If prospective employers were to review Lukas Nelson’s work history, they’d likely be struck by its diversity. Aside for his job as frontman for Promise Of The Real, he has ongoing experience as Neil Young’s bandleader and guitarist. That dream gig began in 2014, when Young jammed with Promise of the Real at Farm Aid 2014, which led to the 2015 album The Monsanto Years and an open-ended designation as his post-Crazy Horse backup unit.
Last year, there was Nelson’s ridiculously fruitful collaboration with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on A Star Is Born. He co-wrote and co-produced a large chunk of the film’s Oscar-winning soundtrack. Oh, and that’s him and Promise Of The Real on stage with Cooper’s Jackson Maine, a character Nelson helped cultivate. “I’m big on learning—that’s for sure,” says Nelson of his varied experiences. “If it fits with my vibe, I’ll go for it.”
And then there’s the family legacy angle. The 30-year-old Hawaii native is the son of ageless country icon Willie Nelson. The two continue to be close, professionally and otherwise. Dad plays guitar on “Mystery” and makes an appearance on the final verse of “Civilized Hell,” both standout tracks on his son’s fifth full-length release, Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), out now on Fantasy Records. “It’s perfect,” says Nelson of his relationship with his father, offering nothing more.
Willie isn’t that only one on the album’s impressive guest list, which also includes Neil Young, Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, Kesha, Shooter Jennings, Lucius, Randy Houser, brother Micah Nelson and others. But never once does Turn Off The News sound like someone else’s album, partly because Nelson has come up with his most focused batch of songs yet. The other reason is Promise Of The Real, who’ve grown into a versatile and enthusiastic sounding board for their leader’s thoroughly engrained inclination to blur the multigenerational lines between rock, country, pop and R&B.
It’s hard to find a more compelling argument for Nelson’s growth as a songwriter than “Bad Case.” Available here as a free download, the album’s leadoff track is an inspired bit of Tom Petty-inspired déjà vu that deserves to be a hit—for whatever that’s worth these days. “I wrote it three years ago in Ireland, and it’s been through a lot of iterations since then,” says Nelson. “It’s about that whole concept of wanting what you don’t have.”
Turn Off The News’ overall polish and focus belies the fact that it was recorded in fits and spurts during brief breaks between tours. Working out of two studios in Nelson’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles, the group managed to record 30 songs, 11 of which made the album. As for a unifying theme, that’s fairly apparent. “There’s this sort of sinister matrix we’re being assimilated into with our phones and our news and everything,” says Nelson. “I think people are waking up to the fact they need to balance technology with reality. ‘Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)’—I was talking to myself when I wrote that.”