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The Nelson Brothers

The Nelson Brothers – Simon and Steve Nelson – play a beguiling blend of roots rock, folk and Americana. In 22 years the British duo and their band have only released two albums under their own name but to those in the know they’ve been ever-present on the scene, whether writing songs in Nashville or being the musical force in a high-profile act that’s achieving transatlantic success.

The Nelson Brothers at Stroud Americana Music Festival

The Nelson Brothers at Stroud Americana Music Festival

Now they’re on a break from their alternate careers and are back with the third album, Sacred River. A string of live dates will include an appearance at the Isle of Wight festival.

The new record is an enigmatic set of self-penned numbers that revolve, as ever, around Steve’s rich, gravelly vocals and Simon’s elegant but searing guitar. In the brothers’ music you’ll find elements of Nick Lowe and Robbie Robertson, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen

The new album takes a nod from the brothers’ double life. They (and their band) have been winning international acclaim for their liaison with Oscar-nominated actress and now Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern as Sadie and the Hotheads.

The link-up came when McGovern, an American living in London, responded to a guitar teacher’s ad – and the teacher turned out to be Steve. The pair, along with Simon, started writing songs together and became a working unit that has now released three critically acclaimed albums.

Fresh from a well-received tour of America’s East Coast and a PBS concert recording the Nelson Brothers are back on the scene while McGovern is filming the final series of the award-winning TV drama.

The Nelsons music follows a similar line to that of Sadie and the Hot Heads, roots with more than a touch of pop and country and many eclectic touches, where you’re as likely to hear a bouzouki as a bass guitar, yet where the songs are central to proceedings.

The Nelsons grew up in Stafford and, as young, enthusiastic musicians in the 70s set off to travel to India with their guitars on their backs. They got as far as Amsterdam where they were won over by the wealth of opportunities to busk in cafes. Returning to the UK they worked in the bars of the sunny South West before answering a Melody Maker ad and winning a dream job playing in the upmarket Atlantic isle of Bermuda. Long sets every day honed their playing and performing skills; like the Beatles in Hamburg, only warmer.

Their initial contract became a year and then they returned to the UK with a wealth of songs. After Simon spent a period working in Australia, they linked up in the early 90s with the Round Tower record label, which was working with intriguing country and roots artists from both sides of the Atlantic, including singer-songwriters Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch, plus fiddler Tammy Rogers.

The result, in 1993, was the album Hometown, a gentle country-rock classic, uniting Steve’s rich vocals and Simon’s sensational guitar playing. But the label folded before the brothers could build on their recording success.

But their Round Tower connection led to interest from American Robert John Jones, who’d written songs for the great Buck Owens and who recorded an album with his band, the Buckaroos, after his death. His organisation in Tucson, Arizona, was working with publishing company Windswept Pacific in Nashville and so started a period dividing their time between writing in Tucson and demoing material in Nashville studios with leading session musicians.

Even now a song, Last Truckstop Motel by Steve and RJ Jones and performed by rising bluegrass star Molly Tuttle is kicking up a storm on You Tube.

Back in Britain and well into the 21st century came the Sadie and the Hotheads persona, an edgy, enthralling mix of influences. What started as a low-key project – working up their idiosyncratic music at venues such as the Bedford pub in London’s Balham – gradually became a serious undertaking.

But Sadie time was sandwiched between gruelling production schedules for the increasingly popular Downton, giving the Nelsons the opportunity to pursue their own work.

Their second album, Places In The Heart, in 2009, combined the Nelsons’ love of a good song with a radical new sound inspired, in part, by the Hot Heads. Imaginative arrangements, touches of jazz and just about every other type of 20th-century music, created a dark, smokey soundscape – ‘Leonard Sinatra’ as RJ Jones christened it.

Elizabeth says of the Nelsons: “The music and the voice and the lyrics all work together to convey a bittersweet, sad optimism that I find so appealing… romantic without being remotely saccharine and refreshingly grown up.”

