Willie Nelson’s Granddaughter Brings Her Band to Town
by Jeremy Morrison
Listening to Raelyn Nelson tell the story of her parents’ first meeting, it sounds a little like a song. Something that would have been right at home on an AM station in the seventies.
“My mom was working at a radio station in Nashville as one of those radio promo girls and my dad was on the bus with Papa Willie,” Nelson says, “and they came through town and stopped at the radio station and my dad met my mom and fell in love and they got married and had me and laid their roots down here in Nashville.”
You can almost hear a melody in there somewhere. Which would make sense, since there’s music buried deep within her DNA. In particular, her grandfather’s music.
“My mom kept me kind of sheltered. She just let me listen to christian music, gospel music and my grandpa’s music,” Nelson recalled. “And, so, the melodies that I come up with on my own are very similar to my grandpa’s. I’d say that’s my biggest inspiration for melodies. And I remember being a little girl and them popping into my head and me kind of thinking that they were just other songs I’d heard, not even realizing that I was writing these melodies.”
Nelson brings her Raelyn Nelson Band down from Nashville for a performance at Pensacola’s Vinyl Music Hall Sept. 1. Looking forward to the group’s local show, the musician took a few minutes recently with SANDSpaper to talk about her band’s blend of country and rock, playing her granddad’s annual Fourth of July picnic last month, the importance of dancing backwards and her decision to rock the ukulele.
SANDS: Are you up in Nashville?
RAELYN NELSON: Yes, I am up in Nashville, I am at the studio with my guitar player, who also writes the songs with me, his name is Jonathan Bright, and we’re about to rehearse this afternoon, so we’re hanging out in the studio. What are you doing? Where are you?
SANDS: I’m in my office, interviewing you.
NELSON: You’re not on the beach right now?
SANDS: No. It’s actually a little cloudy.
SANDS: But, maybe by the time you make it down here the sun will be shining.
NELSON: Yeah, I’m gonna need you to see what you can do about that.
SANDS: I was gonna say I’d do a rain dance, but that’s like the opposite of what you would need, right?
NELSON: I think you have to do the rain dance backwards.
SANDS: Exactly. So, are y’all working on recording something specific or just practicing?
NELSON: It’s just our regular rehearsal time, so we’re waiting for the other members of the band to get here. We actually — well, we’re drumming with a new drummer today. It’s our first time drumming with her, so that should be fun. I feel like it’s gonna work out just fine, she’s awesome. But, yeah, regular rehearsal, new drummer.
SANDS: Well, good luck with that.
NELSON: Thank you.
SANDS: So, you’re sound has some country going on in there, but there’s some other stuff in there too. For people who, you know, hear ‘Willie Nelson’s granddaughter’ and are thinking “On the Road Again” or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or something, how would you describe your sound to them, you band’s sound?
NELSON: Well, it doesn’t sound like his band. At all. I would say —. When I’m trying to explain it to people —. I really like, “country garage rock” we’ve gotten. We’ve gotten Cheap Trick with a Loretta Lynn-type of frontwoman. That’s kind of how I would explain it, we’re like a country-Runaways band.
SANDS: OK. I heard the term “cow punk” used, do you —
NELSON: Oh, I like that. But I’ve also been told I can’t call myself punk, so I’ll accept it, but I can’t say that I’m punk.
SANDS: OK, well, I said it, not you. And I don’t guess I said it, I read it. So, how long have you been playing music and then how long have you been doing this with this band?
NELSON: Okay, so, maybe when I was about mid-20s I had been writing some songs as I was staying home with my youngins. And I got through nursing them and I was looking for a place to record the songs and I met JB through a mutual friend — JB’s Jonathan Bright — and I came over to record these little snippets of songs that I had. And he was like, “Hey, these are kinda cool, do you wanna write together?” And I was like, “OK, yeah.” Because I was just like, “I wanna do anything. I wanna write songs. And I wanna record music. I wanna sing.” So, he’s definitely been kinda guiding me and showing me how to do that, how to make that happen. So, we started writing the songs, we started building it at that time. And his background is all rock. He and his band have been playing in Nashville and traveling, playing music forever, they’re really old.
SANDS: And would this be — I guess with the exception of the drummer — the same band that is in current form? Or no, this is —
NELSON: We’ve had, like, 12 drummers. Because every time we have a drummer they get a better gig and move on, so we have to find another one. Like, Gene Simmons, Steven Tyler’s taken our drummer, Steve Earle, I mean, I think everyone’s out to get us in the drummer department.
SANDS: Well, I guess that means you’ve got drummers waiting in line, you know, to ride that elevator, right?
