Interview: Gunnar Nelson Discusses His Father’s Legacy, James Burton and the "Scrap Metal" Project
Consider a world where Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the Eagles were all regular visitors to your house. A world where George Harrison was "Uncle George" who lived next door, and one where Mama Cass Elliott was your babysitter.
Now consider guitarist Gunnar Nelson and his brother Matthew, because that's the world they grew up in. The sons of the legendary Ricky Nelson were privy to music royalty nearly every single day of their childhood.
Ricky Nelson's music — particularly the guitar prowess of James Burton — has been cited as a major influence by players like Brian May and Jimmy Page. Proving that the apple doesn't fall from the tree, the brothers' own 1990 debut album went multi-platinum and spawned the No. 1 hit "Love and Affection."
The Nelson Brothers are involved in several different projects. Their recent album, Lightning Strikes Twice is a follow-up of sorts to the hugely successful After the Rain. They’re also involved in a traveling road show called "Ricky Nelson Remembered," which pays tribute to their late father and his music.
The brothers also are performing as part of "Scrap Metal," a show that features the lead singers from popular '80s bands — doing nothing but their biggest hits. Finally, Gunnar and Matthew are working on a new Brothers Nelson experience that’s been five years in the making and promises to showcase the duo as a modern-day Everly Brothers.
I sat down with Gunnar Nelson to get the scoop on these projects and what it was like growing up in a musical household and performing alongside Burton.
GUITAR WORLD: What was it like growing up in such a unique musical environment?
I was born too late for my dad's first go around in music, but when Matthew and I were becoming musically conscious, it was vintage "Garden Party" Stone Canyon Band. I remember my dad rehearsing in the pool house that was right down the hall. Bob Dylan would stop by the house and George Harrison lived next door, always encouraging him to write his own songs. When Matthew and I were growing up, this stuff was in our house all the time. I mean, these guys were doing what the Eagles wound up doing four years later, but in MY house. [laughs]
On "Ricky Nelson Remembered":
The "Ricky Nelson Remembered" show is a labor of love. This one show satisfies our need to stay connected with our roots, and it's been a blessing. It's given me the chance to go back and rediscover my dad's music and how much ahead of his time he was. We want to play these songs with the same kind of passion that they did. When I play a solo, I want to make sure I'm hitting it like James [Burton]. We've even done shows with James, and it's like I'm kind of living a career in reverse.
What's it like performing with Burton?
James is the kindest, gentlest, coolest guy. I honestly can't overstate how great of a player he is. There’s a reason why he's in the Hall of Fame, and it's not because of the fact that he played with Ricky Nelson or Elvis Presley. He's still James Burton. I mean, here's a guy who played and wrote "Suzy Q" with Del Hoffman when he was a teenager and who my grandfather [Ozzy Nelson] signed to an exclusive contract at age 15. James figured out early on in his career that silence is every bit as important to playing guitar as playing the actual notes themselves. He knows how to interweave them. When I watch him play, I realize I have so much to learn.
On the legacy of Ricky Nelson:
There was a great story I read where three guitar players were once profiled back to back. They were Brian May, Jimmy Page and Jack White. Out of those three, two of them listed as their No. 1 influence, the early Ricky Nelson records with James Burton. For me, when I hear that someone like Brian May was working on his craft, and was listening to my dad's records trying to learn the licks, that's so fucking cool because that's exactly what I was doing with Queen records!! [laughs]
Tell me about the "Scrap Metal" project.
"Scrap Metal" is a live version of your favorite '80s rock mix tape sung by the original front people. You get five bands' worth of hit songs that everybody knows every single word to. Because everyone has their own schedules and commitments, every show is different, so you never really know who you're going to see. But it will always be "franchise" people you'll recognize by name. From a repertoire standpoint, it's one big concert of encores.
What's your greatest memory from that first Nelson album and tour?
My greatest memory goes back to a show we did in Erie, Pennsylvania. We were in the middle of going out with the band but had a few isolated dates where Matthew and I did previews for radio stations and festivals. It was just going to be the two of us with our guitars and we didn't know what to expect.
I remember we got up on stage behind the curtain and they announced us. We heard this roar that we had never heard before. They opened the curtain and it was just the two of us standing in front of 60,000 people. It was the first real glimpse of what it was turning into, and was completely unexpected. We had gone from playing 500-seat theaters to playing in front of 60,000 people! It was one of those moments that made me grateful for everything that we had been through, and the time we had put into it.
What’s the single best memory you have of your dad?
That's easy — sitting on an apple crate at a very young age on the side of the stage at the Good Time Theatre at Knotts Berry Farm. My first conscious memory of anything was watching my father perform. By seeing his happiness and the crowd's happiness, I had proof that it was possible to do something you love at the highest level. I remember making the connection at that early of an age that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I love to make music. It's pretty cool that you can perform on a stage with your guitar, in front of any audience that you're lucky enough to have come and see you. When you've got music inside you that's been there ever since you were a child, it’s the greatest thing ever. The truth is, this is not what I do. This is who I am.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.
Nelson with James Burton