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Q&A: Gunnar Nelson

Twin sons of rock 'n' roll legend Ricky Nelson bring Ricky Nelson Remembered show to Pleasanton on January 10

I’ve always loved the music of Ricky Nelson, one of the great original rock ‘n’ rollers. Nelson, who became a teen idol on the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, had a string of huge hit records in the late 1950s. Nelson later reinvented himself as one of the pioneers of country rock, making stellar records with his Stone Canyon Band, but died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985.

On January 10, Nelson’s twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, will revive their father’s music when they perform Ricky Nelson Remembered at Pleasanton’s Firehouse Arts Center. I had a chance to chat with Gunnar Nelson about his father’s legacy, his personal memories of Ricky Nelson, and his and Matthew’s own experience as pop stars in the MTV-era.

PC: I saw Tom Petty cover “Anyone Else But You” during his 1999 Fillmore run, and he talked about watching Ozzie and Harriet as a kid, and waiting for Ricky to sing. You didn’t grow up in that time, when your dad was on the biggest show on TV. Did you have a sense of what a huge icon he was when you were young?

Gunnar Nelson: No, we did not really have any idea about what our dad meant to the greater culture. To us, he was just dad.

That’s really sweet, what Tom Petty said. Our dad was in this unique situation—he was doing this family TV show five days per week. It was the biggest TV show on the planet at the time.

Now, he wanted to go to Memphis to the Sun Records studios, where Elvis and Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison were making all their hit records. But our father could not make the commute from LA to Memphis. The option my dad had was to go into a studio in LA at night. He was making records from instinct, just shooting from the hip. And he gave us the West Coast sound.

I got a chance to meet (Sun Records founder) Sam Phillips about three months before he died. Sam told me that, back in the day, “When a new Ricky single came out, we were all running down to the store to buy the single and see what he was doing. It did not sound like Memphis—it was rock ‘n’ roll, but had a different pulse.”

PC: That West Coast sound was even more prominent in his 1970s music. I’m a big fan of that material, particularly his Bob Dylan covers.

GN: Right. When Matthew and I were growing up, our dad was doing his thing with the Stone Canyon Band, which was the first true country rock band.

Our dad really respected Bob Dylan. It was Bob who said, “Rick you have a choice…you can do your oldies set until the end of time, or you can reinvent yourself.” Bob was paying it forward, when people were discounting our dad. Our dad’s first top 40 hit was “She Belongs to Me.” And then, “Garden Party” hit when we were kids, and it taught us to believe in what you do.

PC: Thinking about the different eras of rock music is interesting. Your dad went through the first wave, with the TV show and American Bandstand, which eventually went away. Similarly, I remember when your video for “After the Rain” was on MTV every hour, but now MTV isn’t the MTV it used to be—the station doesn't play music videos at all.

GN: It was kind of a miracle that “After the Rain” got any play on MTV. It was actually rejected by MTV when we first submitted it, because we had dream sequences and spiritual references, and they said, “Just play the song.” But there was this show called Dial MTV, which was totally fan-driven. The fans voted “After the Rain” as the number one video for three weeks. And it was a hit.

PC: You and Matthew went though something similar to what your dad must have dealt with—having a huge hit at a young age. What do you remember about those days?

GN: You caught the tiger by the tail and tried to hang out. Matt and I were generating a lot of money for a lot of executives. We started playing when we were 6, started playing professionally when we were 12, but there is nothing that can prepare you for that kind of attention.

However, in the middle of our first tour, the world changed. The world went grunge. Our label signed Nirvana halfway through our first tour. There was a mandate that went out—our music was out and grunge was in.

You go from hero to zero overnight, and its pretty tough. It took us about a decade to get over that. We were so young, and it was natural to be resentful. We were kind reliving what our father must have gone through. But after awhile, we got our act together and started writing songs again, and we’re writing better songs than ever. Our dad was a great example of what to do and how to do it.

For information about tickets to the January 10 performance of Ricky Nelson Remembered featuring Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, click on the Firehouse Arts Center website.