our ability to determine for ourselves what we want to eat. Companies like Monsanto are suing states that are asking to have their food labeled as GMO [genetically modified organisms] or non-GMO. We wouldn't be able to know what was even in our food. If Monsanto becomes a world food supplier – which it already is – then they're going to be able to put whatever in our foods, and not label it.
"Maybe that batch of GMOs is safe, but the pesticides they use on the plants isn't. The things that they put in there, maybe they create another genetic modification, or introduce other chemicals. If these laws are passed, they won't have to tell us what's in the food!
"That, to me, is unacceptable. Because this is the company that created Agent Orange. This is a chemical company, and this chemical company is threatening to have a major hold on at least the American food supply, because their products are banned in a lot of other countries. Regarding whether GMOs are safe or not, many of the studies that say they're safe were funded by Monsanto. A lot of the scientists that have come out and said they're unsafe have been slammed with propaganda by Monsanto.
"There's an employee that came out and said that Monsanto has their own department of propaganda, dedicated to debunking and slamming scientists or anybody that comes out against their company or against GMOs. It's almost like we're being labeled as anti-science when the science is being presented by a company that is for-profit.
"We should at least be able to pick and choose which foods have GMOs and which don't. Because the studies aren't out yet. By the time they are, it could be too late."
Lukas Nelson leans back, spent.
"That's what we're fighting for. We're just trying to be a voice for that."
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