Gunnar Nelson, left, and Matthew Nelson will perform in Ricky Nelson Remembered featuring Matthew and Gunnar Nelson. | Courtesy of Stone Canyon Records
Gunnar Nelson’s very first memory was sitting on a little apple crate on the side of the stage, watching his father, Ricky, perform at Knott’s Berry Farm.
And at home, Ricky Nelson always had a guitar in his hand, and always writing songs.
“Music was a huge part of my childhood,” Gunnar said. “What it did was inspire me in the fact that we had great social proof around us that it was possible to make music at the highest of levels and be successful doing it. It wasn’t just a pipe dream, you know?
“The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do since my first memory was be just like my dad and be a musician,” he said.
Gunnar, 46, and his identical twin brother, Matthew, grew up to find success as multi-platinum recording artists with their rock band, Nelson. Now, they are also celebrating their father’s life on stage in “Ricky Nelson Remembered featuring Matthew & Gunnar Nelson.” The brothers will perform the show March 30 at The Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.
“The best way to describe it is a high energy rock concert meets an A&E ‘Biography’ episode,” Gunnar said.
Matthew and Gunnar play their father’s hits including “Hello Mary Lou,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Travelin’ Man,” “I’m Walking” and more.
“We’re playing the songs and but we’re also telling the stories behind the music,” Gunnar said. “It doesn’t just tell the story of Rick Nelson’s life, but it tells an American story. Basically the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Ricky Nelson is the only artist to have a No. 1 song, No. 1 movie and No. 1 TV show in the same week. For 14 years he appeared on “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet”
Life Magazine coined the phrase “Teen Idol” after him, and he is credited with pioneering the country rock sound. Throughout his career, he had 53 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and 19 other top-ten hits.
When a definitive box set of Ricky Nelson’s work was released around 10 years ago, the record company asked Gunnar and Matthew to perform two shows to promote the collection.
“At that point we’d never done our father’s music before, we’d always done our own music,” Gunnar said.
The response to those two shows was so great, they decided to continue.
“We didn’t know that it was going to basically build to what it is right now,” Gunnar said.
Of their father’s songs that they perform in the show, “Lonesome Town” is Gunnar’s favorite.
“It’s just a really naked and honest song. It’s just a voice and one guitar. When he released it back in the 1950s they were trying to have bigger and bigger productions as recording technology was actually evolving and they were trying to make everything more bombastic with every production they did,” Gunnar said. “And our dad had the guts to just come out with just his voice and acoustic guitar, and he just killed people with this. It’s a really nice, melancholy, honest song. And I get to sing that every night, and I just love that moment.”
Matthew’s favorite song, Gunnar said, is “Garden Party” for the statement their father made with it.
“After a lifetime of being who others thought he should be, he basically took a stand that he wanted to march to the tune of his own drum. And if you liked what he did, great. And if you didn’t, great still,” Gunnar said.
“He was a great guy. He was funny and he was sweet,” Gunnar said. “And he literally lived and died for music. He played 300 shows until the day he died, and he was on his way to a performance New Year’s Eve when the plane went down. It was truly his first love and his first passion.”
In late 1985, about two weeks before he died, Ricky Nelson had a late night conversation with Gunnar and Matthew after they finished performing a show.
“He said ‘I just want to let you know that I love you as my sons, but I admire you as my peers.’ So we got this incredible validation from him. It was a very sincere, heartfelt moment,” Gunnar said. “And of course, he died two weeks later. We really felt like we had this great sense of closure with our dad. And this show is truly — it’s not a not a tribute show — it’s a celebration of his life and work and love of music. You really feel that way when you come to it. It is nothing but funny, uplifting, incredibly informative and entertaining show all at once.”
The show, Gunnar said, has been a gift to keep their father alive.
“We get to be reminded of the fact that our dad is still around in a very real sense as long as his music is still around,” he said.