Rising out of their fathers’ shadows, four talented young musicians come in to their own.
By Steve Uhler
What Would Willie’s Boys Do?
It’s called the Julian Lennon Syndrome— a peculiar malady visited on the sons of famous musicians. Symptoms include critics and audiences compulsively comparing the talents of the sons to the fathers. Notable cases include Julian and Sean Lennon, Ziggy Marley, and Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, twin sons of the late Ricky Nelson. Coincidently, it also afflicts another pair of siblings named Nelson: Lukas and Micah, heirs apparent to the kingdom of their dad, Willie.
On this particular day, the brothers are in a festive, rambunctious mood. It’s their dad’s 81st birthday, and later they’ll be celebrating by playing with him at his annual birthday party-cum-concert at The Backyard. Right now, though, they’re setting up shots at a photo shoot. Mugging, wrestling and trading quips, they’re driving the photographer to distraction, but having a good time.
Though only two years apart, Lukas and Micah Nelson don’t appear much alike. Twenty-five-year-old Lukas is compact and muscular, with a finely chiseled face and easygoing but outwardly wary demeanor that can effectively stave off the curious. When he speaks, the unmistakable inflections and twangs of his father’s voice pepper his conversation.
Younger brother Micah is tall and wiry, loose-limbed and loquacious with no discernible accent when he speaks, which he does with exceptional articulation and candor. On the surface, no one would assume they were brothers. Until someone brings up the subject of their dad. Then they blend in to one protective entity.
“I rarely tell people who I am ’cause it seems to make people act differently,” Lukas says. “I don’t mind introducing people to my father if they’re my friends, but I’m very protective of my family, of my dad’s privacy and my own.”
“There’s a lot of mosquitoes in the world,” Micah says. “It’s a small fraction of humanity, but when my brother and I were growing up in that world, we realized that when we met new people, it was better to have them get to know us for who we are, and respect and appreciate us as individuals before they knew who our family was. If our last name falls in to the picture, then a lot of times, there’s an agenda behind it. There’s a lot of fake people surrounding the music industry and entertainment business in general, people who just want to suck your blood and get what they can out of you.”
Both brothers are keenly aware of the unique position of having Willie Nelson as a father.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a textbook parent,” Micah says. “But he’s the greatest dad that anyone could ever have. Just by growing up around him and observing how he interacts with people and how he carries himself, the respect he shows for people and having that example to live by. He’s the best.”
“We have a family rule, which is don’t be an asshole. If you can master that, you’ll have a good time being alive,” Micah says.
“Our family doesn’t live the same way a lot of people do in terms of the kind of traditional values that some people would impose on others,” Lukas says. “We really believe that caring for others is the most important thing in the world. We forgive each other a lot of mistakes that we make because we understand that everybody’s got a light and a dark side, and those who pretend they don’t have a dark side are controlled by it. It’s the yin/yang thing. They both work together.”
The brothers were raised together, often spending summers on the road with their dad.
“We did a couple of tours with Bob Dylan,” Micah recounts. “My brother had picked up a guitar when he was about 10. I was younger, so I figured, ‘Well, I guess I’ll play drums.’ I was his rhythm section, basically. We learned by jamming with each other. That was a lot of our musical education, learning through observation and playing with each other.”
As time passed, each developed his own unique vision and talents, though they still collaborate frequently. Both brothers understand the slippery slope of celebrity, their father’s and their own.
“Whatever anybody thinks about me—or anybody else in the limelight—I’d caution them that you never truly know who they are; you never truly know why they do what they do,” Lukas says. “Like Miley Cyrus, for example. Everybody gives her a bad time. Nobody knows her the way she knows herself. When you’re in front of everybody, you’re never going to be safe from criticism. That’s just how it is. We’ve learned to deal with it.”
The two brothers’ respective artistic pursuits reflect their differences. Lukas is drawn to the grittier side of blues and country, and his finely honed guitar chops owe more than a little to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. He wrote his first song at 11, You Were It, which impressed his father so much that he recorded it. His band, Promise of the Real, has built a solid rep with audiences, tours constantly and has appeared on numerous late-night shows, including a memorable appearance on Letterman when Lukas’ glasses went flying off his head in mid-flail.
“I didn’t have ’em on tight enough,” he confesses. “Maybe I should’ve taped ’em to my head.”
“That’s kind of how I am,” he says. “I don’t like to be in one genre. I have no boundaries. The sky’s the limit. I’ve got 100 songs that I haven’t released or recorded yet, and they’re all in different styles.”
He lives to tour, calling the road his home.
“I’m in it for the rush, really,” he says candidly. “The rush of playing for people. It doesn’t matter if it’s 300 or 30,000, it’s the same. When the energy is flowing back and forth and everybody’s jumping up and down and dancin’…it’s like riding a big wave. Rock ’n’ roll, that’s what I love.”
