Early this year, I happened to catch Lukas Nelson And Promise Of The Real (POTR) on David Letterman. I was half asleep and bored with the previous guests. I don’t even remember who they were. But then the first chords to “Four Letter Word” blared out of my TV, immediately blowing the sand out of my eyes. Nelson and POTR grabbed the stage, throttled it, tore it down, and stomped on it. He soloed so hard, his glasses flew off his face. Simply put, they ran off with the Letterman show. They drove it like they stole it. Don’t believe me? Youtube it and try to prove me wrong.
In the past couple of years, Nelson and POTR have opened for B.B. King, John Fogerty, and Dave Matthews Band. He is quickly making his mark as THE up-and-coming guitar virtuoso. In concert, he plays his guitar behind his back. He plays it with his teeth. He makes it scream, testify, and whisper sweet nothings. He also happens to write a pretty mean country song. Hide your women.
All of which makes this interview a study in contrasts. In concert, he does everything except set his guitar on fire and throw it out a plate glass window. In conversation, Lukas is quiet and reserved, a man of few words.
Michael: Where are you today?
Lukas: I’m in Hawaii.
Michael: You lucky dog. I’m in Kentucky and it’s 55 degrees, man.
Lukas: I’m sorry to hear that, buddy.
Michael: It’ll get better. Thank you for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.
Lukas: Hey, thank you. No problem.
Michael: The gig in Bowling Green (SKyPAC, Jan. 19)…I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but it’s completely sold out. And I think they went in about 20 minutes.
Lukas: Is it? All right. Well, that’s great, man. Good to know.
Michael: You’re playing a show this weekend at Charley’s?
Lukas: Yeah, over in Maui.
Michael: And I understand that’s sold out, too.
Lukas: Yeah, that one sold out pretty quick, too.
Michael: I’m sensing a pattern.
Lukas: (laughing) I hope so.
Michael: So tell me where the name ‘Promise Of The Real’ came from. What’s the origin of that?
Lukas: Well, you know, we’re actually shortening the name to just POTR. So just the acronym. And it comes from just our promise to ourselves to be real, you know? To have integrity and stay that way as a band. To stay true to who we are. Really, that’s just for us. So we’re going to change the name to just POTR.
Michael: I was trying to explain to somebody the other day what you all sounded like and I was having a little trouble with it. But if you take Crazy Horse and The Grateful Dead and a blues influence, throw it all up in the air…that’s pretty close.
Lukas: Yeah, pretty close. You’re right. That’s a good one.
Michael: Who would you say your influences are? Your biggest influences?
Lukas: Well, there’s three of them. And my Dad and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles. And The Beatles, Elton John. I mean, the list goes on and on. Eric Clapton. Kris Kristofferson. You know, all those guys. Neil Young And Crazy Horse.
Michael: You got me with Neil Young. I’m the biggest Neil Young fan on earth.
Lukas: Oh, great, man. We have that in common, then. He’s one of my favorites, too.
Michael: Have you heard ‘Psychedelic Pill’ yet?
Lukas: Yeah, I have. It’s great. I love all the long songs.
Michael: The first track is like 28 minutes long, but it doesn’t seem like 28 minutes. It seems like 2 minutes.
Lukas: Yeah. I love it.
Michael: You have a favorite Neil record?
Lukas: I really like ‘Sleeps With Angels’, actually.
Michael: That is my favorite Neil record. That is it.
Lukas: ‘Sleeps With Angels’ or ‘Tonight’s The Night’. Those are two of my favorites.
Michael: I like ‘Ragged Glory’ a lot. Generally, the grungier the better, you know?
Lukas: Yeah, that’s a good one. I like that grunge.
Michael: I saw you playing Farm Aid with Neil and that must have been a thrill.
Lukas: it was a great thrill, yeah. He’s kind of become a mentor to me. He and I wrote a song together. It’s called ‘A Song She’s Livin’’. He’s been playing it live. I’m hoping he’ll put it on a record or something. But he’s been doing it with Crazy Horse when they go out.
