When you have a musical legacy like the Nelson family, it’s hard not to follow in its footsteps.
But while some scions with famous last names try to hide from the family legacy, the Nelson brothers are more than happy to remember their father and Nelson’s three generations of No. 1 hits. Twin brothers Matthew and Gunnar Nelson will honor their father with the show Ricky Nelson Remembers at the Gallo Center for the Arts on Jan. 11.
The production is a musical and visual tribute to their father, Ricky Nelson, the only artist in history to have a No. 1 song, No. 1 movie and No. 1 TV show (“Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”) at the same time. He died in a plane crash in 1985. About a decade ago his sons, who had their own successful multiplatinum-selling career in the early 1990s and their own No. 1 hit with “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” began performing their father’s music.
The idea came after years of people asking to hear some of his hit, from “Travelin’ Man” to “Hello Mary Lou.” But the brothers always wanted to keep their career and father’s separate. But then about 10 years ago Ricky Nelson’s record label asked them to do a commemorative show for a box set in his memory.
“It went so well the idea for Ricky Nelson Remembered was born,” Gunnar Nelson said. That first collaboration has evolved into a full production with multimedia and video, along with Matthew and Gunnar playing their father’s greatest hits.
The Bee spoke with Gunnar about their father’s success, their own music and their family legacy recently.
Growing up with such a famous father and last name in general, when did you know you wanted to follow in their footsteps in the business and what challenges/advantages did that pose?
It was great for us because music was always around the house. It’s like any family business, if you grow up around it it’s great social proof that you can do it, as well. Any son wants to be like Dad, and my dad always had a guitar in hand. We got our first instruments at 6 years of age and we were taking it seriously since then. For me what was great was it helped in a sense in that we did have proof around us that achieving in music at the highest level was possible.
But in Los Angeles, I do think it was harder for us to get a record deal and be taken seriously at first. A lot of record executives keep their jobs by not making decisions. When it comes time to put their neck on the block, a lot of record executives excel at not being at that meeting. For us, we were a high-profile signing. So it was hard to find that first person to risk their career to sign us. We were told no by every record company in L.A. like five times.
But of course, you went on to succeed as artists on your own. What did mean to you to be able to have your own No. 1 single outside of your family’s shadow?
It was somewhat bittersweet because my dad was not alive to be present for that success. But it was really his advice given to us as kids that allowed us to be able to do what we did. He told us to be songwriters. And that’s what we did. We were playing the L.A. circuit at 12 and had a record deal at 18. He would have been proud we wrote songs and our No. 1.
Did fans ever ask to hear your father’s music, when you were starting and in the midst of your own careers?
No, it wasn’t until later. The fact is we were blessed enough to sell 10 million records to kids who had no idea who Ricky Nelson was. It was only their mothers or the interviewers who knew about him at that time. Kids didn’t know or didn’t care. It wasn’t until after we had established ourselves and spent 10 years on the road that we began hearing that. And by then we were more comfortable with our place in music history and our place as a family. If we had done something like this before (our own success) it would have been something seen as taking advantage, not celebratory.
This is a show we do because we love to and want to, not because we have to. This show is put together with care and love.
What it is about your dad that made him such a singular music phenomenon at the time?
He had really good instinct, both in selecting his songs and in putting his band together. The project he put together in the beginning was so well done and it is important to note this was at a time when record companies didn’t have rock ’n’ roll producers. He was pretty much on his own. He picked all these incredible songs. Then when everything changed in the early paradigm, our dad turned himself into a songwriter and reinvented himself into the first true country rock band. He gave us “Garden Party.” He had an amazing journey.
We put together this show with video support to tell this amazing story of this journey he took. His through line in his life was, “You can’t please everyone; you’ve got to please yourself.”
So what about your own music? Do you still perform as Nelson and plan on doing your own work?
We do, but we don’t call it Nelson. It’s Matthew and Gunnar Nelson now. Anytime we play Nelson hits we do it in project called Scrap Metal. It is lead singers of biggest ’80s hair metal bands in one band, like Mark Slaughter of Slaughter and Kip Winger of Winger. It’s a lot of fun with the fans. It also allows us to continue to move forward as Matthew and Gunnar Nelson. We have a single coming out in January as Matthew and Gunnar Nelson.
So what else can we expect from Matthew and Gunnar Nelson in the future then?
We’ve signed with new management and we’re excited about this. We’ll get another real shot at radio and video and TV coming up in this new year. About to do a deal with a couple of different TV networks for our own TV shows. This will be a big year.
You’ll probably start seeing things on TV in April of 2014. There are two shows, one for FamilyNet and one for sister channel RFD-TV. In one every single episode follow Matthew and myself as we dissect a different ancestor. Like our maternal grandfather won the Heisman Trophy in 1940. Our family also had a colonel in the Revolutionary War and the youngest Eagle Scout in history. The other show is putting the “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” back on the air, with us front and backing each episode. That show really needs to be seen, it’s part of Americana and the lexicon. For us it’s all a labor of love.