While Lukas embraces the rowdier side of the musical spectrum, Micah is at once more introspective and diversified, taking his considerable talents beyond traditional song templates, incorporating animation, art, video and film in to his palette. His website is more of an interactive museum than a marketing tool, incorporating samples of his work. His animation and video work are particularly arresting, with surreal shades reminiscent of Edward Gorey and David Lynch.
“My mom will tell you some of the stuff I used to draw as a kid freaked her out,” he admits. “She brought in psychiatrists, thinking I may turn in to Jeffrey Dahmer or something. And they were like, ‘No, he’s just a creative dude. He’s OK.’ ”
His music is abstract and impressionistic, more informed by Brian Eno than Johnny Cash, and light years removed from his dad and brother’s. He’s also incredibly prolific, with a musical output that far outpaces his dad’s and his sibling’s, both as a solo artist and founder of his touring band, Insects vs. Robots. (When he tours alone, he’s sometimes billed as Particle Kid.) As a boy, he was heavily influenced by movie soundtracks.
“When I was in middle school, I’d get those CDs and be sitting at the bus stop listening to this music and seeing entire films inside my head,” Micah says.
“To me, they’re all kind of one and the same thing,” he says. “They all inform each other and complement each other. I’ll see a film or painting and I’ll have an entire concept album pop in to my head. Or I’ll hear a musical piece and a whole body of paintings will come to me. They’re symbiotically linked together, and I’m always trying to explore different ways to explore those links, just trying to find the links between all of our senses, the way we’re receiving and putting out information. They’re all from the same place somehow.”
Therein lies the key link in the Nelson brothers: the desire to explore new means of artistic expression, whether through a shredding guitar solo or a surreal film of seemingly random images. Lukas and Micah Nelson are taking their own paths on their own terms, just like their father did.
“My dad, to me, is like a f**king superhero,” Micah says. “His whole story of doing it his way and succeeding. I make much different music from my dad—from different worlds almost—but at the same time, I connect with him on a much different level because we’re both doing what makes sense to us, regardless of anyone’s expectations or what the end goal is. The end goal is right now.”
A Life in the Hood
As a rule, musicians aren’t crazy about Sunday gigs. Crowds can be sparse, money sparser. But most musicians aren’t like Warren Hood. So on a cool Sunday evening at Strange Brew Lounge, Hood is finessing a final sound check for his second gig of the day. By all accounts, he’s a compulsive performer. Longtime musical partner Willie Pipkin has known Hood since his boyhood.
“It’s just in his blood,” he says. “I don’t think he’d know what to do besides that. I don’t even think Warren’s ever had a job. Since he first picked up a fiddle, he’s been playing for a living.”
Still boyishly handsome at 31, Hood is the kind of casually charismatic performer that mothers want to feed, guys want to emulate, and girls want to, well, do what girls have wanted to do with musicians since Sinatra first stepped up to a microphone. In addition to his prodigious talents as a singer and songwriter, Hood has the unlikely ability to make the fiddle a seductively sexy instrument, spinning a dizzying reel one minute, strumming it like a guitar the next, swaying in time to the beat.
He can channel the swampy Louisiana chops of Doug Kershaw, the graceful jazz flights of Stéphane Grappelli and the classical virtuosity of Paganini, sometimes within the space of a single solo, skipping over genres like a pebble bouncing across Lake Travis. Sometimes, old timers will say, he looks just like his late father, the much-missed Austin icon, guitarist and singer Champ Hood.
Hood accepts the compliment just as graciously now as when he first heard it years ago as a boy. His dad sauntered in to Austin from Spartanburg, N.C., in 1973, and never really left. With bandmates Walter Hyatt and David Ball—collectively known as Uncle Walt’s Band—the trio blended country, jazz and folk in to a gumbo of good-time music that won rabid cult status locally but never achieved national success.
One devoted fan was a young journalism student named Lyle Lovett, who would go on to record a number of the band’s songs. When Uncle Walt’s Band broke up in 1983, Champ Hood stayed behind in his adopted hometown, settling in to a leisurely if not highly profitable life of being a sideman and session player. He also had a new son to look after, and he made sure their time together was special.
“Most of the time, we were fishing or camping or throwing a ball around,” Hood recalls. “He was very laid back. You know that old saying, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff’? Dad was definitely a believer in that, and that can be a double-edged sword. He seemed to be kind of content with just getting by, whereas I work pretty hard to try to keep a band together and book dates. He really had no drive to be a solo performer. He had done all that with Uncle Walt’s Band, and they had broken up around the time I was born.”
Hood inherited his father’s musical gifts, taking up classical violin as a boy. He impressed his teachers and peers as a prodigy, all the while subliminally soaking up the influences of being around his dad and his cronies.
