When your dad is a founding father of outlaw country and a major musical legend, at some point, you realize resistance is futile: Even if you don’t seek a career in music, eventually, it’s gonna seek you.
Like the Cash and Jennings kids, Paula Nelson picked up “Papa Bear” Willie’s way with a song early on — along with her aunt Bobbie’s skill on piano, which Paula started playing at age 7. Although her dad once advised her, “Remember to watch everything I do and do the exact opposite,” she drew influences from his Highwaymen pals and contemporaries such as Kris Kristofferson’s then-wife, Rita Coolidge, whose bluesy, supple vocal style provided one of Paula’s earliest templates as she found her own voice. Texas Monthly has called that voice “torchy,” and the Los Angeles. Times praised, “There’s no missing the unforced power of Paula’s singing.”
Music writers will be searching for more superlatives upon listening to the new recording by the Paula Nelson Band, LUCKY 13, being released Feb. 26 on Pedernales Records/Justice Records. Created at Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Studios in Austin, where Houston-born Paula was raised and still calls home, the album features 10 rootsy originals and three covers (including the timeless “Jackson” and “Angel from Montgomery”) in a sultry Southern rock/blues vein.
Backing her up is a quintet of players she also calls her best friends – in addition to longtime musical partner and album co-producer Matt Hubbard, a singer and multi-instrumentalist, the current lineup reunites her with members from previous band incarnations: guitarist Landis Armstrong, drummer Kevin Remme and bassist Chris Johnson. Acoustic guitarist George Devore is the latest addition.
But it was another dear friend, the late Clifford Antone, who truly helped her blossom into a confident musical talent. She credits her October 27 birthday twin with teaching her how to play the guitar, turning her on to all sorts of great blues tunes, and encouraging her to get out there and perform. “He made me get up and sing at Antone’s all of the time,” she says.
When Nelson returned from a short sojourn in Colorado to Austin, she corralled her band-mate buddies and jumped back in the game, appearing at her dad’s Fourth of July picnic at the Fort Worth Stockyards. She also appeared at Farm Aid 2007 in New York; Willie returned the favor by contributing to the album, along with her brother, Luke.
In the early ‘90s, before she left Austin, Paula and the band could be heard at Antone’s, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, the old Steamboat and other local venues. But she admits she’s much more comfortable performing live now; she’s got more material, for one thing.
“Most of my songs came from a relationship that’s going either really good or really bad,” she quips. “If it weren’t for relationships, I’d have no songs at all!”
Whether she’s just being modest or honest, Paula has also earned praise for her songwriting ability. When she released her debut album, COMING HOME, Texas Monthly said of her “confessional” lyrics, “She shares at least one thing with her father: the ability to say so much with so few words. … Her promise is undeniable.”
Like most songwriters, she’s driven by a passion that formed before she even realized what it was. “I was around it all my life,” she explains. “I have always been so affected by music and lyrics. Can’t imagine my life without it.
“I knew this was what I was supposed to do. And it’s much cheaper than therapy!” she cracks, adding, “And being a songwriter, I always have the last word!”
In fact, LUCKY 13’s first track, “Fire Below,” is a rocker she describes as “a woman’s final words” tune. Over a bed of classic Southern-rock guitar, she sings, “I’m jumpin’ the tracks and I’m not coming back, no, no, no.”
Actually, she describes three of her compositions as “woman’s final words” songs; “Baby You’re Mean” and “Find Your Way” are the others. Clearly, anyone who might consider tangling with Paula in a war of words would have a hard time winning. She could also whip a few asses — even her protective big-brother band mates, she brags – with her Tai Kwan Do black belt. Another surprise: Nelson does stunt work on the side. She’s appeared on the Austin-filmed TV series “Friday Night Lights” and served as Jessica Simpson’s stunt driver in a “bad boy lawn-mower race” video that also featured Woody Harrelson, Owen and Luke Wilson and her father.
One can hear that gutsy streak in several of Nelson’s rockers, but she’s got an equally intriguing soft side, as exemplified by the string-backed ballad “Day to Day Love,” a more pensive look at a failing relationship. The seductive “Overboard” sets a jazzy mood, and with the classic “Angel From Montgomery,” she departs from her alto comfort zone to reveal a lovely soprano range.
That tiny little blonde girl with the kid-sized guitar and the big grin pictured in the album art definitely looks like she knew even back then where she was headed. And with LUCKY 13, Paula Nelson is finally where she belongs.