For many years, Willie Nelson worried that he wasn't a great father. "I've been gone most of the time," he admits of his grueling lifelong touring schedule. "They had their mother there, and I wasn't there. So there were those situations, but that’s just the way it is."
But Willie's sons Lukas and Micah – plus their mom Annie D'Angelo Nelson – disagree with that notion. In Rolling Stone's new mini-documentary Willie and the Boys (their new album Willie Nelson and the Boys is out on Friday) the Nelson sons discuss how playing onstage with their dad inspired them to forge their own careers: Lukas with his country-rock band Promise of the Real, and Micah with his psychedelic-folk projects Insects Vs. Robots and Particle Kid. While those projects drift far from their dad's unique mix of country and gypsy-jazz, the Nelson boys point to Willie's freewheeling philosophy as their guiding light. Micah uses his 1975 album Red Headed Stranger as an example of how his dad influenced him: "To me, that's a punk record, in the context of what country music was supposed to be back then: overproduced and shiny and rhinestones and strings. He was breaking down barriers and fearlessly doing his thing ... For me, to fearlessly do my thing and be myself, I can't think of any other way to respect and honor my dad's legacy."
Willie calls playing music with his kids "as good as it gets." He's been doing a lot of it lately: Lukas and Micah opened for their dad on last summer's Outlaw Music Festival tour, and they are gearing up to release Willie Nelson and the Boys, a set made up of the classic country songs that Willie played for his kids growing up. Most of the artists they cover, it turns out, are named Hank: Hank Williams ("Mind Your Own Business"), Hank Cochran ("Can I Sleep in Your Arms"), Hank Locklin ("Send Me the Pillow You Dream On") and Hank Snow ("I'm Movin' On"). "We do a lot of traditional country stuff that I think a lot of Luke's fans and Micah’s fans will be introduced to," Willie says, comparing it to Stardust, his 1978 breakthrough album of American standards.
Aboard Willie's bus Honeysuckle Rose, the family talks about their dynamic. Willie and Annie share their household's three rules, while the boys recall getting in trouble for sharing their dad's dirty jokes in school. Willie and the boys also sat down with acoustic guitars for a remarkable performance of "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" – which Willie first recorded for Red Headed Stranger – showcasing the family's otherworldly vocal blend (the performance brought Annie to tears on the bus). They also play "Nuages" by Willie's greatest guitar hero, Django Reinhardt.
Willie Nelson and sons, Lukas and Micah, perform "Can I Sleep in Your Arms."
Music has long run in the Nelson family. Willie was raised by his grandparents, who were music teachers in Texas and got him started on guitar. He grew up playing in church alongside his older sister Bobbie, a pianist who still joins Willie on the road to this day. His other children, including daughters Paula and Amy, have had success as musicians. While launching a career with the Nelson name might seem intimidating, Lukas instead calls it "inspiring." "I just kind of grew up believing I could because it was around me. It was like well if my dad can do it I can do it. That’s my own blood."
It's also a big season for the brood. Micah just released his new LP Everything is Bullshit as Particle Kid, while Lukas just released Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, their first album on Fantasy Records. Willie, meanwhile, is working on a tribute album to Frank Sinatra, who called Nelson his favorite singer. “We've got a lot of irons in the fire,” says Lukas. "And it's all great."