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Micah Nelson on Joining Neil Young and Crazy Horse: ‘I’ve Been Rehearsing for This My Whole Life’

From a certain perspective, Micah Nelson‘s entire life has been building up to the Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour this summer, where he’ll be taking over for Nils Lofgren as the group’s new guitarist. As the youngest son of Willie Nelson, Micah, 33, has been exposed to Young’s catalog for longer than he can even remember. “Neil’s music always sort of being around in the periphery,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I grew up going to Farm Aid every year, so he was always this sort of figure, and the music was there. It’s just always been part of the soundtrack of my life.”

Shortly after his 13th birthday, he got the chance to see Young play with Crazy Horse for the first time at his father’s Fourth of July Picnic in Spicewood, Texas. The seven-song set left him forever changed. “Neil was like this psychedelic scarecrow, just lurching around and wielding this crazy feedback,” he says. “They were just on a train of sound, and they would get in their little huddle and powwow. It was one of those moments where you get memories from the future. It just felt so important and profound and deep.”

He got the chance to join that “train of sound” in 2014 when Young asked Micah and his brother Lukas to play “Rockin’ in the Free World” with him at Farm Aid. It was the start of a five-year journey where Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (with permanent special guest Micah Nelson) became Young’s primary backing band on concert stages around the world, and in the studio for 2015’s The Monsanto Years and 2017’s The Visitor.

Nelson basically learned Young’s entire catalog during this time, but he was part of a large ensemble. This time around, he’ll have a more prominent role alongside Young, bassist Billy Talbot, and drummer Ralph Molina. That trio has been playing together solidly since 1968, and he’ll be younger than his three bandmates by nearly 50 years.

We hopped on Zoom with Nelson to talk about the upcoming tour, his long history with Young, his dad’s tour summer tour with Bob Dylan, and why he took a very unusual shower shortly before our chat.

What are you up to?
I was just showering with a tree branch. I’ve been learning how to make primitive bows and traditional long bows and Penobscot bows. And on my hike today, I found some really good bay laurel staves that were really nice and straight. So I cut them. And I recently learned that if you steam them or if you put them in a hot shower or pour boiling water on them, it’s easier to take the outer bark off of it. I thought that was a funny, novel experience today — showering with a tree branch.

Tell me what Neil Young’s music meant to you as a kid.
Neil was always just kind of this being, this overarching energy in my life, and that music is always there. But it would kind of come and go in cycles. I would sort of venture off into these other worlds, and then he would come back into my life in these moments that always were so prescient, so synchronized, and exactly what I needed at that moment to remind me about rock & roll, and rawness and just honesty and songwriting and how that transcends everything else in production or sonics…All that shit.

There’s just something so primal and primitive about Neil, especially when he is with Crazy Horse. I saw them at Golden Gate Park at the Outside Lands Festival in 2012, it was a full circle moment and just sort of a slap in the face. It reminded me what I felt like I’d gotten too far from.

What age were you when you picked up Zuma and On the Beach and really learned his catalog?
I was probably 14, 15. I loved all the Sixties, Seventies rock bands, and Neil was top three. And I could recite every guitar solo in my head. I could play along to “Cortez.” Those early teenage years were very formative musically, as they are for everyone. And all that music was profoundly impactful during that time, and then came back again for me later in my early twenties, especially.

You first played with him at Farm Aid in 2014. Was that planned out or just a spontaneous thing?
It was pretty spontaneous. I don’t know if it was that year or the year before, but I remember my band Insects Versus Robots played. We played early in the day and we didn’t think anyone was really watching us. But right when we got off stage, Neil was there, and he was like, “That was fuckin’ awesome.” And I was like, “Whoa.” And he grabbed me, and Tony Peluso, the drummer, and brought us on his bus. We just hung out and nerded out about music and all kinds of stuff and connected. 

I’d sort of peripherally seen Neil at Farm Aid leading up to that, but that was the first time where I felt like Neil recognized me and was like, “Oh, we’re friends now, and you’re a weird artist too, and let’s stay connected.”

I think it must’ve been the next year where maybe an hour, half an hour before his set, he invited me and [Lukas] on the bus and said, “You guys want to come up on ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’?”

Neil’s very spontaneous like that. It’s one of those things where he’s always going with what he’s feeling in that moment. And I think that’s part of why we love him, and why he’s kept this torch burning of raw, real rock & roll music. If everything’s planned out all the time way in advance and you know exactly what’s going to happen, rock & roll can’t really happen. There’s a “no safety net” kind of thing that has to be there. There’s got to be an element of chaos. I think that’s one of the things that he and I connected on initially. We both kind of thrive on chaos. Chaos is how we learn.