Michael: That is great. I did not know that.
Lukas: Yeah, he’s had the band [POTR] over at his Bridge School concert a bunch of times. We’ve done it now a couple of years in a row. We do Farm Aid and then we do Bridge School.
Michael: Well, I have a Neil Young story. I went to the Farm Aid show in 1995. And of course, those things last all day, you know. And the girl I was with at the time wanted to see Hootie And The Blowfish. And I wanted to see Neil. And of course, Neil goes on last. He was doing his acoustic set, complete with the pump organ. I looked over about the second song and this chick I was with was asleep.
Lukas: Oh, man…
Michael: That just really hurt my heart. So needless to say, I never called her again. I’m very serious about my Neil Young fandom.
Lukas: Me, too, man. If you don’t like Neil, I don’t like you.
Michael: That’s exactly right. I don’t care how pretty you are, that’s a deal breaker.
Lukas: Yeah. It’s a deal breaker, for sure.
Michael: Neil has a voice that takes a while to get used to. And I’m pretty sure you’ve heard that about yourself, too. Were you always comfortable with your singing voice?
Lukas: No, not at all. But I’m always getting better, you know?
Michael: I’ve been sitting here watching your Letterman performance of ‘Four Letter Word’ and…did I see your glasses fly off your face?
Lukas: Yeah, I just got into it and they flew off.
Michael: So what’s going through your head when you’re soloing like that? It looks trance-like.
Lukas: Yeah, it is. It’s fun, you know? Nothing’s going through my head. I’m just having fun.
Michael: Soloing is like…disappearing inside yourself and being grounded at the same time.
Lukas: Exactly. That’s a good way of putting it.
Michael: So I understand you left college early. Where were you going, anyway?
Lukas: I was going to Loyola Marymount University in L.A.
Michael: Did Mom and Dad cut you off when you quit?
Lukas: I cut myself off. They didn’t cut me off. I just said I didn’t really need anything from them; I wanted to kind of go on my own terms and be my own person.
Michael: That’s admirable.
Michael: Where are you living now? Hawaii?
Lukas: Yeah, I’m here most of the time. When I can be.
Michael: I thought maybe you’d be living on the bus. That kind of runs in the family.
Lukas: Well, I do. That’s the thing. I play 250 shows a year, so I’m mostly on the bus. When I’m home, I’m here in Maui.
Michael: What’s the best piece of advice your Dad has given you?
Lukas: Just to stay grounded and keep family around you and always stay positive, you know?
Michael: Opening up for your Dad, some of these audiences may not be expecting what they’re getting ready to hear.
Lukas: Well, I’ve been doing an acoustic thing, opening up for my Dad lately. And it’s been really going well. It’s been really fun. We’ve been getting standing ovations every night, so it’s great.
Michael: Are you doing the same material acoustic?
Lukas: A little bit different. I’ve been writing a lot, so I’ve got some new songs that I’m putting out there.
Michael: Are you doing the one you wrote with Neil?
Lukas: No, I haven’t done that one yet, but I’m doing some that I wrote while I was with Neil. And one I wrote for Poncho, Crazy Horse’s guitar player. He’s a good friend of mine, so we’ve been hanging out and emailing back and forth. I wrote a song for him and his girl Ipo. They all live in Hawaii, too.
Michael: Can you tell me about the song ‘Fathers And Mothers’? That’s the one I really like most off of that first record.
Lukas: Thanks. I mean, it’s pretty self-explanatory. I wrote it for Christmas, actually, and I gave it to both of them. I just thought it would be a nice gesture to them.
Michael: Did it make mama cry?
Lukas: Yeah, both of them.
Michael: Good. You achieved something there.
Lukas: Yeah, absolutely.
Michael: Did Bob Dylan ask you to be in his band?
Lukas: He did at one point, yeah.
Michael: And you didn’t do it.
