As the son of country legend Willie Nelson, Lukas carries a bit of external expectation around with him. But on new album Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, he doesn’t let any of it get to him.
For Nelson, this new album is more an evolution than a rebirth. “It’s a culmination of what I feel are some of my best songs,” Nelson tells Wide Open Country. “They’re the most relatable songs in my career.”
The group just released the new “cosmic country soul” record on Aug. 25, and for Nelson, it’s a chance to really present who the band is at this point in their career. “I believe in this record,” Nelson says.
The new album took about 18 months from start to finish, but several of the songs have their genesis years earlier. Nelson first formed the group Promise of the Real (after a Neil Young lyric) in 2008.
They toured by selling a live EP, which included songs like “Four Letter Word.” Years later, the band re-envisioned the tune for the new album. And it’s not the only one. “Set Me Down On A Cloud” and “Forget About Georgia” also came on the previous album, Something Real, but get the full treatment this time.
“I knew they were good tunes, but they didn’t get a lot of attention on the Something Real record,” Nelson says. “I thought this was a good chance to put them on a record that might get some attention.”
He’s right. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real is a lush, layered body of work that is as sonically pleasing as they come. Guitars, vocals, keys, percussion — everything weaves in and out beautifully, all surrounding Nelson’s pointed (but not shrill) vocal.
“Set Me Down On A Cloud” is an epic 7-minute album opener, complete with Nelson’s shred work and ringing, reverbed anthemic vocals. And then “Forget About Georgia” is essentially the opposite. A heartfelt, heartbroken love song that reimagines the Ray Charles classic.
For Nelson, growing up one of the sons of Willie Nelson came with plenty of perks. Like constantly being surrounded by music legends.
“I started playing in my dad’s band at first, and then my own band,” Nelson says. Then, when he and the band got a chance to jam with Neil Young after the 2014 Farm Aid, Young invited the band to record and tour with him.
“I think it’s just a spiritual connection we have with the music,” Nelson says of the band’s relationship with Young. “It just feels right when we’re hanging out and playing together. I’m recording a new record with Neil right now. It’s just a beautiful connection.”
It’s also a pretty damn good education. The band brings a youthful energy to Young’s shows and he teaches them lessons learned over a 50-year career.
“Neil is obviously our spiritual priority with the music,” Nelson says. “Nobody is around forever, so we just learn. We’re soaking it up, trying to give him what he needs for these songs. For the music he hears in his head. And then we take that and apply it to our own music and it just compounds. There’s no downside to it.”
Well, except sometimes people expect somebody who grew up with Willie Nelson and plays with Neil Young to sound similar to the two. But just a few songs into Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and it’s evident this Nelson is his own artist.
Easily one of the biggest songs on the record, “Find Yourself” is a great microcosm of the vibe on this record. A starkly honest song that features lyrics like “I ain’t gonna let it slide when you’re mean to me” and “I know the love that I deserve,” “Find Yourself” is an infectiously groovy song with a massive percussive pocket and some of Nelson’s most soulful playing.
Oh, and an uncredited Lady Gaga feature. Which is just part of the whole “understated” presentation of the record. Nowhere in this body of it work does it seem like the band is trying to play up its connection to musical legends. Even Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) had a prior connection with Nelson. The pair teamed up on her song “The Cure,” which came out just a few months ago.
The album also features Jess Wolf and Holly Laesig of indie pop group Lucius singing vocals on several tracks. “Everybody that’s on this record is there because I felt like they’re musically brilliant and I wanted them to be part of it,” Nelson says.
Some of the strongest tunes capture a soulful exaltation, but also a certain sense of melancholy. “There’s a melancholy kind of inside, but it doesn’t mean I’m unhappy,” Nelson says. “There’s just that bittersweetness of life that purveys.”
But he doesn’t completely escape the iconic sound forged by his father. “Just Outside Of Austin,” which Nelson wrote with Roger Miller on the mind, is a good example of that. “I just wanted to write an old country song,” Nelson says.
On album ender “If I Started Over,” you can hear just how closely the two Nelsons could be sonically, if they so chose. From the phrasing to the vibrato, there’s an almost eerie similarity.
But whether you first choose to listen to Lukas Nelson because of his family, or his connection to Neil Young, or even Lady Gaga, any of it works the Nelson and the band. Because after just a few tunes, it’s evident that Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real are making a name for themselves all on their own, too.