NASHVILLE -- Lukas Nelson clearly remembers the conversation that launched him on the path to playing guitar for a living.
Nelson was 10 or 11 and his father, Willie, was showing him a few things on the guitar. The son asked his father what he'd like for his upcoming birthday and the answer changed Lukas Nelson's life.
"He said, 'I want you to learn how to really play guitar,'" Lukas Nelson remembered. "I said, 'OK,' and I did. I fell in love with it."
Lukas Nelson threw himself into learning the guitar and his progress will be on display this summer when he joins his famous father and a host of rising country music stars on the "Country Throwdown Tour." Willie Nelson headlines the traveling festival that kicks off Friday in Philadelphia.
Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Lee Brice, and Brantley Gilbert among others will join the Nelsons on the 25-city tour. And while the iconic Country Music Hall of Famer is looking forward to seeing those guys, he's really excited to spend the summer touring with his son. No offense.
"Oh, I can't wait," Willie Nelson said. "I'm looking really forward to it. We have a lot of fun together and I'm so proud of him that he's doing so good."
Lukas Nelson released his first self-titled album with his band, Promise of the Real, last year and expects to play 250 or more shows in 2011. There are times when he looks, sounds, and plays like his dad, but the 22-year-old guitarist is clearly attempting to cut his own path.
The album is filled with rock 'n' roll, from flaming electric Texas blues rock to spacey and spiritual psychedelia. He covers deep influences Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix on the album and at times sounds more like the offspring of Stevie Ray Vaughn than the heir of the Nelson clan.
That Lukas Nelson picked up the guitar and hit the road shouldn't come as a surprise. It's the way he was raised. Lukas and his six siblings were regulars on their father's tour bus, thanks to homeschooling, and some played and sang on stage with Nelson's band as they grew up.
"We can really have more family time out here than we can on a day off somewhere at home because it really gets so hectic," Willie Nelson said. "Really we're able to connect better out here going up and down the highway. We are traveling musicians. I guess we like it. It's kind of like a gypsy."
It was an idyllic upbringing for a young musician and Lukas and his brother Micah dove into the life. Lukas played the guitar 10 hours a day and entered the family business of songwriting. He remembers his father being a handy resource, but one who kept it positive. If Nelson liked one of his Lukas' songs, he might record it, as he did with "You Were It" on 2004's "It Always Will Be." And if he didn't like a song, he kept it to himself.
Locked away in his bedroom, Lukas chased the sounds made by iconic figures in rock 'n' roll who were personal friends -- Young, Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp among them.
Eventually he felt the pull to step out on his own. In his late teens, he quit school, moved to Southern California, and started his own band.
"I just knew I wanted to play, that I loved to play, and that's what I wanted to do with my life, whether I was going to make money at it or not," Lukas Nelson said. "By my own decision I dropped out of school and lived in my car for a year and busked on the street. I toured in a van when we first started. I didn't ask my parents for any money financially. I tried to do it on my own and I'm proud I did it on my own."
While Lukas' father is the obvious main draw on the "Country Throwdown Tour," promoter Kevin Lyman thinks acts like the younger Nelson will be the focus of ticket-buyers. Lyman's original concept was to pair Willie Nelson with a young act like a Dierks Bentley who could serve as a bridge between generations, and he's mostly succeeded with that premise in the festival's second year.
One thing's for sure: With the Nelson family along it's going to be one heck of a party.