Lukas Nelson is ready to be on the road again, but he's also glad to be putting down roots
If you listen to “We’ll Be Alright,” an old-fashioned country waltz that opens the new Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real album, it’s almost impossible to hear Lukas’ voice and not think of his father, Willie Nelson.
“For sure,” Lukas says, acknowledging that sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “If I sing a country waltz, I sound like him. I can’t help it.”
It’s not such a bad thing to sound like one of the great musical artists of our time, I suggest. Especially when he’s your dad.
“You know, it’s not,” Lukas agrees. “I’ve never tried to run away from who I am. I'm so proud of my dad I can't even express it in words.
“He's one of the great musicians ever, and he's one of the great fathers. He’s just one of the great human beings out there, and I feel really grateful to be close to him. So yeah, that first song is completely like he would do it.”
We’re talking at a gallery space on West Sixth Street in early June, just before Lukas and his bandmates head across the street to Waterloo Records for an album signing event. They’re getting ready for a busy fall touring behind the new album, which came out June 11 on Fantasy Records.
The band’s sixth album since a self-titled 2010 debut, “A Few Stars Apart” was recorded in Nashville with ace producer Dave Cobb, whose credits over the past few years read like a prime hit list of Americana music: Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, John Prine.
On Saturday, the band will play a sold-out show at Antone’s as part of the downtown club's 46th-anniversary celebration. It’s one of several small-club dates Promise of the Real is playing this month as they gear up for a full-scale national tour of larger clubs and concert halls this fall. That tour will include a Nov. 9 Austin date at ACL Live (tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday via the venue's website).
LUKAS IS EAGER to resume touring, but he’s also grateful for the yearlong pause the coronavirus pandemic imposed. In March 2020, he was at his father’s house west of Austin, preparing for the annual Luck Reunion held on Willie’s ranch during South by Southwest. Instead, he and brother Micah joined Willie on camera for a virtual version of the event, closing it out with Willie’s 1980 smash “On the Road Again.”
What always seemed like a happy-go-lucky tune about making music with friends had suddenly become bittersweet. You never know how much you can’t wait to get on the road again until you’re forced off of it.
“It took on a new meaning,” Lukas says. “A lot of songs did that.”
Another was Willie’s early-’90s gem “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” which perhaps sums up the lesson Lukas learned from all that time off. “I can be moving or I can be still,” Willie sings. “But still is still moving to me.”
“I've never really spent that much time anywhere,” Lukas says. “I'd say about three months is the longest I’d been anywhere in my life, up until this whole thing. We have a road family, and I like being on the road. But this helped me realize that I also like being in one place.”
Lukas and Micah, both in their early 30s, banked quality time with their parents for much of the past year. “I was here from March 2020 to September, and I really, really enjoyed it,” Lukas says.
“I enjoyed being with my mom and dad every day, playing dominoes and watching movies and putting around, just having a good time,” he continues. “It wasn't a bad thing to be stuck out at the ranch. It’s just beautiful; lots of trees and horses.”
Those newfound domestic impulses helped motivate Lukas to get a place of his own for the first time in his life. In December, he bought a house in a community called Haiku on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Willie and his wife, Annie, mostly have split their at-home time between Texas and Hawaii over the past few decades. Lukas spent formative years attending a Montessori school his mother ran near Austin, but Maui was home through junior high and high school.
LUKAS LAUGHS WHEN he explains that touring for most of the past decade meant that “I didn't pay rent for forever.” In addition to his own band, Lukas still occasionally plays shows with his father — he’ll be on hand for Willie’s Austin concert in August — and also sometimes tours with Neil Young.
RELATED: Our 2018 interview with Neil Young
“I didn't even know how much money I had,” Lukas says. “When I finally slowed down enough to look, I was like, ‘Oh, I can buy a house.’”
Before he did that, though, Lukas reconvened with his Promise of the Real bandmates — Anthony LoGerfo, Corey McCormick, Tato Melgar and recent addition Logan Metz — to record “A Few Stars Apart.” They convened first in Los Angeles, where several band members live, before heading to Nashville’s hallowed RCA Studio A.
The last two Promise of the Real records were produced by John Alagia, who’s worked with Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Jason Mraz and others. Lukas says he expects to work with Alagia again, but he wanted to work with Cobb this time in part because the new album’s focus on organic songwriting was suited to Cobb’s use of analog recording gear.
The studio’s iconic stature in country music was another lure, Lukas says. “We felt like we were stepping into history at RCA there,” he says. “I was looking at pictures of my dad on the wall when he was my age. It was quite special.” Much of Willie’s 1960s catalog was recorded there with producer Chet Atkins.
Those photos were one reason Willie’s influence looms large on the opening track. “That song specifically was a direct ode to Dad,” Lukas says. "I was looking at his picture on the wall, and I thought, ‘I’m going do this song just like Dad would do it.'”
“We’ll Be Alright” is one of three country waltzes on the album, along with “Hand Me a Light” (featuring guest singer Rina Ford) and the closing track, “Smile.” Lukas says he didn’t consciously try to sound like his father on those songs; it’s more of a family-occupational habit. “If I went and did a bunch of country songs, I'd sound like him,” he says. “And that's maybe why I hadn't done it yet, because I wanted to establish my own thing.”
IT TOOK YEARS for Lukas to figure out what his own thing was. “When I was 10 years old, I was on the swim team, and I was dead set on being an Olympic swimmer,” he reveals. In his teens, his attention turned more toward music and skating. “I was a skate rat,” he says. “I built a ramp in my backyard.”
Eventually, he says, “I found myself daydreaming in the lap pool. I had to swim two and a half hours a day, and I just stopped. I was forced to do it every day, and I'm the kind of guy where if you tell me I’ve got to do something, I hate it, and I won't do it out of principle.”
He has some regrets now about stopping, because “it was a good thing health-wise to be doing. Ironically, looking back at it, the more Zen thing to do would have just been to keep swimming,” he says. “But the dream of the Olympics was less important, eventually, than the exploration I was doing in my own heart and mind and soul.
“I was kind of an introspective and self-aware kid early on,” he continues. “I was reading books like (Herman Hesse's) 'Siddhartha' and 'Steppenwolf,' and philosophical books, and Plato. I was trying to get into the art of what being alive was. And in Maui, I was exposed to a lot of spiritual people. Baba Ram Dass lived not too far from us. So when I was 13, I was already trying to figure out what life was all about.”
Music was, of course, always around his family. A song Lukas wrote when he was 11 years old, “You Were It,” ended up on his father’s 2004 album “It Always Will Be.” But early on, Lukas was more interested in the electric guitar adventures of artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix.
“I was dangerously close to walking that line” of trying to be a guitar hero, he says. “Then I realized that I needed to develop my songwriting and singing more. And I knew there was always going to be a better guitar player out there.
“I think just being yourself and knowing your strengths and playing to them is really important," he continues. I'm a good guitar player, and I definitely think that it helps bring the songs to the show. But my favorite parts of the show are when everybody's singing along.”