“It comes from my early childhood, always being around that scene,” Hood says. “The people that were in bands with my dad, all these people that just like being around other people that enjoy music and positive vibes and good times. I think it’s half about the music and half about the sense of community.”
It was an idyllic boy’s life, until Champ Hood developed lung cancer, a condition that he took pains to conceal from friends, fans and family.
“My dad didn’t tell anyone about his illness,” Hood recalls. “Those of us close to him did not notice him getting thinner and losing his hair because it was gradual. I had noticed changes, but he would say he had surgery to remove some kidney stones and the pain medication made him not hungry. He had all kinds of excuses. I was 17, so I believed him.
He told me the truth at home one evening and was very lighthearted and funny about it. … He said he was going to beat it. It was only about a month or two before he died that he was so thin that there was no hiding it anymore. When word got out, it spread fast. Old friends traveled from far away to visit, and it was actually a very happy time.
He played shows up until his last days, and people gave him his space.
“The last thing a sick person wants to do is talk about being sick. It was a nonstop party for several days. I was given a pamphlet about what to expect those last two weeks, and it was very accurate. … I kind of wish I had not read that. He had the surge of energy mentioned in that pamphlet the three days leading up to his last. He did not sleep for three days and just visited with old friends and family, sitting on the porch drinking Shiner Bock. Then one night, he said, ‘I’m tired. I’m gonna hit the hay and I’ll see y’all tomorrow.’ He just didn’t wake up. He went very peacefully.”
In the wake of his father’s death, Hood was offered a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. He returned to Austin in 2004 a transformed artist.
“I felt like when I got back from Berklee, I was actually a worse player than before I went. You learn so much, it takes you about five years to decompress. … They kind of tore me in the ground and built me up from scratch. I didn’t know I had bad rhythm until I went there and they pointed out how bad it was. Then I became self-conscious about my rhythm.”
But the experience exposed the budding virtuoso to a new world of musical genres, styles and influences, especially jazz.
“I came back and played a gig with Bruce Robison and started playing some jazz,” he says, “and he looked at me like, ‘What was that?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. Berklee did it.’”
“From then on, I got in to blues and rock ’n’ roll and country. It’s all perspective and it all comes around. When I was 14, I’d rather hear Itzhak Perlman play a concerto than Bill Monroe. Now I think I’d rather hear Bill Monroe. I love ’em both.”
In addition to backing artists like Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris and old friend Lyle Lovett, Hood currently fronts his own band. While he’s in constant demand for festivals, tours and sessions, he prefers staying within the warm and welcoming embrace of his hometown, another predisposition he inherited from his dad.
“Austin is a great place to get stuck,” he says. “Just look at a map. It’s really far from anything in terms of national touring. It’s kind of like the Australia of music. You have all these weird little koala bears and kangaroos and strange creatures that you don’t see anywhere else. And they don’t leave. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out.”
The Gilmore Guys
Memories can be dicey reference points for the artistic process (see Taylor Swift for details), but they can also serve as a mother lode for the creative muse. Just ask Colin Gilmore. The Texas-bred singer-songwriter draws a lot of inspiration from his memories, and he has a wealth of material to draw from. He has the distinct advantage of being raised in Lubbock, the small Texas burg with something in the water that has managed to produce an impressively inordinate number of musical artists, from Buddy Holly to Natalie Maines. And, of course, the Flatlanders: Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Colin’s dad, Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
“In hindsight, so many of the songs I write now, I won’t even think about it, but it’ll be a piece of a melody from something I heard when I was young,” Gilmore says. “The group of people and the setting in Lubbock was something that was out of this world—the social climate there, plus the scenery and what this whole gang of people was like. That shaped me in ways I had no idea of at the time. Years later, I looked back on it and all the traveling that I’ve done since becoming a musician. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Asked if he remembers his very first self-penned composition, he laughs.
“It depends on how you define a song,” he says. “I remember coming up with pieces of songs in my head when I was about 6 years old. Even younger than that, my mom tells me, I’d start singin’ all this nonsense and jumping up and down.”
Somewhere along the way, Gilmore began to realize that his dad was, well, different. “It happened in stages,” he says. “The first time I saw he was getting any attention outside of the family in Lubbock was when I saw him on the news. And I was like, ‘My dad was on the news!’ I remember when he did the single for Mudhoney. I was in high school and got to put up flyers for it. I got to meet Natalie Merchant, who sang with my dad. Then seeing him on Letterman. … It happened so incrementally that it wasn’t like one moment where it was like, ‘Oh my god, my dad’s famous!’ It happened bit by bit.”
The journey from impressionable young kid surrounded by elder musical pickers on the porch to respected singersongwriter was not without its potholes and detours, many attributable to the inevitably traumatic art of just growing up. Gilmore’s first dip in to the musical pool was as a member of a punk band in high school, a development that sometimes perplexed his more musically conservative dad.
