Raelyn Nelson, granddaughter of Willie, makes her Memphis debut this Thursday at Lafayette's Music Room. Purists beware: though she's a mom of three, she exudes the rock-and-roll energy of a much younger soul, tempered by the wisdom only an outlaw grandpa can bring.
Memphis Flyer: I saw your first EP cover was an homage to the Ramones. Were they a big influence on your sound?
Raelyn Nelson: Yeah. Cheap Trick and Big Star. All the guys in the band brought that into our music. Mine are like Loretta Lynn and all the old country greats. Kitty Wells. My mom kept me pretty sheltered with music when I was younger. It was a lot of Amy Grant, a lot of Christian music, my grandpa's music, and old country. That's kinda where she kept me until I got into my teens, then I ventured out little bit and got into the country scene at that time. I was a big Dixie Chicks fan.
And my main influence is my grandpa. He gave me my guitar when I was 14; it's what I've written all my songs on. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't even wanna sing. When my kids were babies, I was stuck at home while they were sleeping all the time. I picked up the guitar again and started writing some of the songs that you hear now.
Jonathan Bright [JB], my music partner and guitar player, had a studio, and I was just looking for a place to record these songs. I recorded two or three, and by the end, he was like, "We should write some songs together and form a combo and play!" All of the guys I originally got were already in a band with JB, very much a part of the underground rock scene here in Nashville. Those guys [JB and Preach Rutherford] and my drummer chick [Angela Lese] are all rock-and-roll based, and I'm the one who's country. Of course, I love the hybrid of old country and rock-and-roll. It's super fun, and everyone can't help but get up and dance to it.
It reminds me of the cowpunk bands from the '80s ...
Jason and the Scorchers were a Nashville band and kinda did the cowpunk thing. We've been compared to them a lot. It's funny, because Jason is now Farmer Jason, on our Channel 8, the kids' channel. He pops up and says, "It's Faaaarrrmer Jason!" And he starts singing kids' songs. That's how I knew him. So my band guys started showing me videos of Jason and the Scorchers, and I'm like, "That is Farmer Jason from Channel 8!"
And let me tell you this: JB was doing a Replacements cover album, all on ukuleles. It's a really cool album. It made me fall in love with the Replacements — I had never heard of them. Anyway, he had all these ukuleles sitting around the studio. So I was just fucking around on one, and started playing our songs on it, and I'm like "I think I wanna play this when we play!" We plug it into an amp, so it sounds like a really high guitar. And it turned into this cool thing that I can make a lot of fun moves with, 'cause it's really teeny tiny. So I guess my whole thing is to try to be as different as possible.
It sounds like kind of a voyage of discovery for you, as you dig into stuff like the Replacements ...
Yeah, it's opened my mind to all this stuff I didn't even know about! Like the Clash. I didn't know about the Clash, you know? Oh my god, and Joan Jett! I met her, and she's the coolest. She's so teeny tiny and so down to earth. Just the sweetest chick.
Has the band ever joined your grandpa on any gigs?
We played Farm Aid in 2014. And my Aunt Amy and I have plans for an Animal Aid, too, similar to Farm Aid but for animals. We actually started a nonprofit organization called Willie's Kids, to create humane education that can be used in schools globally. To help generations be more mindful of animals. You know, it also connects with the factory farming here, 'cause it's really bad for the environment, really bad for the animals, and really bad for us, the stuff that they're putting into these animals. It's just incredible, the greed for money and the over-consumption of meat that people are doing. It's too much. We don't need it.
Willie must be proud that you're carrying on the tradition of being both compassionate and a little ornery.
Well, my grandpa has always said the number one rule is, "Don't be an asshole"; number two is, "Don't be an asshole"; and number three is, "Don't be a fucking asshole." The Raelyn Nelson Band plays Lafayette's Music Room on Thursday, January 4th at 9 p.m.