Nelson twins will perform musical tribute to father at San Juan College
'Ricky Nelson Remembered' a multimedia presentation
FARMINGTON — When Gunnar Nelson and his brother Matthew developed and began performing their traveling show "Ricky Nelson Remembered" approximately a quarter century ago, they had a nice multiyear run with the project.
The show, which the two will perform this weekend at San Juan College, features Ricky Nelson's twin sons performing the songs of their father, a 1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee best known for such hits as "Hello Mary Lou" and "Garden Party."
But with the subsequent rise of the alternative rock scene typified by such bands as Nirvana, their traveling show based on the music of a 1950s teen idol no longer had much commercial appeal.
"It was really uncool to be us," Gunnar Nelson said Tuesday during a telephone interview from his home in Nashville, recalling how popular culture had turned against the kind of entertainment he and his brother were offering.
Eventually, the Nelson twins — who had enjoyed some chart-topping success of their own in 1990 with their double platinum-selling debut album "After the Rain" — went on hiatus with the show, essentially assuming its moment had come and gone.
"As an artist, we always have self-doubt," Gunnar said, describing his feeling at the height of the grunge movement when he grasped what a poor fit he and his brother were for the prevailing musical tastes of that era. "There's got to be something profoundly wrong with anybody who goes up in front of a crowd and tries to get people to like you."
The Nelsons didn't relish the prospect of trying to win over the cynical, flannel-wearing crowd, so they more or less accepted their fate.
"Did I think it could be over forever? Sure," Gunnar said.
But then a funny thing happened. About three years ago, their phone started ringing again, with agents inquiring about taking the show back out on the road. To the brothers' surprise, "Ricky Nelson Remembered" had found new audience. It's been going strong ever since.
The Nelsons recognize the fact that entertainment tastes haven't swung entirely back in their favor, and it will always be a battle to get younger listeners in particular to attach monetary value to music.
"The amount of money consumers spend on games dwarfs the amount they spend on music," Gunnar said. "Kids, especially, expect music to be free."
What the Nelsons try to do with their show, he said, is present listeners of all ages with a return to an era when music itself was the main event and not simply background noise.
"You guys have no idea how much fun you missed back then," Gunnar finds himself telling younger listeners today.
The "Ricky Nelson Remembered" show began as a traditional concert, with the twins backed by two other musicians. Eventually, they reduced that lineup to the guitar-bass-drums lineup their father used, but as the show neared its fifth year on the road, Gunnar and Matthew realized they were failing to take advantage of an enormous resource to make the production better — approximately 500 episodes of the television sitcom "Ozzie and Harriet" starring their father, grandfather and grandmother that Gunnar laughingly refers to as "the world's greatest home movies."
"We realized were doing a great disservice to everyone by not incorporating video," he said.
Now, "Ricky Nelson Remembered" is a multimedia presentation, with music, video and stories shared by the twins about their father. The twins share a reverence for their father's music and fiercely defend his legacy, maintaining he still doesn't get the respect and credit he is due, despite his induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"He didn't get near the critical acclaim he deserved when he was alive," Gunnar said. "He was the real deal. It's a real disservice to lump him in with the made-for-Hollywood guys like Fabian. He wasn't that."
Gunnar said his father tended to be dismissed as a teen idol because he first achieved fame as an actor on "Ozzie and Harriet." The commitment required to maintain his TV shooting schedule kept him from going out on the road with such Sun Records icons as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, and Ricky Nelson was forced to record his music in the then-relative isolation of Hollywood instead of Memphis, home of Sun and then the center of the rock 'n' roll universe.
But Gunnar recalled having a conversation with Sun founder Sam Phillips before his death in 2003, and Phillips told him he had tried to sign his father to his label and considered the elder Nelson an honorary Sun Records alum.
Ricky Nelson's influence didn't stop there, Gunnar said, crediting his father with helping birth a California-tinged rock 'n' roll sound that differed from the blues-, gospel- and country-soaked rock coming from Memphis. That eventually would lead to Los Angeles usurping Memphis as the popular music recording capital of the world, he said.
The Nelson twins also shared a deep personal bond with their father up until his death in a plane crash on New Year's Eve in 1985, Gunnar said. He recalled their last conversation, which took place just a few days before the holiday.
The twins, still in their teens, had put together a band of their own and were enjoying their first taste of success. On a Saturday night, they had performed at a popular Sunset Strip club and packed the place. Returning home in the early-morning hours, they loaded their sound equipment and instruments into the garage with their father's help, then retired to the kitchen to rehash the gig and continue enjoying the moment.
"We were just talking about life," Gunnar said. "It was one of those amazing kitchen talks. Then, he looked at us and said, 'Boys, I not only love you as my sons, but I admire you as my peers.'
"That was a pretty big moment for us," Gunnar said. "And it was prophetic. He kind of knew he was on borrowed time. But he managed to tell us that one thing you want to hear from your hero."
"Ricky Nelson Remembered" will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for students, $18 for seniors, and $15 for children 12 and younger at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette. Call 505-566-3430.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.