Lukas Nelson could have been resentful. He could have rejected this life. He could have rejected music, the thing that so often took his father away when he was growing up. But that’s not the direction he went. He believes it’s because he spent so much time as a teen figuring out his identity, building his inner strength. He read the Bible, but he also read about eastern philosophies, meditating, and dharma.
“Discovering, thinking, contemplating life was a big part of my existence back then,” he says. “I did have a lot of pain. My brother [Billy, Willie’s oldest son] killed himself when I was young, and so that caused an explosion of negative energy and pain and resentment in my whole family. I grew up with the aftermath of that.” He pauses as he thinks about his childhood. “I could feel that there was a lot of heaviness going on.”
As he talks about these things, it’s with a certain remove, a peace. He doesn’t seem emotional. He simply understands the world the way it is.
“It wasn’t all roses, being in the Nelson family,” he tells me. “It never has been. Dad came from nothing, and he had his families. He had three wives before my mother, and it’s not always been easy. All I knew how to do was say, ‘OK, how am I going to just survive in the world? I got to look inward; I can’t look outward because outward changes all the time.’”
He liked surfing and skateboarding, what he calls “the Maui lifestyle.” At one point, he contemplated training to be an Olympic swimmer. But ultimately, as a young teenager, he decided music would be his life, too. “I chose at a very early age what I wanted to do, based on my knowledge of the opportunities that I had,” he says. “I wanted to definitely take advantage of those opportunities when I was young and really capitalize on everything. People would kill to have the opportunities that I had. Somebody might be an excellent musician and still might not have the doors open to him or her. I realized how many doors were open.”
From that moment on, music was always on his mind. He and his younger brother, Micah, were in bands together in high school. Lukas practiced for eight to 10 hours a day, every day. Because he knew he had to.
“Otherwise, people are going to say, ‘He had everything given to him,’” he says.
When he was 14, he started playing shows with his dad. By the time he was around 16, Bob Dylan wanted to take Lukas on tour. His parents didn’t tell him that until after they turned Dylan down. They wanted Lukas to finish high school instead.
After graduating high school, he moved to L.A. to go to Loyola Marymount University. After two years, he dropped out and formed a band. They called themselves Promise of the Real, a reference to an old Neil Young lyric. (The band’s current lineup consists of LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Corey McCormick, and Logan Metz.) It was around then that Nelson decided to cut himself off financially from his family.
“I realized I needed to go out and really dig, dig, dig deep and find my own truth in music, and find my own calling,” he says.
For years, the band took every gig it could get. Think loud bars, opening slots, tens of thousands of miles on the road, a self-produced album that didn’t get much attention. Then another that did a little better. Then better slots, better money, shows all over the world, festivals like Farm Aid 25.
The same way that Lukas, when he was a kid, would study various religions and philosophies, picking and choosing what he found useful, he and his band seem to pull from a mix of iconic musical influences. Some guitar solos sound like they could have been on a Hendrix or Doors album. Some riffs evoke Mungo Jerry. Some songs sound like vintage Willie. The song “Forget About Georgia” sounds like a sequel to the elder Nelson’s famous cut of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind.”
In 2012, Lukas sang and played guitar in three songs on his dad’s album, Heroes, and their keening nasal baritones twirled and harmonized throughout. Then Neil Young—who headlined the original Farm Aid with Willie in 1985—asked Lukas and his band to record an album and play some shows with him. Then a few more. Then Promise of the Real became Neil Young’s regular backing band. It still is. Lukas says Young reminds him of his father in a lot of ways. He sees “similarities between their souls.”
In fall 2016, the band played with Young at the Desert Trip festival in Indio, California. Other performers there included Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, and The Who. (The music website Stereogum dubbed the festival “Oldchella.”)
Desert Trip is also where Bradley Cooper spotted Lukas on stage. Cooper was in preproduction for A Star Is Born, his directorial debut, in which he plays a hard-drinking-and-drugging, gravelly voiced country star named Jackson Maine. Cooper reached out through Woody Harrelson, a longtime friend of the Nelson family. After making contact, Cooper asked Lukas if he could coach him on the nuances of stage presence.