Exclusive Interview: Gunnar Nelson discusses his music, his father Rick Nelson, and Sir Paul McCartney

Gunnar Nelson - Photo courtesy of Stone Canyon Records
Gunnar Nelson - Photo courtesy of Stone Canyon Records

Born September 20, 1967 in Santa Monica California, Gunnar Nelson is a singer, songwriter, musician, and international multi-platinum recording artist. He and his brother, Matthew, form the rock band Nelson.

Nelson’s father, Rick, established himself as one of the most important rock artists of the 50s and 60s – selling over 100 million albums and landing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was killed on December 31, 1985, when his plane crashed northeast of Dallas in Dekalb, Texas, killing Nelson, his fiancée, Helen Blair, and five others.

Nelson continues the inspiring 100-year story of American’s most remarkable show business family. His grandparents, bandleader Ozzie and actress Harriet Nelson, achieved immortality with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, television’s longest-running sitcom.

So, with Nelson’s self-penned “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” and “After the Rain,” the Nelsons landed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only family to reach number one record status in three successive generations.

Gunnar Nelson will be performing solo acoustic and opens for Rick Springfield in concert at the Montgomery Performing Arts Centre on October 24 at 8:00 PM. Our Prattville spoke with him on Monday to discuss his music and his family.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): How is the tour going?

Gunnar Nelson: Everything’s going great. I’m actually calling from Nashville right now. I’m finishing up a record for a new record deal and I’ve just been going out and doing some dates with and without my brother.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Will this be a new CD from Nelson?

Gunnar Nelson: It is. It’s going to be the first actual real Nelson CD in about fifteen years. We were approached by a company that asked us to go back to the studio and pretend that the whole grunge thing had never happened back in the day, and kind of make a continuation of our first record, “After the Rain,” which sold a couple million copies. And that’s what I’ve been doing and I’ve been having a blast doing it.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Is this the first time you’ve opened for Rick Springfield?

Gunnar Nelson: It’s the second time. The first time was with my brother, Matthew, so this is definitely the first time I’ll be doing this by myself. I’m a huge Rick Springfield fan. I think he’s great. I know I’m dating myself here, but I was in high school when I watched a live telecast performance he did at the Universal Amphitheatre and it was just one of those things that really kicked me in the butt.

That just reaffirmed for myself that it was something I wanted to do. He had a great band at the time and more importantly, great songs. My band has always been song centric and it was really great pop/rock guys like Rick that kind of gave me my start.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Will you be performing some of your dad’s songs as well as your own songs Saturday night?

Gunnar Nelson: Well, I’m going to read the audience, Melissa, so it really depends. I’ve got them in my pocket, that’s for sure. If it looks like the kind of audience that would appreciate it, then of course, I’ll do “Garden Party,” “Hello Mary Lou,” and “Travelin’ Man.”

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): How long have you been in the music business?

Gunnar Nelson: Actually, I started when I got my first instrument … drums. And I got my first set of drums when I was five years old. I was really playing them when I was 5 years old. We always had music around the house. So, Dad didn’t look at me like I had six heads when I asked for a drum set. I think he was relieved because his drummer was always getting pissed off that I was always on his drum set in the rehearsal hall. So, it was like, okay I’m going to get Gunnar a drum set and sit him out in the barn where he won’t bother anybody.

Then a couple of years later they realized it wasn’t just a passing phase – it was something I really loved. My brother got his first instrument that was a bass and we were a rhythm section for years. Then we started playing professionally in LA clubs when we were twelve. We were doing three nights a week in some major clubs playing with acts like the Knacks and the Go-Gos, the Romantics, and all of those guys out there. And we were just kind of going for that all elusive record deal, which we actually secured when we were 19 years old.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What kind of advice did your dad give you about the ins and outs of the music business?

Gunnar Nelson: Well, honestly it was a little frustrating at the time because he was always a really shy guy. He was a man of few words. I always thought he was copping out when I would ask him for specific advice like on a particular song or asking him how I should do certain things … and he only had a couple of words of advice which I now know were probably more appropriate and much more long-standing than specific advice.

Dad said, “Believe in what you’re doing and keep doing it.” “Always keep your sense of humor because you’re going to need it.” The third gem he left me was something that I picked up in the song “Garden Party” which was “You can’t please everyone so you’ve gotta please yourself.” Those have been the three major weapons that have kind of helped me navigate this music business that I love to hate so much.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): That’s probably some good advice concerning life also.

Gunnar Nelson: I think so. You know, he said in an interview once, “Life is a series of comebacks,” and he would definitely know that. He was the comeback kid. I mean, he had his first career early on with the rockabilly stuff and then he reinvented himself as a singer/songwriter with “Garden Party” and all that. He was just one of those guys that wouldn’t quit and it was one of those things that I really admired about him.

