Like Father, Like Son
Andy Langer talks with Willie Nelson and his youngest son, Lukas, about "The Family," Willie's new album, and passing the torch.
On April 20, on Willie Nelson Boulevard outside of Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin, Willie Nelson witnessed the unveiling of an eight-foot, one-ton bronze rendering of his likeness. Perhaps because he’s too humble to ponder his own achievements, Nelson, 79, simply quipped, “I’ll be stoned one thousand years.”
The one aspect of his legacy Nelson’s isn’t shy about discussing is his children.
“Honestly, right now, playing onstage with my kids is the biggest thrill I can get,” said Nelson, who long ago titled his touring band “The Family,” an outfit that still includes his eighty-year old sister, Bobbie Nelson, on piano.
These days, a new generation of Nelsons is regularly sitting in with “The Family” and writing, recording and performing their own music. His youngest daughter, Amy, anchors an acoustic duo dubbed Folk Uke, and her older sister, Paula, is an Austin-based singer-songwriter. Willie’s son Micah, a musician, visual artist and videographer, plays regularly with his father, while Lukas, 23, leads Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, which recently released its sophomore set, “Wasted.”
On Heroes—a Willie Nelson studio album that hits stores Tuesday—Lukas is prominently featured on nine of the set’s fourteen tracks. The pair duet together on the record’s first radio single, a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”
Earlier this month Lukas and Willie discussed the family business in a phone conversation from Willie’s ranch in Spicewood.
With so many of the Nelson children pursuing music, does it feel like music is something you can pass along genetically?
WILLIE: I think it’s definitely in the DNA. I do believe there is power in the blood.
LUKAS: It seems like DNA might be part of it. But we grew up surrounded by music, so there’s an environmental factor too. My mother used to show me her music—he stuff she grew up on. That’s where I got the rock ’n’ and roll side. And then dad showed me everything from country to Django Reinhardt. It has to do with what you’re exposed to at a young age.
For any of the children, there has to be certain amount of pressure following in the footsteps of Willie Nelson.
LUKAS: I try not to pay attention to that. And the only place anybody talks about the notion of living up to this or that is in the media. It doesn’t exist anywhere in our family. People want to write about it because it might be a story that it’s challenge for me to live up to my dad. But I’m not really trying to. I’m just trying to hang out with him.
“Just Breathe” seems like a surprising song to cover until you hear your version and realize how fundamentally solid the song is. And I suppose it’s another case of Willie Nelson making a song his own.
LUKAS: It’s an all-around great, timeless song with simple lyrics that could have come from my dad if he were a grunge musician.
WILLIE: Great songs stand out whenever they’re from. “Stardust” was a good example of incredible songs I thought people should hear. I knew I had grown up listening to them and that there were other young people out there that would like them. And I know there are a lot of people my age that have never heard Pearl Jam or Coldplay. Now they’ll get a chance to enjoy them.
Lukas, is it crazy to you that there’s now a statue of your father in downtown Austin?
LUKAS: Isn’t there one in Nacogdoches too?
WILLIE: There is a statue of me on the cover of an album of mine called Nacogdoches. But the real statue isn’t of me. They just put my face on it for the artwork.
LUKAS: Oh. I grew up looking at the album covers and thinking that was real. But this Austin one is cool. I’m proud of him.
What kind of advice has been passed down from father to son?
LUKAS: I remember him telling me that when he went through rough times he’s repeated to himself: “Nothing but positive shall come to me. And nothing but positive shall go from me.” But most of what he’s shared is by example. He’s loyal and humble. And he surrounds himself with his family. That’s the most important thing — when you’re on the road, keep the people that really care about you close.
WILLIE: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had was from a guy that said, “Take my advice and do what you want to.” I’ve run with that one.
This may be a media construct, too, but when you hear Heroes and how many of the tracks you perform together, it’s almost as if we’re hearing the torch being passed.
WILLIE: I guess you could look at it that way. You could also look at it, as I do, that I’m just playing music with someone really good. He happens to be my kid. It makes it that much better for me. But torch passing? If that thought came up it probably came up many years ago when I realized that they were going to play music too. I told myself I wouldn’t push them, but I sure would help them.
LUKAS: My father has always helped musicians along their way. I’m not the only one. The torch has been passed many times over. And it will continue to be passed many times over.