NELSON: We’ve been lucky, all of them have been awesome. So, JB grabbed his guys, his original ones, he grabbed his band, his combo, and we taught them our songs that we’d written together and —
SANDS: And this was when? When did this all begin?
NELSON: I think our first gig was 2012. So, five years ago. At that time we started doing these little Youtube videos, like “Pun with Raelyn Nelson,” just trying to have something while we wrote the songs, while we were recording the songs, something that we were putting out there. And my grandpa sang and played on the Moon Song with us, which was one of the first singles we put out. So, we’re real proud of that one. And we had that, so we kind of used that in the videos. And then we started doing singles and videos. So, every few months we would record a song, make a video and put it out, with a t-shirt.
SANDS: This is in lieu of the traditional album?
NELSON: Yes, this is in in lieu of that. And that worked quite well for a while. We got some advice to go ahead and put it on an album, so we added those singles we’d put out and recorded six more songs, six more — four more new songs and two covers that we like to do. And we’re waiting on that release. We’re currently working on a video, before we put that out, because we want a good, slammin’ release.
SANDS: Sure. So, where on the Nelson family tree do you fall?
NELSON: Alright, so my — yeah, it’s a big tree and it’s weird. So, my grandpa’s been married four times. His first wife was my grandmother, and she’s no longer here, but her name was Martha, and they had Lana, Susie and Billy — Willie Nelson, Jr., who was my dad, and everyone called him Billy. So, he’s no longer here either, but I am his daughter. So, that’s where I fall.
SANDS: And what is that like, growing up — being born into a world where your granddad is, you know, a country-music institution, and growing up surrounded with a musical family like that?
NELSON: Well, it’s all I’ve ever known. He’s always been on the road, working, in the studio recording, doing it since before I was born, so he’s kind of always been gone. And when he comes through Nashville — so, my mom was working at a radio station in Nashville as one of those radio promo girls and my dad was on the bus with Papa Willie, and they came through town and stopped at the radio station and my dad met my mom and fell in love and they got married and had me and laid their roots down here in Nashville. So, when my grandpa — they kinda raised me here —
SANDS: Somebody oughta write a song about that.
NELSON: We should write a song about that. I kind of started one called “Tennessee Texas Girl.” Anyway, my — oh, I found a feather on the ground. Um, anyway, my mom and dad did divorce and we moved out of town, we moved to Atlanta for about a year when my mom was getting remarried and that sort of thing. And my dad was a wild guy, so he was kind of on the road with Papa Willie and doing all kinds of stuff, who knows —. I feel longwinded now. I’m getting there. So, basically, my mom kept me sheltered. When he would come through town, whether we lived in Georgia or we lived in Nashville, she would take me to see the family. And it’s very much a family production, which is why he calls it Willie Nelson and Family, all the family’s pretty much always on the road, or anyone who can be. So, we would go and have a reunion every few months or so. It’s funny, I saw him more than I saw my other grandpa, who lived in Louisiana. You know, just because he traveled so much I was able to see him.
NELSON: He was just always working. Yeah, I don’t know, it was cool — he was always in big crowds of people and we couldn’t get to him. That was —
SANDS: Yeah, I can see that.
NELSON: That’ my first memory of him.
SANDS: Surrounded by big crowds of people?
NELSON: Yeah, surrounded by big crowds of people, and I’m like, ‘I wanna see Papa Willie.’ And my dad’s like, ‘Well, he’s working, we’ll have to wait.’ It seemed like a tense moment, but it also seemed kind of normal.
SANDS: How has his music, and I guess more than that, just growing up in that environment, influenced your own music?
NELSON: OK, so like I said, my mom kept me kind of sheltered. She just let me listen to christian music, gospel music and my grandpa’s music. And, so, the melodies that I come up with on my own are very similar to my grandpa’s. I’d say that’s my biggest inspiration for melodies. And I remember being a little girl and them popping into my head and me kind of thinking that they were just other songs I’d heard, not even realizing that I was writing these melodies. But when I did realize that I started, obviously, writing.
SANDS: Interesting. And then, your band now, would you say that sound — and I think that you might have been saying this a minute ago, is kind of an organic creation between yourself and your musical partner?