Things quickly went from a single song at Farm Aid to you guys being his new backing band. Tell me about learning to play all his songs before the first tour the next year.
That was in my rehearsal space in L.A. for five days straight, just learning as many songs as we possibly could. And it helps that we’re big fans for life, and we knew so many of the songs by heart. But he’s got a bajillion songs, and so many of them that I had never even heard. And so we worked a lot to get a list of 100 songs down. And then by the end of the next couple of years touring with Neil, he’d introduce new songs all the time to learn and play. And so that list grew to more like 200 songs.

I saw you guys at the Capitol Theater in 2018 where Neil called for “World on a String” and it was clear none of you had ever played it before.
Yeah, any of the Tonight’s the Night Stuff, he would, I think deliberately not tell us that that was going to happen because part of the sound and the spirit of that record is how loose and sloppy it is. If you’re too good, then it doesn’t work. It’s not the right vibe.

“Speakin’ Out” came out of nowhere one night. And that’s a lot of chord changes. He might have, in an offhand comment a couple of days before maybe said, “Oh, do you guys know this one?” And we’re like, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard that one. We love that song.” But he never was like, “Let’s rehearse it and play it.”

If he mentions any song, you better go and learn it because he might whip it out in a day, in a week, just in the middle of the show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned a song in the moment that I’d never played before, or even cut my teeth on an instrument that I’d never played before with Neil on stage in front of 20, 30,000 people.

That’s amazing.
That’s the kind of chaos I’m talking about. That’s the best way to learn something is if you have no other choice but to figure it out.

Did you see any of the Crazy Horse shows with Nils after Poncho retired?
Yeah. I saw one of them at the Fox Theater in Bakersfield.  It was great. I loved it. I thought it was awesome.

But Nils has another job obviously. Fans would ask Neil on his website what he’d do if he wanted to tour with Crazy Horse while Nils was out with E Street. He said he wanted to give you the job. Were you aware he was saying this?
Well, actually, I think it was maybe that show at the Fox Theater. I remember we were hanging out before the show, and he mentioned just about how Nils might have to go out with Bruce. And he’s like, “I might give you a call.” I was like, “You got my number.”

I would cancel just about anything I had going on to play with Neil and Crazy Horse. It’s like if you had asked me at 15, “What band in your wildest vision would you love to play with and be in?” It would probably have been Crazy Horse. It’s just very, very surreal to end up here.

Friends would send me these messages. I wasn’t paying full attention, but they’d be like, “Hey, Neil mentioned that he wants to play with you.” This is actually very typical of how the communication system works in Neil World. It’s like I’ll learn about an entire tour or some other pretty important detail via my wife Alex [Dascalu-Nelson]. And she heard it through Corey [McCormick], the bass player’s wife, who overheard him talking on the phone with Bob, Neil’s piano tech who had heard it through…

You better kind of pay attention because you’re going to look on your phone and there’s going to be a show announced that you’re a part of, and then you’ll get a call from Neil. Not always, but that is sometimes how it goes, which it can be infuriating, but it’s also pretty funny. And I’m used to it at this point.

How much warning did you get about the Roxy shows this past September?
I definitely knew it was going to happen a while before it happened. Neil had called me in maybe January of last year, and asked me to join Crazy Horse. And then it wasn’t until September that we actually did something. He wanted to originally only tour with this model of being able to control the quality of food that gets sold at the venue and the whole Ticketmaster bullshit, and be able to treat fans better than they are, and try and make it solar powered, and a little more sustainable.

He started getting momentum there, and I think he had some wins, but hit a lot of roadblocks too. But ultimately, we knew nothing was really going to manifest for several months. And the first thing ended up being the Roxy shows, which was a great benefit for Painted Turtle and the Bridge School. We raised a lot of money for them. And it was a cool sort of 50 year anniversary of Tonight’s the Night at the Roxy.

When did you learn you were playing Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Tonight’s the Night straight through?
About a week before. He said, “Oh, hey, we got Nils back.” So I had already kind of started learning all Nils parts on guitar and I was like, “Okay, this is what I’m going to be doing.” And then, “Oh, great, we got Nils. Okay, cool. He can play all his original stuff.” And Neil says, “Listen to the Ben Keith stuff.”

I don’t know how to play the pedal steel. I had never played the lap steel. So I’m like, “Okay, shit, I can probably fake this on my Telecaster with some delay and a volume pedal.”

So I started learning how to kind of fake the parts and get the spirit of the parts down. And then once we got there, Bill Asher was tech’ing at the time and he said, “Hey, I’ve got this lap steel that I made. It’s got palm benders on it, so it sounds more like a pedal steel. You can make it bend to the fifth or the fourth or whatever.” I was like, “Yeah, I’ll try it out.” And that was two days before the show.

I basically spent the next 48 hours learning Ben Keith’s parts on the lap steel with the palm benders and doing the best I can. And thankfully this is Tonight’s the Night where the guys making this record were fucked up out of their head. This is drunk Ben Keith. And so I was like, “Okay, I can fake this.”

