"Relatively Speaking" – Musicians Talk About Their Famous Kin

Marc ShapiroCategories:Music

Rock Cellar Magazine
Trying to make it in music is tough.  But if you are related to a reigning superstar, either by blood or by marriage, it can be downright brutal:
You can’t totally make it on your own. If you get a gig, it’s because your father or husband put in a  good word.  A record deal?  A family member called in a favor.  If you’re not really talented (and that situation arises more often than you might think) you’re riding the real star of the family’s coattails.  If you do have talent, you’re merely cashing in on your famous last name and will always be in their shadow.
Rock Cellar Magazine contributor Marc Shapiro sat down with four people in this very situation –  to see how things work (or don’t work) when you’re following in the footsteps of a superstar family member.
Here are our “relatively fascinating” interviews with  Lukas Nelson – son of Willie Nelson, Jenda Derringer -wife of Rick Derringer, Miles Nielsen – son of Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, and Sarah Lee Guthrie – daughter of Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of Woody Guthrie.
Lukas Nelson

Lukas Nelson approached his father Willie Nelson one day with a simple question. What did his superstar father want for his birthday? Willie thought about it a moment.
He said “if you learn how to play guitar, that would be the best present for me,” says Lukas. I said I would, and then he sat down with me and taught me a few chords.

A simple birthday present would turn into a legitimate music career for the younger Nelson – albums, tours and his own enticing mixture of rock, blues and country.  It is not a career that is anywhere near the level of his father’s but, as the low key Nelson is fond of saying “I’m getting by.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: Did you look at learning to play guitar as a way of getting into the family business? 
Lukas Nelson:  I never really looked at it as being in the family business. I felt like, maybe, because my father was gone all the time, it would be a way to get close to him.  I know that impressing him had a lot to do with it. But then I fell in love with the idea of doing music for a living.
RCM: Before you ventured out on your own, did you feel pressure to make sure you were damned good, because of who your father was?
LN:  I did.  But then I had some great on-the-job training!  I played in my dad’s band since age 14.  So doing that allowed me to get my chops up and to learn how to play with other people.  It really taught me how to play and it turned me into a seasoned musician.
RCM: As you began to forge your own career, did you ever wish you had any last name but “Nelson?”
LN:   Sure. I felt a lot of people would pay more attention to my last name and not enough attention to the effort I was making. I kind of understood it then but I definitely understand it now.  But I had too much respect for my dad and his  talents to ever complain about it.  I guess it’s my ego getting in the way but I just don’t let who my dad is control my actions.

RCM:  Any downsides to trying to make it because of who your dad is? 
LN:  I don’t think so.  It might have been tougher to get the respect going in.  But once people saw me play, nobody ever gave me a hard time.  They seemed to see that I had some level of talent and that it wasn’t nepotism that got me the gig.
RCM: Your father is infamous for things that have gone on in his personal life, and you have had some alcohol and drug problems in recent years.  Do people see that and say “that’s just Willie’s kid, acting like Willie?”
LN:   This is the story. I used to smoke a lot of weed but I quit that about three months ago.  I just couldn’t sing as well when I was smoking every day.  I’d also been a heavy drinker for a long time.  I was around musicians and drinking was what a lot of them did when they weren’t playing and so I fell into it that way.
I got wasted one night about a year ago and blacked out. I woke up in a pool of my own vomit, not remembering anything that happened.  That was the last straw for me.  Long story short, nobody has ever compared me to my dad.  I’m my dad’s son but I’m also my own person.
RCM: Anybody ever give the impression that they thought you were just trying to cash in on your father’s name?
LN:  Some people may have had that thought, especially when they saw me drinking so heavily.  I’m sure people looked at me and thought I was some kind of spoiled sonofabitch who was just drunk all the time.  My only response to that is that I never treated people badly and I always played the best that I could.

