Gunnar Nelson's first memory is of music. He was two years old and sitting offstage at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif. watching his father entertain park goers, and he knew at that moment music was his destiny. He and his brother Matthew asked for a drum kit and a guitar and never looked back.
The twin sons of the late rock and roll icon Ricky Nelson will perform live at the 2012 Naval Support Facility Dahlgren 4th of July Celebration on the Parade Field. The event will begin at 4 p.m. and Nelson will take the stage at 7:15 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
These seasoned performers have more than met their goals in the music industry. By the age of 12 they were playing the L.A. club scene. They signed their first record deal with Capitol Records at age 18 and had their first number one hit at age 20.
Citing their Dad as an amazing role model, Nelson remembers, "He always had an acoustic guitar in his hands. He was always writing."
When the twins continually jumped on their father's band's instruments, he purchased instruments of their own and "sent us to play in the barn. It didn't take long for him to realize this wasn't a fad. We were serious," said Nelson.
"When we were eight or nine years old, we were playing with high schoolers," said Nelson. "Then they all left for college, and we just kept playing and doing our own thing."
Nelson started out as the drummer of the group, but after an appearance on Saturday Night Live when they were 18, he began to re-think his music standing. "I told Matt, I need to learn guitar," said Nelson.
He said his brother was skeptical, "mostly because I'd never picked up a guitar in my life. I told him I'd practice for 10 hours a day every day for a year and master the guitar," said Nelson.
His brother's reaction? "He said, if you can do it, go for it!" Gunnar can now match his brother lick for lick. "Except for bass," he said, "because Matt is so great at it."
Their current show, "Ricky Nelson Remembered," covers many of the hits from their father's amazing rock and roll catalog. In addition to the songs, the brothers hope to tell an American story of their Dad's journey as a singer and "what was happening in the world at the time," said Nelson.
"He was bringing rock and roll into people's homes and they wouldn't even call it rock and roll, it was so salacious," said Nelson.
"They called it rhythm and blues." The Nelson family received hate mail and death threats. "It was very intense. He was accused of playing the devil's music," said Nelson.
While the brothers now love presenting the show, the initial request by a commanding officer at a naval base in Yokosuka, Japan several years ago to play a Thanksgiving show for Sailors was met with some resistance. "He said he wanted us to come and entertain his Sailors, but he loved our Dad and wanted us to play his music."
He now says they play the show with "ferocity. Rockabilly should be played passionately and that's what we do," said Nelson.
Above all, the Nelson brothers have followed their father's guidance given early on in their careers. "If I filled out a job application today, I would list myself as a songwriter," said Nelson.
He recalls many acts over the years that met with success but their songs "sucked. They never focused on songwriting," said Nelson.
"Dad impressed on us, everyone needs hit songs. Publishing companies won't give you the best material, they save it for their biggest artists. You've got to right your hits yourself. Be songwriters first and foremost," said Nelson.
Their visit to Dahlgren for July 4th will give them a chance to salute military members, a cause that hits close to home. From their grandfather Tom Harmon, who flew P-38 Lightnings in World War II to cousins who currently serve in the Marine Corps and Navy, the Nelson brothers are proud to be able to entertain the troops.
"We should do more of it," said Nelson. He cited their performance at a 9/11 Tribute in 2002 as one of their proudest moments. He said they feel a kinship with military members.
"There is a camaraderie, whether you have a gun or a guitar in hand. You're out there, away from family and loved ones. You have to make friends quickly. You have to adapt and be flexible. We're all making the best of a bad situation, understanding separation and what you're missing as life goes on around you."
He called the similarities a "spiritual brotherhood. We have so much respect for the military and all they do. We can't wait to get to Dahlgren and play for you."