Willie Nelson’s granddaughter is performing with her band on Thursday night at High Dive, but her style of music is more rock and roll than country.
(Note: We apologize if some language in this article is offensive to readers.)
It’s difficult to interview Raelyn Nelson about her music without the conversation straying to her grandfather. That’s bound to happen when you’re the oldest granddaughter of the legendary Willie Nelson.
And she’s more than okay with that. In fact, she can’t praise her “Papa Willie” enough.
“I’m so proud of him,” Raelyn said. “I think he’s the most like Jesus who’s ever walked the earth after Jesus.”
High praise, indeed!
Raelyn Nelson, 33, knows her fledgling music career is fueled by the encouragement she receives from her 85-year-old grandfather — as well as from a fan base that embraces the Willie Nelson family brand.
On Thursday night, the four-member Raelyn Nelson Band headlines a show at High Dive, 210 SW 2nd Ave., that also includes Gainesville’s own Company Man and Carey Matthews. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the music starts at 9. Tickets are $8 in advance at eventbrite.com and Hear Again Records or $10 at the door.
As much as Raelyn Nelson respects her beloved grandfather and his music, her band does not necessarily go down that narrow country road.
If Loretta Lynn and Joan Jett had a baby, it would be Raelyn Nelson.”
— Raelyn Nelson
“It’s more like country/garage rock,” she told gainesvilledowntown.com in a recent interview. “I’m basically the country in the band. I write country melodies and my band is just a bunch of rockers and we arrange it in such a way.”
Jonathan Bright is Nelson’s guitar player and music partner. They write songs together and “he rocks it up with me.” In other words, the music is rock and roll with Nelson’s country melodies singing over it.
“My favorite description that people have said is Loretta Lynn with Cheap Trick backing her up,” Nelson said. “It’s kind of like that, but it’s definitely a little more in-your-face than Loretta is.
“She’s one of my biggest inspirations,” then adding, “If Loretta Lynn and Joan Jett had a baby, it would be Raelyn Nelson.”
During their set at High Dive, the Raelyn Nelson Band will play a little of everything, including her new song “Mama Cry.” (“I wrote it with my sister Scout about when we were on vacation with our mom and Scout made her cry.”) Another new song is “Nothing On.” (“It’s about being stuck at home with nothing on when the person you love is out with someone else,” she said.)
The band will also play their original songs such as “Do You,” “Moon Song,” “Mason Jar” and “Sweetwater,” but Nelson also enjoys performing a couple of Papa Willie covers, a Loretta Lynn cover and — to spice it up a bit — some punk-rock covers.
“We like to cover all the bases and make sure everyone is having a good time,” she said.
The Gainesville appearance is the start of a three-day Florida “mini-tour” for the Raelyn Nelson Band. They also have shows in Pensacola on Friday and Santa Rosa Beach on Saturday. Nelson said the band purposely books gigs every other weekend because that’s when her ex-husband has custody of their three children.
You see, Raelyn Nelson is a working mom with 11-year-old twin boys and an 8-year-old daughter.
“We divorced six years ago, but we’re good friends now,” she said. “The kids stay with him every other weekend. He helps me home-school them. He’s very supportive.”
She said it’s quite possible that Willie Nelson’s entertainment genes are being passed down to his great-grandchildren. Raelyn said one of her boys comes up with melodies quickly while the other is already a good percussionist and is teaching himself piano. Her daughter is more of an actress/comedian.
“She says she wants to sing, but she doesn’t do it very often and I think it’s maybe because I do,” Nelson said. “She’s definitely into making everyone around her pay attention to her and make them laugh. She’s like ‘Look at me!'”
Raelyn Nelson was a teenager when she realized she wanted to pursue music. At 14, she mustered the courage to ask her famous grandpa for one of his guitars. Instead, he bought her a brand new Martin. Although her instrument of choice onstage now is the ukulele, Nelson still writes all her songs on that prized Martin.
On Jan. 1, 2016, Nelson feared that the Martin guitar had gone up in flames when her home in Goodlettsville, Tenn., burned to the ground in the middle of the night. She scrambled to get her children and sister to safety. There was no time to save their belongings.
“The Martin was sitting with all the other instruments, and all the other instruments were ruined except for that one,” Nelson said. “It was like something had wrapped a protection veil around it, if you believe in such a thing. It came through without a scratch. The guitar luthier who inspected it said that it didn’t even look like it had gone through a fire.”