RCM:  Any funny stories about being the son of Willie?
LN:  I’ve opened shows for my dad where I’ve been booed off the stage.  I guess a lot of people would consider that funny. I’ve never allowed myself to be billed as “Willie Nelson’s son.”  It’s definitely not something I’m trying to hide, but I don’t like flyers or advertising for a gig that says I’m Willie Nelson’s son. I don’t want to cash in on his name.  Personally, I think that’s pretty tacky.
RCM: Do people ever yell out and request Willie Nelson songs?
LN:  It happens once in a while.  I love to play my dad’s songs.  When I do, it’s kind of a treat for the audience because I can do my dad’s songs pretty well. It doesn’t get annoying or piss me off.  I know what people are feeling when they hear my dad’s music.  All I can hope for is that some of my dad’s spirit has passed onto me and that I can carry it on.
RCM: Does having a famous father ever get in the way of the father/son relationship?
LN:  No.  He gives me advice all the time. He’s a mentor whose been there for me the whole time.  The only time he’s ever given me money is when I was working in his band.  I was never spoiled by my parents but I was always supported by them, emotionally.  When I dropped out of school and was trying to find my own way, they never gave me money.  I learned what it was like to have nothing on my own.  There’s been a lot of stories over the years about my parents not liking what I was doing and that they had cut me off.  It’s bullshit. 
RCM:  Is there a point when you can feel that you will be looked upon as your own person, and not simply the son of Willie Nelson? 
LN:  I already feel that way. I’m  Lukas Nelson, the son of Willie Nelson. I’m happy to be in his shadow if it means that I can be closer to him.
Lukas Nelson and his band Promise Of The Real released their new album entitled Wasted on April 3, 2012. They celebrated its release with an appearance on The David Letterman Show and are continuing to tour in support of the album throughout 2012. Promise Of The Real performed more than 200 dates in 2011.
Here’s a collaboration between Lukas & Willie Nelson off of dad’s new album Heroes called No Place to Fly :

Jenda Hall Derringer

The first time Jenda Hall heard her future husband, Rick Derringer’s big McCoy’s hit, Hang On Sloopy, it was a Frankie and Annette kind of moment.

“I remember being five years old and hearing that song and thinking ‘Wow! What a nice guy. I remember when I was 15, I started falling in love with him and one night I fell asleep with his All American Boy album cradled in my arms and praying that one day he would be my husband.”
22 years later Rick Derringer came to town and they’ve been married ever since. It probably has not hurt their marriage – now 12 years strong – that Jenda had been in the music business as a singer/songwriter of commercials and jingles before she met Rick.  Jenda is also a songwriter and was responsible for getting Rick Derringer back on the charts for the first time in 30 years.
ROCK CELLAR MAGAZINE: So how are you responsible for Rick Derringer’s first hit since Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo?
JENDA DERRINGER HALL:   I wrote this song for him called Hot And Cool which got him on the smooth jazz charts for five months.  The irony is that people would expect that I would ride his coattails and I ended up opening new doors for Rick.