But I also ended up falling in love with that instrument, and it was so much fun. And this is the story of me and Neil. He pushes me all the time to be better. And those types of experiences where you’re under pressure of making the music as good as it can be, I think have made me a better musician and a better person.

In all the years of Crazy Horse, it’s just been Danny Whitten, Frank “Poncho,” Sampedro, Nils, and now you on guitar. It must be insane to process that.
I try not to think about it too much. I think about it as my friend asked me to join his awesome band, and I really love his band, so I said, “Fuck yeah, let’s do it.” And now I get to play in my friend’s awesome band. And if I go beyond that, it’s like you can’t spook the horse. I almost don’t want to talk about it too much.

How was that private gig in Toronto where you did Ragged Glory straight through?
That was great. He did a concert movie for it. I did some of the animations for it. But yeah….It was this this tiny little grungy club, and it was fuckin’ awesome. I love Ragged Glory, that whole record. I mean, who knows what Neil’s going to want to do on these tours? But it was fun doing these full album shows. You can live in that time and place for the whole show. We didn’t play “Mother Earth.” That’s the one song we didn’t do from Ragged Glory, but we did everything else. And then I think we did “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Cinnamon Girl” as the encore.

Up until Roxy in September, he’d never played a classic album show.
He likes to keep it novel. He’s like, “I did the thing where I play whatever random songs, and now I’m going to try this thing where we play the full album.” Not because someone told him that’s what everyone’s doing and that’s what you should do. But because he woke up one day and said, “Oh, that would be fun.”

When you’re up there and you’re doing a song like “Cinnamon Girl” or “Cortez the Killer,” are you trying to play them like Danny and Poncho originally did? Are you just playing them like yourself and not worrying about it?
Yes. [Laughs] I think that I would say yes to all of those things. I think they can all be happening simultaneously. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I feel like it’s an honor to be recognized by Neil and Billy and Ralph, and to be welcomed into their history. That music, it’s always been part of my heritage, but now it’s part of my lineage. And of course I’m going to pay tribute and honor Danny and Poncho, and be true to the sound of Crazy Horse. But at the same time, Neil wouldn’t have asked me to join the band if he didn’t want me.

That makes a lot of sense.
So there’s a little corner pocket in there that all of us can live together. I want to bring Poncho and Danny’s spirit into the space with us, through me, as much as I can. And being myself, I think is the best way for that to happen organically. And not thinking too much about it. If you think too much about it, you’ll spook the horse, and then you’re not playing. You’re thinking.

On Neil’s website he mentioned the possibility of playing “Words” or “Danger Bird.”
I don’t go on there every day. Sometimes he says things to me and I don’t know if they’re public or not, and so I try not to jump the gun. But man, I hope we do play “Danger Bird” and “Words.” I love those songs.

There are periods on the schedule where the E Street Band is off tour. Might Nils sit in for some shows if he’s around?
I sure hope so. That would be great. I know that he would be welcomed if that was the case. It would just expands our song list, really, of the stuff we can do.

This is getting pretty dorky, but were you guys technically Crazy Horse or the Santa Monica Flyers at the Roxy? Neil called you both at various points.
I guess we were both. The Santa Monica Flying Horses.

Are you still working on the animated Trans movie?
I finished that so long ago. You’d have to ask Neil when it’s coming out. Last time I heard, it was going to be on Archives III. And so whenever that box comes out as a physical thing, the animated film will be along with that, I believe.

How do you feel when you look at the list of upcoming tour dates. It’s more consecutive shows than he’s done in many years, and he’s already talking about Europe too. Is that overwhelming on any level?
Oh, I just feel excited. I love playing with Neil and Ralph and Billy, and hopefully Nils can join us here and there. It’ll just be nice to get back out there with Neil again doing the thing. We have such a great time. I think I’ve played over 100-something shows with him in the past, and we weren’t sure if it was ever going to happen again. Those guys are getting old and Covid happened and it sounded like Neil wasn’t really going to play. And so I just think it’s miraculous and a great gift to still have Neil and Ralph and Billy, and to be able to ride again.

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Speaking of great summer tours, your dad is going to spend the summer on the road with Bob Dylan.
I’m going to definitely try to get out to some of those. It reminds me of when I was a teenager, I was playing in my dad’s band and we did a summer tour of AAA ballparks across the States. It was my dad and Bob. I remember Bob would burn hundreds of sticks of Nag Champa [incense] in buckets filled with sand. You know how smell is linked to memory more than anything? Now, any time I smell Nag Champa I flash back to that tour. And this one is going to be great. Someone said that Bob is doing it because he just wants to be where Willie is at all times.

So many fans are really looking forward to the Neil tour this summer. If Poncho and Nils can’t make it, I cannot think of anyone on earth better for the job. You were born for this.
That’s how I feel. I’ve been rehearsing for this job my whole life.

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