And so to Sacred River, which flows with the gentle rhythm of the early Nelson Brothers and combines it with their work of today. Some tracks were even started in the Round Tower era and have been transformed into up-to-date masterpieces.

Still at the heart of the playing are the Nelsons. Steve, as well as taking lead vocals, switches from guitar to bouzouki to banjo to ukulele.

Simon – also a leading session man who’s played in TV concerts with Mavis Staples and Paul Jones, and at venues such as the Royal Albert Hall and 02 Arena with everyone from Joss Stone to Helen Shapiro to X Factor stars – sticks mostly to electric lead.

While the Nelsons are at the heart of the matter their band is a tight, exciting unit. On drums are either former Goldfrapp percussionist Rowan Oliver or current Sadie member Terl Bryant. On keyboards is Nick Lacey who, apart from Sadie, has played with stars from Lulu to Herbie Armstrong. And bassist is either Andrew Milloy, also a Sadie man, also plays in modern folk ensemble Band of Hope, or Ben Nicholls, from trendy folkies the Full English.

The Nelson Brothers are back in action with Sacred River – but with another Sadie and the Hotheads US tour set for the autumn you’ve got a narrow window of opportunity to catch them.

The Nelson Brothers - Steve Nelson in the studio recording some Americana tracks

Americana on the Black Mountain

“I love that Americana is so hard to pin down …. Once it’s defined too specifically, it will get pigeonholed for everyone …. I want the music to be as free as it can be …. there’s great Americana being made in Canada and even Ireland …. I love that Americana’s just a big, ol’ messy catch-all that no one knows what the hell it really is. I want to keep it as weird as it can be. When it’s defined, its power will be gone.” Darrell Scott

So, The Nelson Brothers are heading west to record a batch of new songs. Not back to Nashville this time, but down the M4 to Andy ‘Wal’ Coughlan’s studio, Bridgerow, at the foot of the Black Mountain range in deepest Wales. It’s Friday evening, the start of half term, but despite the heavy traffic we make good time and by the time we’ve exhausted Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes we’re heading over the Severn Bridge into South Wales.

An hour and a half later we’re groping our way along the A474 from Pontardawe towards Glanamman in the dark. The village sits in the valley of the River Amman on the edge of the Black Mountain range, the most westerly of the Brecon Beacons National Park sandstone uplands, straddling the county boundary between Carmarthenshire and Powys. Until the coal-mining boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries this was a remote wilderness with just a few farms and rough mountain roads. Tonight, in the dark, it still feels remote and rather bleak.

We slide through Glanamman’s deserted streets and head west towards Ammanford and the Red Kite Inn, our bunkhouse for the weekend. We’re late, its 11.15pm and we’re keeping the landlord up but Wal is waiting and our host, rather grudgingly, pulls us a couple of swiftly downed pints. Then it’s off to the studio, in Wal’s big blue van, to drop off our instruments, meet his lovely wife Ren and their adorable, rather eccentric cat and talk through plans for tomorrow.



Wal eats scrambled egg watched by the eccentric cat.

Wal eats scrambled egg watched by the eccentric cat.

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Friday 29th August and we’re off for the first of our radio appearances to promote the new album ‘Sacred River’. I set off from Mortlake on the 209 to Hammersmith, then tube it to Earl’s Court and head over to Si’s flat for a run through of the five songs we’ve chosen to perform. ‘This Is The River’, ‘Sacred River’ and ‘Riding On The Back Of A Whale’ feature two acoustic guitars and vocals while ‘Paris 1923’ and ‘The Love You Refuse’ see Si switch to bouzouki.