RCM: What is the up side and down side of being married to a rock star?
JD:  There really is no down side. My original last name is Hall and I use that when I’m doing business.  I never use Derringer even when it might be to my advantage.
RCM: How does Rick feel about that?
JD:  He’s fine with it. In the area we live in, most people don’t even know who Rick Derringer is.  My last name is Hall and when people meet Rick they call him Mr. Hall.
It might take days, weeks or even months before I let it be known that my last name is Derringer. By then people usually know me for who I am.  A lot of people think it’s cool when I tell them I’m Rick’s wife.  But  at a certain point, it really doesn’t make any difference. It almost becomes secondary that I’m married to Rick so it doesn’t overpower everything else.
RCM:  How does being married to Rick impact your working/music relationship?
JD:  When we first started working together, he would tell people that I was the best songwriter he’d ever worked with.  There’s no jealousy from either one of us.  Rick does not treat me any different when we’re in the studio.  He’s always treated me as a professional and he gives me a fair shot at everything we do.
RCM:  What is the day-to-day stuff like when you’re married to a rock star?
JD:  When we’re not working on a project or out on the road touring, it all boils down to the basics.  Rick’s job is to take out the trash.  My job is to put the dishes away…!
RCM: And when it’s time to record or tour?  Does that change the dynamic between the two of you?
JD:  A lot of times, when it’s time to go into the studio and record, I’ll have to give Rick a gentle nudge to get him going.  I’ll tell him that we’re going into the studio to do another CD and he will say ‘I don’t want to.’ I’ll say ‘Yes you do and you’re going to do such and such a song.’  If I hadn’t, one of his best albums, Knighted By The Blues, would have never been done.
RCM: Is there anything else about Rick that tends to annoy you?
JD:  Sometimes he will compliment me on a song that I’m  working on and I’ll say that it’s really not done yet. Then I’ll catch him going into my computer and looking at other songs that I’m working on.

RCM: What’s it like on stage performing with your husband?
JD:  It’s totally exhilarating when we share a microphone.  It’s just kind of like ‘Wow!’ when you’re on stage singing with your love.  I get butterflies in my stomach, just like it was with Rick when I first fell in love.  It’s like a wonderful high.  I can feel his energy shooting at me.  I see that smile on his face.  And then he’ll give me that little wink.

RCM:  It all sounds very romantic.
JD:  It is.  We met 14 years ago on Valentine’s Day and we got married 12 years ago on Valentine’s Day. It doesn’t get any more romantic than that.
Jenda Derringer’s song Cigarette is currently being shopped to film and television outlets.

Miles Nielsen

Miles Nielsen is like most musicians. He hopes to someday make the big time and have lots of money.  But when your father is Rick Nielsen, the guitarist for one of the biggest bands in the land, Cheap Trick, how fat his wallet is can make for some interesting conversations.
“Everybody thinks I have tons of cash,” laughs Nielsen who currently fronts the band The Rusted Hearts and recently captured an Oscar nod for the soundtrack for the documentary Undefeated.  “It came out in the news who my dad was and, all of a sudden, it was like ‘You’re Cheap Trick! Give me some money!’  People also think that every time I go into the studio I get to use all my dad’s guitars. I wish that were the case because he’s got some great guitars.  But it’s not.”
Nielsen talked about being the offspring of a rock god in a recent interview with Rock Cellar Magazine.
RCM: What was your father’s reaction when you told him you wanted to get into the rock and roll business?
MN: I had a guitar the next day.  He was fine with it.
RCM: He didn’t say ‘are you out of your mind’?
MN: I wish he had!  I wasn’t born when he was going through the rock star thing.  By the time I came into the picture, all I saw was the glamorous and fun side.  Cheap Trick  was already a hugely successful band and so I just assumed that was all there was to it.
RCM: But that impression changed?
MN: Yeah.  As I got older, I started seeing some of the bad stuff as well.  Consequently now I know all the stuff.
RCM: What are the advantages and disadvantages of  being in the business when your father is a big star?
MN:  Obviously the advantage is that you can get your foot in the door a little bit easier. The disadvantage is that, once you get your foot in the door, people have a preconceived notion of what I’m about. They think they know what my sound is going to be and  what my personality is going to be. People sometimes think I’m going to have an attitude and a sense of entitlement. I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. I went to public schools. I don’t have shit for entitlement.
RCM: So the disadvantages have outweighed the advantages as far as your career are concerned?
MN:  I think so. People are like ‘Oh he’s so and so’s kid and he gets shows booked through his dad.’  People inside the industry know that’s not how it works.  People outside the business just assume things.  I’ve heard it all so many times.
RCM: As an example?
MN:  We were doing a show in a club a couple of weeks ago.  I was sitting at the bar and this girl comes over and sits down next to me.  She didn’t know who I was but she just started railing on the person she thought I was.  I had a silver spoon in my mouth and all kinds of other bullshit.  She was just totally badmouthing me.   Suddenly she said ‘Wait a second!  You’re him!’ I said ‘Yeah I’m the silver spoon guy.’   She screamed at me, flipped me off and then left.  After all that, I still didn’t change her opinion of me.  The people who buy into that sort of thing are just ignorant.
RCM: Were doors opened for you because of your father?
MN:  Not too many.  As far as my current band goes, not at all.   My father’s name could only take me so far.  At the end of the day, I had to be able to draw numbers and draw people.  I had to be good.  If I wasn’t all those things, I wouldn’t get asked back, no matter who my father was.
RCM:  Do you keep your father up to date on what’s going on with your career?
MN:  No. My dad finds out what I’m doing through friends.  It’s always been that way between us.   When he does find out about something it’s always ‘Well why didn’t you tell me?’
When he found out I did the music for the movie that won the Academy Award, it was like ‘Why didn’t you tell me that?’  My dad’s got his own thing. He’s always focused on Cheap Trick and for him to venture outside of Cheap Trick into what I’m doing is tough for him.  I don’t think he’s even heard my latest record.
RCM: How does that make you feel?
MN:  I’m just used to it. We have an interesting relationship. We’re more peers than father and son.