“I don’t know if he knew quite what to think because the music I listened to at that time was abrasive and would just irritate people,” he remembers. “I’d force him to listen to things he would never have listened to otherwise, and sometimes it was like fingernails on a chalkboard to him. I made him listen to live Sex Pistol tapes, which were horrible. They were intentionally horrible. Then one day, I played him Slayer, and he almost seemed relieved. He was like, ‘I can actually hear the notes these guys are playing and sometimes I can actually make out what he’s saying.’ ”
Gilmore gradually turned his creative vision toward a more refined and traditional approach to musical storytelling. During the course of endless road trips, opening slots and bar gigs, he began honing his own unique persona and songwriting craft. His lyrics became less angry and more reflective. His voice grew more confident, a distinct hybrid with echoes of his father’s Flatland tenor with a dash of Greenwich-era Bob Dylan added to the mix. Eventually, his father began noticing his son’s unique gifts.
“I knew he loved guitar from an early age, but I didn’t know he had a talent for writing until he already had a number of songs,” the elder Gilmore recalls. “My wife, Janet, is very close to Colin. We remember seeing him play at the Green Mesquite on Barton Springs Road in what might have been his first official gig. Somewhere in to the set, Janet turned to me and said, ‘He was actually listening all that time!’ ”
Gilmore’s debut LP, 2004’s The Day The World Stopped and Spun the Other Way, impressed critics and audiences with its rootsy blend of country, rock and finely crafted imagery. While actively pursuing his own solo career, Gilmore also frequently appears onstage with his dad, sometimes as an opening act for the Flatlanders, but often it’s just the two of them huddling over a single microphone. Audiences invariably note the symbiotic musical chemistry, the mystical osmosis of sharing the same melodic DNA.
“I love playing with Colin because his sense of rhythm and harmony are so strong, much more so than mine,” his dad says. “And he seems to have been born with a calm stage presence. I learned to get over stage fright, but Colin never appeared to have it.”
Being the son of a musical icon can carry plenty of baggage, both light and heavy. Jimmie Dale Gilmore is well aware of the mixed blessing he’s passed on to his son.
“It might open some doors, but it can also place strange obstacles,” he says. “Unwarranted comparisons and prejudgment about style or taste can sometimes cause people to miss what is really unique and original.”
“There’s definite upsides,” Gilmore says. “Being the son of who my dad is, I got to hear him sing all my life and got to be around that spirit and essence that he brings to performing and songwriting. Also, it’s opened a lot of doors that otherwise wouldn’t be open. Part of the downside is that as far as it lifts you up, there’s also a ceiling there. I’ve been to shows where I’ve opened for the Flatlanders or my dad, and people come up to me afterward and said, ‘We were surprised you were actually good. We were expecting you to be bad.’ Sometimes they set the bar pretty low.”
Now closing in on 40, Colin Gilmore is no longer an up-and-comer; he’s a seasoned road veteran with his own singular sense of style and delivery. His most recent release, last year’s critically lauded The Wild and Hollow, reflects a hard-won self-assurance and maturity while retaining rock ’n’ roll roots. At this point in his career, Gilmore has a seasoned perspective that matches his talent.
Gilmore’s most recent LP may have been recorded with two different producers in two vastly different locales (Chicago and Austin), but it has a cohesiveness that belies its origins. The Austin American-Statesman raved, “Colin Gilmore uncorks deep feelings… while never letting the bubbles go flat.” The record features the catchy single Into My Future, and the rousing Nick Loweesque closer, Raging Eyes. colingilmore.com
One of several digital EPs released under Nelson’s alter ego nom de plume, Particle Kid, this short but evocative sound canvas summons the mystic guitar vibes of Steve Tibbetts, and The Astronaut Song skirts traditional progression with its guitar and accordion pas de deux—the closest this experimental piece gets to mainstream. jmicahnelson.com
Even though his latest LP, The Warren Hood Band, is more polished and diverse, Hood’s earlier self-titled CD showcases the young virtuoso fiddler singer-songwriter’s vast canvas in a more intimate, cozier setting. It includes the beautiful and wistful Savannah, the Chet Baker-influenced I Will Never and Black Cat, Hood’s warp-factor-two selfcomposed showcase for his fiddle chops, which is always a show stopper at his live shows. warrenhood.com
From the snaky blues of Four Letter Word, to the evocative and haunting Don’t Lose Your Mind, Nelson’s debut recording mixes DIY garage-band ethos with impressive guitar chops and lyrics peppered with dry humor. (“It’s only been two years and she already hates my dog.”) It includes heavy influences by Neil Young and SRV, and guest vocals by some old geezer named Willie on a couple of cuts. promiseofthereal.com
Photos by Andrew Chan and Danny Clinch