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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.

Steve Nelson playing guitar on the terrace, Tucson, Arizona

Down in Biloxi

People have asked about the lyrics to The Nelson Brothers song Down in Biloxi. Although we haven’t been to Biloxi (yet!), we have travelled extensively in the States and many of our songs reflect our times there, in New England, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, California and Tennessee. We have listened to American music since our childhood, our father had an extensive collection of records by the likes of Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves etc; and also grew up on a diet of American tv shows, principally westerns. American place names have always held a fascination for me and I first heard of Biloxi in the great Jesse Winchester song of the same name.

Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are swimmin’ in the sea
Oh they all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salted water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans (Jesse Winchester)

A beautiful song which we first heard on an album by English singer/songwriter Ian Matthews in the mid 70’s. The name stuck with me and when I set out to write a song about a man ‘escaping’ his past, undertaking a road trip from North to South I looked on the map and there it was, south of Toledo, the other place name in the song. I liked the idea of this man ‘on the run’, trying to escape the inescapable, running from North to South, “on an easy wheel”, hoping to find comfort in the warmth of the Gulf, to Biloxi, the place which represents a better life, a new dream, far away from his past in the frozen North.

I have also read extensively, especially American crime thrillers, and at the time of writing was devouring James Lee Burke’s novels about his detective Dave Robicheaux, based in New Orleans.

The closest we’ve been is flying over the Mississippi delta en route from Nashville to Tucson, hopefully one day we’ll make it down there.

Many thanks to Vincent Creel and the City of Biloxi for letting us use their video for our song.


The Nelson Brothers on a songwriting trip to France


I love songwriting. As Janis Ian said “One of the hardest things of all is to start. Just sitting down and getting over your own intimidations. Every professional songwriter I know is terrified every time they sit down to write. You’re always convinced that your next song is going to be your last, or that it’s going to be your worst, or that you’ll never be able to write anything as good as your hit. It’s a constant terror. I think all artists live in a constant state of terror.”

I wrote my first song when I was seventeen. It wasn’t very good. But the thrill I felt when I finished it was like nothing I’d ever felt before. I wasn’t writing for recognition, or money. I was writing for the sheer joy of creation. To start with a blank sheet of paper, and create something that didn’t exist before amazed me. It still does.

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Part of Simon Nelson's CD collection from Paul Simon to Tom Waits.

Records Can Change Your Life #1

Records can change your life. As kids growing up we were exposed to a varied collection of vinyl records, from the likes of Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Glenn Miller through to Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash. It was from Cash we got our first taste of the history and geography of the United States. ‘Ride This Train’, recorded in 1960, imagines a journey by train around America, taking the listener on a tour through space and time, and features a narration by Cash which is as absorbing as the songs themselves.

Johnny Cash - Ride This Train album cover

Johnny Cash – Ride This Train album cover

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The Nelson Brothers Band, Hard Rock Stage, Isle of Wight Festival 2015

Isle of Wight Festival 2015, Hard Rock Stage

Sunday 14th June, The Nelson Brothers Band are due to play at The Isle of Wight Festival 2015 on The Hard Rock Stage, courtesy of John Giddings and all at Solo UK.

This is the third time we have played at The Isle of Wight Festival. The two previous occasions have been as the backing band for Elizabeth McGovern’s Band, Sadie and the Hotheads.

Up at silly-o’clock. Tube to Hammersmith. We meet outside the Red Lion, Barnes. In the people carrier there’re keys player Nick Lacey, bass player Drew Milloy and the Nelson Brothers. We’re meeting drummer Phil Crabbe at the ferry terminal in Portsmouth.

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The Nelson Brothers at Stroud Americana Music Festival

Stroud Americana Music Festival

Americana Music is alive and well in the UK.

On a fresh day in early summer, a light wind, big, low cumulus scudding across a powder blue sky, The Nelson Brothers head west out of London on the M4. It’s a two-hour trip to Stroud. We’ve been invited to play at the Stroud Americana Music Festival at the grand Stroud Subscription Rooms.

One of the acts on the bill described Americana Music as the coming together of two strands – one from the British Isles and the other from Africa – in the US, to form new genres.

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Nelson Brothers

Nelson Brothers Band live at The Convent

A buzz of excitement in recent weeks – The Nelson Brothers have, for some time, not been up to much because of our commitment to Sadie and the Hotheads. Since Lady Cora (aka Elizabeth McGovern) is currently on the set at Highclere Castle for the last ever series of Downton Abbey. The Nelson Brothers have taken the opportunity to dust off their own songs and get back on the road.

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