RCM: Do the two of you ever clash over the way your relationship is?
MN:  Sometimes.  I would be lying if I said we didn’t.  Sometimes I just want that moment where he’s just my dad.  But I understand that, a lot of times, it’s just hard for him to be a supportive father.  I just don’t get that from him.  It’s not that kind of relationship.   We’ll probably both go to our graves being like that with each other.
RCM: Have you ever toured with Cheap Trick?
MN:  My band has done some support shows with them.  I also played some guitar for them when they were doing the Dream Police shows with the full orchestra.
RCM:  Isn’t that kind of like taking a step back in terms of being your own man?
MN:  I’ve been asked that a lot of times. And the reason I do it is that Cheap Trick pays really well and that allows me to take some risks with my own stuff.

RCM:  Did you ever consider going out under an assumed name just to see what would happen?
MN:  It was only on my last record in 2009 that I actually put my full name on a record for the first time.  At that point, I was just ready to be me.  It just wasn’t about the Nielsen thing anymore.  It was about being cool with who I am and the work that I’ve put in.  Prior to that, I would just shy away from the whole name thing.  I would never publicize it and then people would find out and say ‘Well why didn’t you say something?’  My response was ‘What would it matter?’
Miles Nielsen and his band The Rusted Hearts are touring throughout the summer. Highlights will include stops at the Hard Rock Cafe in Chicago on May 18 and the Summerfest on July 4 in Milwaukee.

Sarah Lee Guthrie

Sarah Lee Guthrie has always been a spontaneous sort.  Consequently, it didn’t take much to put her on the well-worn path pioneered by her father Arlo Guthrie and her legendary grandfather Woody Guthrie.

Photo by David Evans

“I was living in Los Angeles and getting ready to go to Santa Monica College,” laughingly recalled the singer who, singularly and with her husband John, has been plying the indie folk movement for the better part of a decade.
“On the day I was going to start classes, I pulled into the college parking lot and could not find a parking place. So I turned around, left and never went back. I took it as a sign that I needed to try something else.”
In a recent conversation with Rock Cellar Magazine, Guthrie explained what that ‘something else’ was and how, musically, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
RCM: How did your father take it when you told him you wanted to get into music?
SLG: He actually asked me to join the family business. I had already learned my first chord on the guitar. About that time I met my future husband and he taught me a few more chords. Word got back to my mom that I was playing guitar and, a week later, my dad called me up and said ‘Hey, forget that college stuff. Why don’t you come out on the road with me.’
RCM: What was your response to that?
SLG: It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had fallen in with a crowd of people who had the love of music that I hadn’t really experienced before. I was all for it. I was like ‘Hey, why not?’ Two days later, I flew out to Denver to join my dad’s tour.

Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Abe Guthrie, Johnny Irion

RCM: How were you as a performer during those early shows with your father?
SLG:  I started off pretty shy and would barely say a word on stage. But he was always kind of pushing me out into the spotlight.  He was very supportive and nurturing during those first shows.
RCM: When did you play your own show for the first time?
SLG:  We were in Wisconsin on my dad’s tour and I felt I was ready to try doing my own thing.  So I booked a show so far away from my home base that if I turned out to be a complete failure, nobody would hear about it.  I found this place called Shank Hall in Milwaukee.  I told my dad what I was planning and he was real excited for me. It would turn out that dad and my brother were two of just 13 people who were in the audience that night.
RCM: How did that first show go?
SLG:  The audience was laughing while I was up on stage, telling jokes in between songs, trying to take the pressure off.  I was just a blithering  idiot.  But my dad and brother came backstage after the show and congratulated me and said I was really great.
RCM: So your dad was always encouraging?
SLG:  Always.  He was the one who encouraged me to go ahead and make my first record. In hindsight, I probably should not have listened to him on that one.  I look back on that first record now and wish I had waited a couple of years.

RCM:  What are the advantages and disadvantages of being Arlo Guthrie’s daughter?
SLG:  Sometimes the advantages and disadvantages are the same. People already think they know who you are. They associate you with somebody they’ve already made their mind up about.  It’s often kind of hard to make your way when your dad is so huge.  My goal is for people to recognize me for who I am.
RCM:  Would you say that there is a lot of expectation, even baggage having Arlo Guthrie as your father and Woody Guthrie as your grandfather?
SLG:  It is a lot of baggage but it’s also a blessing.  The association  has helped me to turn people’s heads toward my husband’s and my music.  It’s also carved out a bit of a path to follow.  Being the daughter and granddaughter of the Guthrie’s is not a bad way to go!  I’m glad I have my father’s reputation to live up to rather than some rock and roll junkie who couldn’t find his way.
RCM:  Have you reached a point where you can get through a show without somebody requesting one of your father’s or grandfather’s songs?
SLG: Yes and no. That sort of thing still happens to my dad. I don’t think that ever really goes away. For me, it all depends on the motivation behind the request. If it’s something that’s truly heartfelt, I can deal with it.  Sometimes I just want to throw the whole moment overboard and forget it because the request is too hard to deal with.
RCM: Does the father daughter relationship ever get in the way of the musician-to-musician relationship?
SLG:  We’ve both been doing this for so long that both tend to go hand in hand. He’s got his opinions and I have mine. Sometimes dad turns out to be right and sometimes I’m right. We argue about things once in a while. Especially when it comes to the business side of music. We’ve definitely had our differences.

RCM: As the years have gone by, have you toured with your father less by design?
SLG: We do get together sometimes. We have a show called The Guthrie Family that we do every couple of years. 
RCM:  But you’re ultimately better off being away from your father and being on your own?
SLG:  Yes.  That was a conscious decision by my husband and I.  We just felt that,  at a certain point, we had to get out there and do our own thing.

RCM:  Did you ever not get a gig because you were Arlo’s daughter?
SLG:  Even if it happened, I don’t  know if anybody would have told me.  Plenty of people have booked us because of who we are and then found out later that we were kind of good. I’ve had people come up and say they didn’t want to like me because they thought I was riding my dad’s coattails but they found out that I was actually good.
RCM:  Did you ever try booking yourselves under a different name?
SLG:  We’ve tried that several times over the years.  But it seems like every label we’ve been with it’s been ‘No you can’t change now.’ So at the end of the day, we’re charging forward as is.
Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion are currently recording a new album in Chicago that Guthrie describes as “Progressive Americana Rock.”

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