She added: “The guitar that my grandpa gave me when I was 14 is probably the most prized possession I have other than my children.”
Raelyn Nelson is the daughter of Willie Nelson’s eldest son, the late Billy Nelson. Sadly, he took his own life in 1991 at age 33. Raelyn was only 7 years old when her father died, but she still clings to memories of him.
“We were close,” she said. “One of the first memories I have is of my dad and grandpa teaching me to sing ‘Jingle Bells.’ They also taught me ‘On the Road Again’ and ‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’ when I was like 3 or 4. There’s a picture of me in front of a microphone with my dad.”
Raelyn Nelson said she was in her father’s arms when she first realized her Papa Willie was different from everybody else.
“We were at a show and it was after the show and Papa Willie was trying to get back to the bus, and there was a mob of people that stormed him,” she said. “I could feel everyone, and I was terrified. My dad was holding me tight and close because it felt dangerous. I was like, ‘I want to go see Papa Willie! Where is he?’ And my father was like, ‘He’s working’ but in a very serious tone. And I remember thinking, ‘This is not normal. This is weird.'”
These days, Raelyn Nelson is responsible for keeping die-hard fans informed about her famous grandfather. She works from home and responds to emails sent by fans to his willienelson.com website.
She was busier than usual last week after Willie Nelson caught a stomach bug and walked offstage before a concert appearance in Charlotte, N.C.
“He’s doing good, he’s doing good,” Raelyn Nelson said last week. “I just talked to him and he said he was feeling really good. He was trying really hard to do the show and couldn’t go through with it. He felt really shitty.”
Willie Nelson has already rescheduled that concert date and has a full tour schedule this summer, including Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic in Austin, Texas. The Raelyn Nelson Band is among the performers that day.
“It’s sweltering and everyone is making funny jokes about the heat,” she said. “It’s miserably hot but so much fun.”
Her band has played before thousands at Farm-Aid and opening for Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts. They recently opened to a packed venue in Nashville for the venerable punk rock band The Descendents, but Raelyn Nelson said she is just as comfortable performing at rock clubs in front of small crowds.
“You gotta do it all,” she said. “A normal show for us is maybe 60 to 100 people. It’s okay because you’re just building your craft and learning who you are as an artists. I started doing this since I stopped nursing my kids, so it’s been five almost six years now that I’ve been actively pursuing music every day.”
She doesn’t know quite to expect on Thursday at High Dive. She’s never performed in Gainesville.
“I know Tom Petty is from there. That’s about it,” she said. “I’ve never been there. Not even traveling through.”
The Raelyn Nelson Band includes Nelson on ukulele, Bright on guitar, Preach Rutherford on bass and Angela Lese Gregory on drums. Their sound resonates with fans of both punk-rock and country music.
“You can put us in with a lot of different genres and we kind of mold in,” she said. “Most of the time people understand it and get it and like it and have fun. It’s really high energy. There are no sad songs. I like to keep people dancing and having a good time. I want to leave a fun, party taste in everyone’s mouth.”
No matter what music the band plays, Nelson said she has the full support of her grandfather.
“He’s told me he’s really proud of me and that my dad would be really proud of me,” she said. “He’s always telling me, ‘You’re on a roll. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ And he doesn’t let me change what I’m doing, you know? ‘If someone tries to change up what you’re doing, don’t let them do it!’ He’s like, ‘Fuck off and do your own thing because what you’re doing is important and what you have to show the world through your band is important and you just stick with your guns.’ Of course he would say that. He went through people trying to change him.”
Raelyn Nelson credits her grandfather for her becoming an activist. She and her Aunt Amy started Willie’s Kids, a global initiative to encourage and provide humane education in school curriculum via WillieHughNiversity, an online university.
She said her grandfather has imparted plenty of wisdom on his children, grandchildren and, now, great-grandchildren.
“The No. 1 rule in the family is ‘Don’t be an asshole,'” she said. “The second rule is ‘Don’t be an asshole,’ and the third role is ‘Don’t be a fucking asshole.’ Those have always been the rules of the Nelson family and I’ve passed them onto my kids.
“If everyone would just follow the three rules, I think the world would be a much better place.”
— Noel Leroux
For further info, visit the Raelyn Nelson Band website.