NELSON: Yes — Jonathan Bright — because he is all rock ’n’ roll, I couldn’t make the band be rock ’n’ roll if it was just me, I’m just country. Pretty much all I bring to the table is lyrics and melodies — he also writes lyrics and melodies with me — but he does all the other things. He writes the guitar parts, and the bass lines and the drum parts. And he has no country in him at all, whatsoever, it is all rock ‘n’ roll. He tries, but it doesn’t look right and it doesn’t come out right, he’s just all Rock ’n’ Roll. And it really is just a natural hybrid of I’m-country-and-he’s-rock-n-roll and this is what it is. And it’s really just a lot of high energy tunes, the whole show is, the whole album. We both like short, good songs, you know, melodies that stick with you. And I like songs that make you wanna move, that make you wanna dance, and escape the sad things that are happening in life, you know, have a party.
SANDS: That’s how you’d describe y’all’s shows?
NELSON: Yes, caffeinated, high-energy the entire way, there will be no ballads. We’ve only done one ballad and we put it out on Youtube. But it’s to slow to do for a live show. We like to keep the energy up, have a party. Rather than play really slow songs. I feel like if people wanna listen to ballads, they can listen to them in the car.
NELSON: Car listening, you know?
SANDS: Um —
NELSON: But you probably shouldn’t watch the video in the car while your driving.
SANDS: No, no.
NELSON: But it’s a great video. It’s called “Daddy’s Grave,” on Youtube.
SANDS: Well, if it’s so sad, you might not should listen to it in the car either.
NELSON: Yeah, cause then you’ll be — yeah, it is sad, and it’s sad for me to sing it and listen to it. And play it, so — who wants to be sad all the time?
SANDS: It’s autobiographical, correct?
NELSON: It is. And it’s song therapy, I’m glad it was written.
SANDS: Yeah? That’s nice. It’s a nice song.
NELSON: I’m glad it was written, but I don’t wanna play it all the time. I’ve heard from lots of people that it helps a lot of people get through that — you know, there’s a lot of people who have gone through that. And I’ve heard a lot of really cool things from people and it makes me happy that they have related to the song in that way. But I don’t want to continue playing it at shows.
SANDS: Right. It has a different purpose, a different venue?
NELSON: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we have. And there’s a time for it. But not now. Not summertime.
SANDS: Not summertime. Well, y’all recently played the summer, or the Fourth of July Picnic, how was that?
NELSON: Yeah! It was miserably hot.
SANDS: Great, great, that’s the way it’s suppose to be in Texas, right?
NELSON: Yes, yes. It was great, there were so many people there, so many good bands. A lot of our buddies here in town that play with those bands were there, so it was kind of like hanging out in Nashville.
SANDS: It looked like a really interesting bill.
NELSON: Yeah, really good bands, Steve Earle was there, Kacey Musgraves, Jamey Johnson. Sheryl Crow was there, I got to see her live and I haven’t been able to see her live yet, so that was a first for me and it was awesome. I loved it.
SANDS: Nice. Well, one last question here — actually two last questions — what can we expect in Pensacola? And you’re doing Panama City down here too, right?
NELSON: Yes, we are! The night after, I think we’re doing, if I have my dates right. Yeah, the night after.
SANDS: Yeah, I think that’s right. A little Gulf Coast tour here.
NELSON: Yes. So, I’m expecting lots of sunshine.
SANDS: Well, we’ll dance backwards until you get here.
NELSON: OK, thank you. And a lot of warm weather, and people who want to have a good time. It really is just a high-energy show the whole way through, just come ready to party and hang out with us.
NELSON: And listen to us tell terrible jokes while JB tunes his guitar for 45 minutes of the set.
SANDS: Yeah, I hear you tell stories.
NELSON: No, no, no.
SANDS: No? Just jokes?
NELSON: No, not me.
SANDS: Well, we’ll be hoping for some good ones. And then lastly, tell me about the ukulele. Not many people rock a ukulele, how did you get drawn to that instrument?
NELSON: Well, you know — so, OK, I know I keep bringing up JB, but when I first started over here at the studio he was doing an all-ukulele record, and it was The Replacements, just covers of The Replacements, but all ukulele. It’s actually really good.
NELSON: And, so it made me grab ukuleles around while he was doing the engineering part of recording the stuff. I was grabbing a ukulele and I said, ‘Teach me how to play this thing,’ and he did. And I was like, ‘I think I want to play this when we play.’ And he was like — and I kind of said it jokingly — and he said, “Well, you can.” And I was like, “OK.” And we started in on a few songs, and I was still doing acoustic guitar on the others, and I was like, “You know what? I just wanna play uke.” So, they got me a, just a regular guitar amp and we plugged it in, and now it’s all rocking ukulele. Which nobody does.
SANDS: Right, yeah, no, nobody does that. That’s awesome.
NELSON: And it works! It’s lightweight, and I can move around and I can dance while I play. I like that.
SANDS: Yeah, well, it works for you.