Lukas Nelson is Stepping out of His Father’s Shadow with Promise of the Real

October 5th, 2017

Soon after, Young enlisted the group, as well as Nelson’s brother Micah—a guitarist who performs with the band Insects vs Robots—to help him record The Monsanto Years, on which the veteran rocker railed against socially destructive forces ranging from corporate greed to cultural homogenization to the use of GMOs. The band came off the album’s tour charged up and ready to make a new disc of their own. “There’s something about our band now,” Nelson says. “It has more grit. I think it just comes from playing live with Neil and being around his energy.”

Nelson contributes much of that grit with his guitar tones. His main instrument is a sunburst 1956 Les Paul Junior that he acquired through Young’s guitar tech, Larry Cragg. Aside from replacement tuners, it’s all original. “I first saw it, and bought it, at TRI, which is Bob Weir’s studio in San Rafael.” Nelson’s other guitars include several Gibson handmade reissues—a second Les Paul Junior, a pair of Les Paul Standards, and a Les Paul Special—and four Fender Stratocasters, all of which he plays through new Magnatone reissue amps. He also has a Rockbridge acoustic whose model designation he can’t recall. “I’m not really a gear head, to be honest,” he admits. “I’m not into pedals; I don’t know what models my gear is.” When it comes to choosing a guitar, he has a simple formula: “If it’s pretty, I like it,” he says. “If it sounds good, I love it.”

Listeners who discovered Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real through The Monsanto Years might expect them to carry a banner for social justice. In reality, most of the songs on their new album are about love and loss, presented in a range of emotions and attitudes. “Forget About Georgia” recounts a doomed love affair with a woman named Georgia whom Nelson met in San Francisco. At the time he wrote it, he was touring with his father and had to suffer performing “Georgia on My Mind” each night on the road—“which made it literally impossible to forget about her,” he says.

Tragedy was the source for “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” the album’s gorgeously cinematic opening track. Though it could be interpreted as a love song, Nelson wrote it for a friend who lost a child. “They were in their driveway, and they accidentally ran over their own three-year-old daughter,” Nelson relates. He met the family a year after the accident, when they came to one of his shows. “The next day, I got a five-page handwritten letter from this woman. She told me what had happened, and she said that my show was the first time she’d been able to feel anything positive since that had happened. She asked me to write a song about it, and so I did. And that was ‘Set Me Down on a Cloud.’ ”

And then there’s “Runnin’ Shine,” a generational anthem about doing what it takes to stay alive in changing times. “The phrase ‘runnin’ shine’ could mean so many things,” Nelson says. “It’s just about doing what you wanna do in life, and it’s about being true to yourself, and it’s about family tradition. There’s so many themes there.”

The song is about as close as Nelson gets to a topical subject. “We speak our mind about what we think is right,” he says. “But what I like to say in my songs is said in a more subtle, non-accusatory way. Right now I’m writing a lot about love and letting go, and things that I was going through the last couple of years. Eventually, maybe I’ll write some kind of ‘protest record,’ but it’s not gonna be deliberately that way. It’s just gonna be what comes out.”

For now, Nelson and his group are spending a lot of time on the road and looking forward to the release of A Star Is Born. And then there’s the new Neil Young record he and Promise of the Real just wrapped up in mid August. “It’s gonna blow everybody’s mind,” Nelson says. “I mean, The Monsanto Years was like a call to arms. This is a real studio record that’s really well recorded. We did it at [Rick Rubin’s] Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The songs are just incredible.

“So that’s gonna come out at some point, and I know Neil will wanna tour. And then the movie will come out. So the next year should be pretty interesting.”

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