He was a great father and really loved his kids. But, he was gone a lot, to be honest, out touring, but at least I had the blessing of knowing him real well and we really bonded on the whole music thing because when we were working our way up the LA clubs, Pop would come down and see us play and he was really proud. Unfortunately he was killed before our big commercial success. But, we always got to talk about music and we were all just a bunch of big kids, you know, we were all amped up on music. We used to throw around our inspirations on each other and found that they were really quite similar.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You had just turned 18 when your Dad was killed. That must have been tough to lose a father at that age when you are just becoming a man yourself.

Gunnar Nelson: Well, yeah, it’s one of those things that unfortunately I figure everybody pretty much can relate to. You know, we’ve all lost somebody that we’ve loved and all lost somebody unexpectedly at some point … where the last time you saw them you figured you were going to see them again. Like they say, “Hey, I’m going to the market,” and then they don’t come back.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Was there anything that you wanted to tell him that you never got a chance to say?

Gunnar Nelson: No, I was really blessed. You know, my twin brother and I were supposed to be on the plane. Dad was all excited about the DC-3 that he had bought from Jerry Lee Lewis and we hadn’t gotten to ride on it yet. This was around New Year’s Eve, so the plan was that we were going to fly down to Guntersville, Alabama (we were going to see him play at P. J.’s Alley in Guntersville) and then we were going to get on the plane with him and the band and then we were going to fly to Dallas on the DC-3 and then enjoy New Year’s Eve together.

He called us the day we were supposed to leave to meet him and he said, “You know, guys, I was thinking about it, but if we’re going to get together for New Year’s Eve, I want you to fly commercial to Dallas and just meet me there.” I got a little ticked off because the whole point was to ride on the plane. He clearly had a premonition. He felt something was up and that phone call saved my life. I had called all of my friends and told them I was spending New Year’s Eve with my dad, so they thought I was on that plane. They heard I had cancelled all of my parties and stuff in LA and that I was flying down to see my dad … and then it was all over the news.

But, by the grace of God go I because, well, we’re all a matter of degrees away from something like that at all times and so, clearly I’m grateful to be here and I miss those guys. We lose so many musicians that way because we gotta get to the show somehow.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Yes, we’ve lost a lot of artists in plane crashes … Buddy Holly …

Gunnar Nelson: I was just playing at Clear Lake, Iowa, last year and they said that the weather was exactly the way it was that night (of Buddy Holly’s plane crash) because they do “the anniversary of his death.” That night it was exactly the weather that it was the night that he died in the crash.

And I’ve got to tell you something, I’ve experienced cold and I’m a Swede so it’s really hard to get me cold … but I’ve never felt cold like that before coming off of the Great Lakes. My Lord! It was like 20 below! And then you add the wind chill to it and all I could think was, “These idiots tried to fly in this?” Man, you didn’t even want to walk in it let alone fly in it.

And I was just thinking about the aviation back then and of course the DC-3 that my dad was killed in was pretty much the same vintage. It was a World War II era plane. And the funny thing is, he was deathly afraid to fly. He chose that particular plane because it flew so slowly that he figured if both engines went out you could glide it into a landing.

What heated the inside of that particular plane was a big old Janitrol gasoline heater and the equipment company that refurbished that plane when my dad bought it … the technician forgot to put in one little tiny 20 cent washer in the fuel line that fed the gasoline heater and over a period of eight months, a slow drip of gasoline filled up the belly of that plane. They were coming in for a scheduled landing at Love Field (Dallas, Texas airport) and there was a short in the cockpit and all of that fuel caught on fire in the belly of the plane. That’s how it happened. It was such a shame.

They say that a whole conspiracy of events have to come together exactly right for any disaster to happen and if one of those events had been taken out of sequence it wouldn’t have happened quite that way. I could go on for an hour talking about the many individual things that happened, but all I can say is … he knew. He knew something was up; enough to not let me go. I don’t know what that means and I don’t make sense of it but at least when I play some of his songs I get to feel close to him.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What must it have been like at Thanksgiving and Christmas with a whole house full of entertainers?

Gunnar Nelson: Well, as far as being in the business so to speak, none of us really took it that seriously because it really was the family business. Grandma Harriet always said “What you do is not who you are.” You know, don’t get a big head about it.

But, it’s really important for me to let everybody who’s reading this know that the family you saw on TV, was really like that. I mean, they really were super cool. They were that family you always wished you had. They were really supportive, they gave great advice without being preachy, they let you make your mistakes and then helped you laugh about them afterwards. They were that kind of group of people.

I was 7 when Oz (Ozzie Nelson) died, but I remember him. I remember going over for Christmases and I remember looking forward to that crisp 20-dollar bill in that card. I remember laughing with him and all of that stuff, and his illustrations and drawings.

I got really close to Grandma Harriet – she died about 11 years ago and she was a super neat lady. She was really supportive and some people don’t know that they were musicians before they actually went to radio and then to TV. They were in big band together and that’s how they found each other. They had a #1 hit in 1934.

So, when I was out on that first tour with Elton and we were doing 45 theatres in a row, I would call Grandma Harriet from the road and she’d ask where I was playing and for example, I’d say, “I’m at the Fox in Atlanta,” and she’d ask, “Oh, is Harold still the stage manager?” You know, it was that kind of thing. We really bonded on that. I come from a long line of entertainers and I’m proud to say, a long line of really cool people that I aspire to be.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Do you see David, your uncle, often?

