Music Interview: Lukas Nelson on the Rollicking and Rowdy “Sticks and Stones”

By Scott McLennan

Count on Lukas Nelson + POTR to approach whatever they perform with conviction.

If Lukas Nelson is looking for a theme song, I suggest he use “Don’t Fence Me In.”

That song’s expression of the need to roam the range suits Nelson’s artistic drive to do without a prescribed playbook. And there is something fitting in the fact that one of country music’s most recognizable songs was not written by a cowpoke at the campfire — but by Cole Porter, drawing on poet Bob Fletcher’s words to hammer out a tune in 1934 for a Warner Brothers musical. That movie never got made, yet by the mid-’40s the song has been recorded by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Kate Smith, and Gene Autrey, finally emerging as a Country and Western standard, embraced for decades to come by vocalists from other genres.

Nelson’s work reflects the same sort of playful fluidity. His latest album, Sticks and Stones, tips toward the rollicking and rowdy, while its predecessor, A Few Stars Apart, was more of a contemplative, “songwriter’s” record.

Reached by phone after late-September performances at TD Garden in Boston and Madison Square Garden in New York — opening for and sitting in with the Tedeschi Trucks Band — Nelson spoke about his very intentional stylistic leaps and bounds.

“No matter what kind of music you play, there is not one kind of song for that style. It’s not like there is one kind of rap song, or one kind of jazz song,” Nelson said.

Accordingly, don’t look to him to play any one kind of country song or any one kind of rock song when Nelson and his razor-sharp band Promise of the Real (now sort of officially shortened to POTR) return to Boston on Nov. 21, for a show at Royale.

But do count on Nelson + POTR to approach whatever they perform with conviction. Through six albums, a handful of EPs, and countless shows since its inception in 2008, the group has taken to flaunting a variety of stylistic twists, but you can’t say that this crew is blithely chasing trends.

Yes, the new Sticks and Stones album has its fair share of songs about getting wasted, its tracks packed with lots of references to booze, drugs, and the questionable decisions that inevitably follow imbibing such substances. But you would be making a mistake to lump these tunes into the omnipresent “bro country” sound that’s currently dominating popular country radio and pop music in general.

In fact, it would be hard to slot these songs into Outlaw Country’s classic canon of bad behavior penned by Nelson’s dad Willie Nelson and his “uncles” Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

Nelson + POTR occupy a space all their own, which is a blessing and a curse when it comes to getting your music out there.

Other artists have taken considerable notice of Nelson and POTR’s distinctive approach. Neil Young used them as his backing band for a few years. Nelson wrote music with Lady Gaga for the film A Star is Born and served as consultant on the movie. POTR performed as the backing band to Bradley Cooper’s country star character.

Concerts make converts, so it is a merit that Nelson + POTR excel on stage. The band can throw down a nasty jam, soar on a ballad, and will crank up a dance party without seeming to be scattered in the process. They have established concert staples such as “Forget About Georgia,” “Set Me Down on A Cloud,” and “Something Real,” plus new songs “Icarus” and “All Four Winds” that seem like naturals to linger in the setlist for tours to come. And, when the mood hits, Nelson will do a song or two by his dad, whom he toured with for several years.

Lukas Nelson + POTR. Photo: Shervin Lainez

Nelson can certainly hit a memorable mark on record as well. The new song “More Than Friends” is a tale of troubled hearts and features rising star Lainey Wilson in a performance that builds on the sound of classic country male/female vocal blending.

“This band can do anything, and we love that freedom,” Nelson said.

And he is taking advantage of that freedom to reach listeners directly; the singer/songwriter is releasing songs routinely via social media platforms. Nelson’s posted three songs on Instagram since early October, each a solo performance. The renditions are somewhat raw — it is obvious he is working through the tunes — yet still emotionally resonant. Nelson told me that he has about seven albums worth of material, but the days of artists releasing one or two records a year are long gone.

Nelson + POTR came into the second leg of its tour for Sticks and Stones energized by the response the band received at arena shows opening for the Tedeschi Trucks Band. In addition to doing his own well-received sets, Nelson sat in on guitar for a special version of the Allmans’ “Blue Sky” in Boston. In New York he added his guitar to a raging version of “Layla” that TTB performed with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. Nelson then covered Leon Russell’s “Song For You,” performed as a haunting duet with Susan Tedeschi.

“Shows like that are what artists like me live for,” Nelson said.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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