News Column

Remembering Ricky Nelson with Gunnar and Matthew

September 6, 2013


Sept. 06--Gunnar Nelson remembers the first time he had the urge to play music to huge crowds.

He sat on an old apple crate on the side of the stage at Knott's Berry Farm in California watching his father, the now-deceased Ricky Nelson, dazzle thousands of fans. It was 1970 and he was 3 years old.

"I made the connection that he's having a great time. His fans are loving him. This is the greatest job in the world. I want to do that," he says.

Years later, Gunnar and his brother, Matthew, fulfilled that dream with their titular rock band Nelson, joining their grandparents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and their father in their chart-topping history and setting a Guinness World Record.

At the time when they hit it big in the late '80s and early '90s, Nelson was lumped in with other hair metal bands like Winger and Bon Jovi. Despite their music being loud and anthemic, there was something about that soft acoustic music their dad used to play that drew them back to it.

"I suppose we loved all those bands back in the day like Bon Jovi. For me and Matthew, we were really at our strength when it was two guys with two acoustic guitars vocalizing," Gunnar says.

Returning to their roots, the Nelson brothers have been touring during the past decade with their show "Rick Nelson Remembered." The tour will stop in St. Joseph at 8 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Missouri Theater.

For the two brothers, honoring their father's legacy, from his early teen heartthrob days on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" in the '50s and '60s to his later years as a country-rock star, has been a loving way of saying thanks for all of the inspiration and for him believing in their dream.

Performing almost all the Ricky Nelson hits, from "Poor Little Fool" to "Lonesome Town" and "Garden Party," the Nelson brothers take a look back at their father's life, from the heights they weren't alive to witness to the lows and back up.

"I always describe it as a high-energy rock concert with an A&E 'Biography' episode," Gunnar says.

Being one of the first genuine rock stars of the '50s, Ricky's inspiration would stretch from The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival to artists like Bob Dylan.

"Bob Dylan (wrote) in the first paragraph of his book that if it hadn't been for Ricky Nelson, he would have never started playing music in the first place. That's kind of cool," Gunnar says.

It was an experience Gunnar and Matthew saw firsthand. When they were young, it wasn't odd to see Dylan roaming around his house or George Harrison messing around on the guitar. It quickly became their life.

"It was just so normal that it got to set the standard that doing this for a living and doing it at a pretty high level was really possible. It made it attainable and achievable," Gunnar says.

While the Nelson brothers were used to seeing their dad putting audiences in a frenzy, they saw the other side of him too.

After a long string of hits from 1957 to 1965, Ricky fell on hard times success-wise shortly after Gunnar and Matthew were born. Songs failed to chart, and Ricky was unhappy because his legacy consisted mainly of songs that were written by other people and his creativity was being stifled by record labels.

That's when "Garden Party," which was written by Ricky after being booed off stage in New York City, became the song that would define his career, with its signature line "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

"I think our dad had this wonderful experience where, at a time is his life when everybody considered him completely over, he really had the biggest success of his life on something that was a part of him," Gunnar says.

From that experience, Ricky passed on this advice to Gunnar and Matthew:

"He says 'Look, the way I see it, you can go to any town, anywhere, and chances are you'll find someone that looks better than you, plays better than you, sings better than you. But if you're a songwriter and your songs connect with the public, that's going to keep you, in a very real sense, around forever,'" Gunnar says.

He adds: "And he was right. Thank God for that advice."

With their first recording session at 11, hitting the L.A. club scene at 12, a first record deal at 19 and a first No. 1 song at 22, with "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection," the Nelson brothers give all of the credit and respect to the words their father taught them during his lean years.

It's one of the reasons the Nelsons feel so strongly about doing the show to remind people of their father's legacy. But please, they ask, don't call it a tribute.

"When I hear the word 'tribute,' the first thing that comes to mind is some fat guy in an Elvis costume, and that's not what we're doing," Gunnar says.

Instead, it's honoring both the legacy of their father and rock music.

"It's really a celebration of the birth of rock 'n' roll. It's really new. It's only 60-some-odd years old," Gunnar says.

With the advent of roots bands like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and The Alabama Shakes, Gunnar says now, more than in the past, they're seeing more young people at their shows wanting to learn what inspired all of these artists.

"I'm seeing a lot of kids rediscovering the roots of rock 'n' roll and where all the music on their iPod originally came from," he says.

While the Nelsons are busy working on their own solo material, which Gunnar states that he hopes will one day become his personal "Garden Party," they don't plan on stopping this show anytime soon.

"The audiences are getting younger and younger, so way to go! We'll keep doing it," he says.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.


(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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