Lukas: No, I was young and I was still working on my band and getting ourselves together and I didn’t want to work for anybody else, even if it was Bob Dylan. I was…happy doing my own thing.
Michael: Isn’t that kind of a compliment to him, though? The lesson I get from Dylan is ‘You do it your way. Take your own path.’
Lukas: Absolutely. I was talking to Neil about it, actually. We were sitting down discussing [it]. I said, ‘You know, once that happened, I felt like if Dylan wants me to play, I must be doing something right. So I might as well keep doing my thing, you know?’ And Neil said maybe he just asked you so that you would…feel that, you know? And I thought maybe he did.
Michael: Almost like he was testing you. To see if you could take it.
Lukas: Yeah, exactly.
Michael: It’s a compliment from him to you. What are you listening to right now? You’re driving down the road on the bus, what do you put on the iPod or CD player?
Lukas: I listen to Elton John’s Pandora Radio right now. A lot of great music on there.
Michael: A lot of people say “I like Elton John in the 70s, but nothing since”, but there’s a lot of great Elton John stuff in every single decade.
Lukas: Yeah, he’s just a legend. And on the Pandora [station], they put a lot of great Beatles and George Harrison and the Eagles…just some all around great songs on that station, so I like to listen to that.
Michael: How many POTR CDs are there now? I have ‘Wasted’ and the self-titled one.
Lukas: We have a live record out now. It’s just really, really good. And then we have the EP we put out first, ‘Brando’s Paradise’. That’s a good one. You ought to pick that up, if you don’t have it.
Michael: Is that digital only?
Lukas: We have vinyl. [And] We have vinyl of the second record, ‘Wasted’.
Michael: I was listening to ‘Heroes’ the other day and I have to tell you my favorite song on the whole thing is ‘No Place To Fly’. There are great songs on that record, but you take the prize.
Lukas: Thank you very much, man. I appreciate it.
Michael: Tell me about that one. Where did that come from?
Lukas: We were traveling around in an RV, and I was missing my girl, and I sat down and I was thinking about a song to write…and I just wrote that one.
Michael: Very poetic.
Michael: Was it your idea to do a Pearl Jam song?
Lukas: Yes, it was.
Michael: Are you a big Pearl Jam fan?
Lukas: I am. I’m a big, big Pearl Jam fan. And Eddie Vedder fan, too.
Michael: When you took that [‘Just Breathe’] to your Dad, did he go “Um…really?”
Lukas: No, he thought it was a great song, just like we all did.
Michael: Have you ever taken a song to him and have him go “No, I’m not doing this”?
Lukas: No, not really. If it doesn’t happen, usually it just…doesn’t happen.
Michael: I always like to ask this question. You’re on a desert island…or the house is burning down and you can grab two or three records, what are those favorite records you take with you?
Lukas: Probably ‘Exile On Main Street’ or ‘Beggar’s Banquet’. ‘Stardust’ or ‘Red Headed Stranger’. And probably a Beatles record, maybe. ‘Abbey Road’.
Michael: What’s in the works right now? Are you writing songs?
Lukas: Oh yeah, I’m always writing. Always writing.
Michael: Can you see that next record in your mind?
Lukas: Oh, I’ve got it all ready to go. I just have to get in the studio and do it.
Michael: So there’s a backlog.
Lukas: Yeah, a lot of songs.
Michael: Well, I’m really looking forward to the gig in January.
Lukas: Thanks, man. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it, too.
Michael: Do me a favor and tell your Mom and Dad and and everybody else Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, etc.
Lukas: I will. I’ll do that. Thank you, buddy.
You can get POTR records at the usual online retailers or go to:
Lukas Nelson and POTR will open up Willie Nelson’s SKyPAC show on January 19. (Oh, I almost forgot. Willie Nelson is Lukas’ dad. I may have neglected to mention that earlier.) If you don’t have tickets, you’re shit out of luck. It sold out a long time ago. If you have tickets, get a bodyguard.
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.