After a cup of tea and a quick run through we trek over to Liverpool Street station and catch the Norfolk train to Ipswich. The train is packed but we find a couple of seats ideally suited down near the buffet car. More tea is consumed as we head out east, passing through Romford and Colchester. In just over an hour we’re in Ipswich, stepping out of the station on a bright, breezy day on to Portman Road, home to Ipswich Town Football Club. We were last in town a couple of years ago with Sadie and the Hotheads when we opened for Mike and the Mechanics on a five week UK tour.

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The Nelson Brothers trio featuring Drew Milloy at Stroud Americana Music Festival

The Nelson Brothers Band Live #2

Here’re The Nelson Brothers Band live playing a version of their song Walking My Baby Back Home from the second album Places in the Heart.

The band is Steve Nelson, acoustic guitar/lead vocals; Simon Nelson, electric slide guitar/backing vocal; Nick Lacey on piano (nice melodic piano solo, Nick); Bass player Drew Milloy, and drummer Phil Crabbe.

The song references Johnnie Ray, and a 1930s song called Walking My Baby Back Home. Ray was a popular singer-songwriter at the peak of his popularity in the 1950s. In 1952 Ray had a hit single with the song Walking My Baby Back Home. That song, written by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, has been recorded by dozens of artists including Louis Armstrong, George Benson, Van Morrison and Chas and Dave. Johnnie Ray’s version made number 12 in the UK singles chart.

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Terl Bryant, Simon Nelson - Yellow bananas

From the Basement with Terl Bryant

Terl Bryant, drummer, and me go back a long way; we have played live together in many different bands, styles, situations, and even countries and recorded together many times.

As a musician I like to listen to all kinds of music. But the one form that I constantly return to is the song – the singer-songwriter; the combination of melody, harmony, rhythm and lyric.

I always think of Terl as a songwriter’s drummer. I think that some drummers, indeed rather a lot of musicians, listen to the harmony, the melody and the rhythm, but pay little attention to the lyric – what the song is about. The Nelson Brothers spent some time in Nashville recording songs. We had some top session players on the tracks. On some recordings we used the legendary drummer Kenny Malone. He insisted on having a lyric sheet for each song before recording. He would bring something to the song that served the song and moved the song forward. On one track he played a percussion part on the bottom of a plastic cup. Producer Jim Rooney said of Kenny “When you have Kenny Malone on a session, you never have to ask what time it is. It’s always Kenny Malone “heartbeat” time and it’s perfect!”

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Nelson Brothers

The Nelson Brothers Band Live

Here’s a video of The Nelson Brothers Band live version of their song I Can Dream from the new album Sacred River.

The band, on this occasion, is Steve Nelson, acoustic guitar/lead vocals.

Simon Nelson, electric guitar/backing vocal.

Nick Lacey on keyboards. Nick is a bit of a reclusive trouper – a little camera shy. He keeps it quiet that he has played with, amongst others, Lulu and Herbie Armstrong, and he has a gold disc on his wall.

Bass player Drew Milloy also plays with a modern folk ensemble Band of Hope.

Drums are played by versatile session player Phil Crabbe. Phil has played with Gloria Gaynor, Candi Staton, Cilla Black, Beverley Knight, Joss Stone and the pop band Haircut 100.

Donald Hutera, writing in The Times said, “The musicians – including Simon Nelson, an ace guitarist, and his brother Steve – revealed what kick-ass session players they are.”



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The Nelson Brothers - Simon Nelson, Steve Nelson and Judy Dyble

A Day in the Country with Judy Dyble

So we set off from Earls Court loaded down with instruments, cameras, stands and cables and headed up to Shepherds Bush and west along the M40. Destination: rural Oxfordshire for a date with the legendary Judy Dyble. A hot, muggy day, perfect for a trip out of town and a chance to breathe some country air.

Judy was the original vocalist and a founder member of Fairport Convention along with Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol, and shared London stages with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and early Pink Floyd. She would later become one half of the duo Trader Horne with Jackie McAuley of ‘Them’ fame, recording the album ‘Morning Way’, an album listed as one of the ‘500 Lost Gems Of The 60’s’.

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