Lukas Nelson, whose father is Willie Nelson, knew what he wanted to be when he was 6. The revelation arrived like a vision. In a dream, Nelson stood on a stage in front of millions of people.
“I was scared,” he remembered. “But when I went out there on stage, a voice told me to put all of my being inside my chest. And then I looked out at the audience while I sang from within my heart. The crowd went wild. I was never afraid to be on stage again. That was it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Events that followed the life-defining dream reinforced Nelson’s musical path. At 12, he wrote a song for the first time. Willie Nelson recorded his son’s composition, “You Were It,” for his 2004 album It Always Will Be. “You Were It” came to Lukas Nelson unexpectedly one morning while he sat on a school bus. “This song started playing in my head,” he remembered. “It came like a radio signal. Yeah, songs just come sometimes.”
Nelson turned 29 on Christmas Day. When he sings, the vocal resemblance to his famous father is obvious. Like his dad, too, he’s a gifted songwriter and seasoned performer who’s right at home on a tour bus.
“I’m on the road most of the time,” Nelson said from Maui, the Hawaiian island where Willie Nelson and Annie D’Angelo raised their two musical sons, Lukas and Micah. “I like traveling because I grew up that way. It’s a blessing to be able to play music for a living. I can’t imagine anything else.”
In addition to his father, Nelson’s major influences include the iconoclastic rock star Neil Young. In 2014, Young invited Nelson and his band, Promise of the Real, to join him on tour. Since then they’ve toured extensively and recorded four albums together. Their latest collaboration is the soundtrack for the Daryl Hannah-directed Netflix movie, Paradox. Young, Lukas and Willie Nelson and Promise of the Real all appear in the impressionistic western.
Some way or another, Nelson figured he’d join forces with Young, a longtime friend of his father’s. “We love rock ‘n’ roll and punk and blues and folk,” Nelson said. “All the same stuff.”
Nelson admires Young for reasons beyond music. “Neil’s got integrity beyond anybody,” he said. “He never compromised once in his career for anybody, sometimes to the displeasure of those around him.”
Despite being naturally gifted and much experienced, Nelson’s work with Young brought him and Promise of the Real to another level. “It lifts you up to be with somebody who inspires you,” he said.
Following his father’s and Young’s examples, maintaining his authenticity is a goal Nelson aspired to from the beginning of Promise of the Real, the band he formed 10 years ago.
“Promise of the Real, the name, is about keeping integrity in a business that tries to pull you away from who you are,” Nelson said. “The entertainment industry is full of people who don’t play the music they like because that music is not trendy; or their record labels tell them to play a certain type of music; or people don’t dress the way they want to because it’s not what’s happening.”
Lukas’ and Promise of the Real’s self-titled 2017 album is just what they wanted it to be. Featuring guests Lady Gaga and Willie and Bobbie Nelson, the album is also a second chance for songs Nelson believes didn’t receive the notice they deserved when they appeared on his previous albums. Examples include the genre-spanning yet instinctively Americana “Find Yourself”; the deep country-rock-soul ballad “Set Me Down on a Cloud”; and “Forget About Georgia,” an aching eight-minute lament to a love that left the singer’s life but won’t leave his heart.
“I know they’re good songs,” Nelson said of resurrected material he re-recorded for release through the Concord Music Group’s Fantasy Records. “So now they’re getting the attention they deserve.”
Better production is another difference between his new album and earlier recordings. “This is the first album we’ve done professionally,” Nelson said. “We recorded in a nice studio. We spent a pretty penny doing it. And we’re collaborating with a label for the first time. So, it is our first exposure to the larger world of music.”
Lady Gaga joins Nelson for two of the new album’s songs, “Find Yourself” and “Carolina.” Nelson and Gaga also co-wrote songs for the upcoming remake of the movie musical A Star is Born. Actor-director Bradley Cooper co-stars with Gaga in the film as her character’s lover and mentor. Scheduled for release in October, the film also features Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Nelson and Promise of the Real.
“Gaga is an incredible actor and Bradley is an incredible musician,” Nelson said. “Bradley sings in the movie. I wrote a bunch of the music with Gaga and on my own. I can’t wait to see what happens when it comes out.”
LUKAS NELSON & PROMISE OF THE REAL: FRIDAY, APRIL 27—GENTILLY STAGE, 3:30 P.M.