Nelson on Hair-Metal Past, Finding Nashville and Honoring Their Father

Duo reflects on previous triumphs and defeats, and looks ahead to new country sound

Gunnar (left) and Matthew Nelson perform at CMA Music Festival in 2014. The brothers have found a way to balance their Nineties past with their country future. Credit: Karen Hicks/CMA

It's been 25 years since Nelson, the twin brother glam-metal duo of Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, rocketed to fame, blond manes blowing behind them on MTV, with the Number One hit "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection." Their story was akin to those of most successful bands of that genre around that time: fast fame met an even faster decline as pop-metal fell out of favor. But Nelson always had an ace in the hole: the musical and lyrical chops passed on to them by their father, Ricky Nelson. While their image may have been outlandish and instantly dated — a flashing Logan's Run of an expiration date — the songs underneath all that studio polish were not.

Fed up with the Sunset Strip scene in L.A., or what was left of it in the wake of the grunge revolution, the siblings decamped for Nashville after crossing paths with songwriter Gary Burr at a festival in Indonesia in 1995. He encouraged them to visit Music City, convinced the tunesmiths would fit right in. After playing a songwriters round at the Bluebird Café, the duo agreed Burr was right. Gunnar moved almost immediately, while Matthew split his time between Los Angeles and Tennessee.

Right around that time, Nelson signed to Warner Reprise and began recording their first country album. A full decade before Eighties/Nineties peers Bon Jovi released "Who Says You Can't Go Home," the brothers were already mining the new Nashville sound — it just never saw the light of day.

"A lot of people don't know this, but we made half an album with Josh Leo producing. It was the tail end of the Garth and Shania boom. We had been in town a while, writing with Victoria Shaw, Gary Burr, Gary Nicholson and had a pretty amazing repertoire of good country songs with great writers," says Matthew. "We made half the album and were taken out to dinner by the head of marketing at Warner. Halfway into the appetizers, he said, 'I have you here because I'm going to be dropping you from the label.' We thought it was a joke. We said, 'Did you not like the music?' He said, 'I haven't heard a note. But nobody would think it was real, so we're dropping you.'"

Gunnar says it's the same treatment the brothers' famous father received when he tried to do anything that wasn't in line with his teen idol past, including forming the Stone Canyon Band, his group merging country and rock.

"We've experienced the same kind of bias our father always had to overcome," says Gunnar of their TV star dad, who rose to fame on the family sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet before becoming a pop singer with blue-eyed covers like "I'm Walkin'." "He was always a guy who, by the critical press, was treated guilty until proven innocent. He always had to fight for respect. He'd be in crowds of 10,000 people but only paying attention to the one critic flipping him the bird."

Undeterred, the brothers remained committed to Nashville. They self-released the aborted country album, titled Brother Harmony, under the name the Nelsons (copies go for upwards of $200 on Amazon) and continued writing and touring. While they still performed the hits from their breakout Nineties heyday — "Love and Affection," "After the Rain," "More Than Ever" — they grew more fond of a stripped-down two-guys-with-guitars sound, which they debuted on tour opening for Styx and fellow Nashville resident Peter Frampton.

It's a style that suits them. The brother's acoustic performance at last year's CMA Music Festival was a surprise highlight.

"I noticed a lot of people walking by, who stopped, listened and then came in, which is always the greatest compliment. We watched the crowd get bigger and bigger," said Matthew, during a conversation with Rolling Stone Country last year at the private club the Standard. "I could feel that audience come on our side. It [started as], 'Oh, I remember those guys' with crossed arms. Then it was, 'Wow, that's surprising.'"

As the final song of their set, the siblings nodded to their father — and his against-the-grain mentality — with a faithful performance of his 1972 hit "Garden Party."

"I'm at a place now — like my dad sang, 'You can't please everyone, so you have to please yourself' — where I don't give a shit what other people think," Matthew says. "I'm going to do what I love to do and if people dig it, it's great. That's where the genuine thing comes through, like what happened at CMA Fest. If it's honest, people feel it; if it's not, they'll let you know."

"We've experienced the same kind of bias our father always had to overcome."

Bolstered by the response from country fans at the genre's signature festival, Matthew and Gunnar returned to the studio, collaborating with friends and late-Eighties country hitmakers Michael Bonagura and his wife Kathie Baillie of the group Baillie and the Boys, along with Bonagura and Baillie's daughter, Alyssa Bonagura. The younger Bonagura, a fixture on Nashville's indie singer-songwriter scene, has toyed with the idea of re-recording "Love and Affection," according to Gunnar.

"I think it's ripe for a redo," he says, either by Bonagura or one of country radio's current stars. Like other pop-rock veterans, from Cinderella's Tom Keifer to Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil, he sees that genre's influence in today's country. "It's Eighties rock with a steel guitar. Everything old is new again, I guess."

The brothers are proud of being part of that era too, and call back to it these days in a unique way: via their hair-metal alumni cover band Scrap Metal. A rotating cast of musicians, it has included many of their friends from L.A.

"That's our refuge, where we have a good time and be proud of the Eighties stuff. We do that with our friends Kip Winger, Mark Slaughter, Lita Ford, Stephen Pearcy. . . it allows us the freedom to treat that as a reunion with your friends and have a good time," says Gunnar.

While the brothers pay lighthearted tribute to their glam days — they've long since cut their locks — they take a more reverent approach in honoring their dad. For years now, the duo has been presenting "Ricky Nelson Remembered Starring Matthew and Gunnar Nelson." A multimedia experience, the concert finds the grandsons of Ozzie and Harriet singing their father's hits and sharing memories of his life. The show comes to Nashville's City Winery on Sunday, July 26th.

"It was time to tip the hat in a respectful way for a lot of the people who grew up with his music, who would come up to us and ask us to put some of his songs into our shows," says Gunnar. "But we decided to separate our shows and do one that is just our dad's music with video footage and us telling stories."

Aside from a way to salute Nelson, who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve 1985, the production keeps the twins rooted in country music.

"Matt has pointed out that we've been legitimately playing and touring country music for the last 10 years. That's what that show is," says Gunnar. "It prepares us for what we're about to do."

Which is dive headlong into a country music career. Albeit in an unconventional manner.

The brothers, who no longer plan to release music or tour as "Nelson," instead opting to use their first names, are currently wrapping up a country-flavored Christmas album. A double-LP of traditionals — one disc is all instrumentals — the record features an original duet with Alyssa Bonagura titled "This Christmas," which the guys hope will further cement their country footprint.

"We've been writing for this phase for the past 20 years. The show you saw at CMA Fest, that . . . came about as an organic thing to do, and we said, 'Let's be bold enough to do it with two guys, two guitars and show them what we can really do,'" says Gunnar. "Had we not had that experience, we may not have made this Christmas record and chosen this particular time to take that stand and do what our dad had to do when he started the Stone Canyon Band."

"What's neat now is I'm stepping into a different phase of my life and my career with my brother, and we've learned an awful lot," continues Matthew. "We really do feel like veterans. We've been to the top of the mountain and the absolute bottom."

That journey has led them to Nashville.

"We've grown up," says Gunnar, "and found a place where we feel like we're at home."