About a decade ago, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson decided that they wanted to do something to honor the musical legacy of their father, Rick Nelson and they came up with the Ricky Nelson Remembered show. But as Gunnar Nelson shares during a recent phone conversation, there was a lot to pick from when the brothers began to work on putting together a set list. Rick had placed 53 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 throughout his career, selling over 280 million singles and 60 million albums (all of which helped to earn him a slot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 1987 class of inductees), and that made choosing which songs to put in the show a hefty task.
“Well, of course when we put this together, the hardest thing for us to do was cull through this incredible catalog of music our dad did and pare it down to something that could fit into 90 minutes,” Nelson recalls. “Right after our dad passed, we actually found a copy of a set list that he was using on that last tour. So what we did was we made a decision to actually do his last set in that order. Because we figured, if it’s good enough for our dad, obviously, that’s the way he wanted it, then we might as well do that. So that’s what we do.”
Calling his father the “first guy to smuggle rock and roll into mainstream American living rooms,” Gunnar says he was also someone who had a good handle on how to satisfy the fans within that tight window of time, according to Gunnar. “He did it smart — he started with all of those songs that people wanted to hear,” he explains. “I mean, with a Rick Nelson concert, you’ve gotta hear ‘Hello Mary Lou,’ you’ve gotta hear ‘Travelin’ Man,’ you’ve gotta hear ‘Garden Party,’ you’ve gotta hear ‘Lonesome Town.’ There are some standards that you just have to hear that really define the era and define him as an artist too.”
When it comes to favorites from their dad’s catalog, as you might imagine, the twins are split on their thoughts. “I think Matthew and I each have different answers,” he says. “Matthew would probably tell you it would be ‘Garden Party,’ because our dad wrote it based on a true to life experience, and he basically turned what could have been a really tragic moment in anyone’s life, which is getting booed off the stage by 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, for looking different than people remembered him from TV and playing new music,” he says. “You know, he wanted to grow and change and they wouldn’t let him and he took that event that was like, ‘I learned my lesson well/ you can’t please everyone/ so you’ve gotta please yourself.’”
“That’s really great. That’s a real triumph,” Nelson says. “For me, it’s really simple. I love ‘Lonesome Town.’ You know, I agree with Paul McCartney, it’s one of his favorite songs and it’s mine too — I love that song. Because at a time when recording techniques were a novel idea and technology was broadening what people could do in the studio and what they could layer onto a track — everybody was stacking more and more production into their records and our dad, on that one song, went the other way. It was a solo acoustic guitar and a solo vocal and it is freakin’ awesome to this day. It’s just so vulnerable and melancholy, and it just works. So to me, that’s my dad in his purest form.”
Rick Nelson passed away in a plane crash in 1985, but Matthew and Gunnar had plenty of chances to see their dad perform live in the years leading up to that. As Gunnar remembers, anytime their father was “within 300 miles of Los Angeles,” they’d go to see him play shows. “He was inspiring — he always had a killer show and a great band,” he says. “His band was unbelievable. Rick Nelson always had the best musicians, I do have to say. No matter what era of his career you’re referring to, he had incredible musicianship. James Burton on guitar. I mean, good Lord, where do you go when you’ve had James Burton as your lead guitar player?”