Gunnar Nelson: Not often. I live here in Nashville and David is retired and living in Laguna Beach now. He’s just basically spending his time fishing, as he should be. I don’t get to see him a whole lot. I wish I were closer to David than I am. It’s weird … the Rick Nelson side of the family and the David Nelson side of the family actually turned out to be pretty different people.

The Rick Nelson side of the family … we’re all a bunch of hams. We like to be in front of the camera, we like being on the stage under the spotlight. I think David’s side of the family prefers to be behind the camera, running the spotlight. They’re just two kinds of folks when it comes down to it.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Earlier this year, you had a recording session with Sir Paul McCartney and Cat Stevens. Tell us about that.

Gunnar Nelson: That was pretty groovy. To be honest with you, I wish I’d been in the same country as Sir Paul when that whole thing went down because I’m a huge fan. But, because of his schedule, what they wound up doing is running a tie line to a satellite and basically doing it all in London with Cat and me in Nashville. What was originally going to happen, I was going to do some backups and I did and I was supposed to be singing on 2 songs … I wound up singing on 6. I got to meet Michelle Branch who was really nice.

Holly Williams (Hank Williams Jr.’s daughter) and I did some background vocals together and that was really sweet and then he asked me to actually stay behind after everybody split to sing the part that I heard on several songs that Sir Paul was supposed to replace. So, no problem, I had done a lot of arranging so I sang on a couple of more songs and then he played them for Paul.

And Paul’s comment was, “Who the heck is singing up there that high?” And Cat said, “That’s Ricky Nelson’s boy Gunnar.” And Paul said, “You mean the one with the hair? I used to sing up that high when I was young.” So, it was really nice. They tried to call me in Nashville and one of the phone calls I didn’t want to miss was from Paul McCartney … and I missed it, I was on tour.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): What are your interests other than performing?

Gunnar Nelson: I’ve got an old Victorian house that was built in 1886 that I’ve spent about 5 years restoring and it seems to always need something. I love to cook. Other than that, I’ve gotta be honest, I’m here in my studio right now and I spend most of my time recording.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Have you ever wanted to be an actor?

Gunnar Nelson: You know, I think it would be fun. I’ve definitely spent my share of time in front of a camera. But, I’m actually a lot more comfortable when I don’t have a script in front of me. I’m a lot more comfortable when I’m flying off the cuff and that’s why I like hosting for MTV or … I was the host of a national morning radio show for a year and I really enjoyed that because I got to be myself. But, I’m sure if the right role came my way I certainly wouldn’t turn it down.

I’m working on a TV show right now with my twin brother Matthew and my little brother Sam and it’s going to be non-scripted but it’s not going to be your typical reality show. It’s kind of the opposite of what the paradigm has been for the last ten years or so. It’s basically the past, present, and future of the Nelson family and how it relates to American families today. So I spend a lot of time out and about with other families and kind of seeing how we all manage to make it work.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): We have a club/restaurant that just opened here (Club Behind the Scenes) and Hiro Koda is the owner.

Gunnar Nelson: Oh, Hiro’s my man! We studied Karate together, gosh, when I was a kid! He is wonderful. I love the Koda family. They are an absolutely awesome family.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Yes, the grand opening is next month. Maybe you can make it.

Gunnar Nelson: You know, I’ve actually been asked and that would be something that I’d love to do. I think that’s really an admirable thing, especially with the economy the way that it is right now. People are being so gun shy. It’s a brave thing to open any kind of enterprise right now, so anything I can do to support it I will.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): Who are your favorite recording artists?

Gunnar Nelson: I’m a Beatles nut. This is really funny, but I’m a product of the 70s, so I grew up listening to AM 70s Top 40. I am a perfect blend of the whole pop sensibilities of AM 70s, like folk rock kind of California sort of thing. I grew up listening to bands like Boston, the Eagles and America. Gosh, there were a lot of one-hit wonders that came out of the 70s also.

The whole Arena Rock thing was happening in the 70s too with Bad Company, Queen, Heart, Foreigner, all of those bands as well. So I’m kind of schizophrenic musically and it kind of depends on my mood. I think we all have a very broad collection of CDs that we are pulled into depending on our moods. One pumps me up and one makes me introspective.

Melissa Parker (Our Prattville): You are focusing most of your time now on the new CD?

Gunnar Nelson: I’ve kind of got tunnel vision when it comes to recording projects especially when I have a deadline. I’ve got over 300 songs written so it just comes down to actually finding the right network and the ones to get behind it and going in and finding the time to actually recording the album. So, I’m focusing in on that.

This particular rock record is pretty exciting because I kind of feel like I’m getting to close the book on a chapter of my life that was pre-empted unfairly when everyone started wearing flannel.

For more info on tickets for the concert, see www.mpaconline.org.

Interview by Melissa Parker

© 2009 Our Prattville. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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