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On Her Own Again

Paula Nelson is back in California, trying to emerge from Willie's shadow and launch a solo career.


LAGUNA BEACH — Willie Nelson is not a large man, but nobody in Texas music casts a bigger shadow.

That shadow proved to be too big for the country icon's daughter, Paula, who has singing ambitions of her own.

Austin is where she tried to launch her singing career about four years ago. It made sense: The Texas capital is a mecca for performers trying to make their mark with bluesy, rootsy influences. But Paula, 27, found that even Texas doesn't have enough room for a second Nelson to forge an independent identity there.

"It was kind of too much 'Willie World' there. I couldn't get away from it," she said Friday, speaking from the Laguna Beach apartment that is her new base. "The places I would play would put it on the marquee: 'Willie Nelson's Daughter,' and then in little letters, my name."

Since the perpetually working Willie likes to live up to his theme song, "On the Road Again," Paula's westward migration doesn't mean that father and daughter can't hook up from time to time. Earlier this year, Paula opened for her dad on several Southern California gigs. She will do it again next week at the Coach House, debuting a band of experienced area players that she hopes will help her follow the out-from-the-shadows paths traced by Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter and Hank Williams Jr., all offspring of country music heroes.

Nelson said her father is "really proud" of her steps in music so far. "But I made sure to let him know in the beginning that I wanted to do it by myself."

"It's a hard comparison, definitely a hard act to follow," being the singer-songwriter daughter of one of the world's best-loved singer-songwriters, Nelson said. Her father's key advice has been a quip pointing toward the importance of finding an identity of her own: "He said, 'Watch exactly what I do, and do exactly the opposite.' "

Nelson, one of two daughters from Willie Nelson's second marriage, spent her childhood in Texas and Colorado, and moved to San Diego County at 17 with thoughts of becoming a model and an actress. Modeling didn't suit her, and she returned to Austin to give singing a try. She cites Clifford Antone, owner of Austin's best-known blues bar, as a mentor; among her influences are Austin blues singers Toni Price and Angela Strehli, as well as Bonnie Raitt, Wynonna Judd, Ray Charles and Leon Russell.

Country music "is what everyone is trying to get me to do, because it would be easy" to exploit the father-daughter connection, Nelson said. "It's not that I don't like country, but the blues is more me."

Nelson returned to San Diego County in 1995 and sat in for some shows with a local band, the Mississippi Mud Sharks. Now, for the first time, she aims to emphasize her own songs and pursue a record deal with her own band.

Lee Rocker, an old friend, backed Nelson early this year when she opened a series of duo shows by her father and Russell; Nelson said that Rocker, the former Stray Cats bassist, helped her secure a manager, Coach House owner Gary Folgner, as well as a house down the street from Rocker's own Laguna Beach residence.


Nelson's arrival in Orange County has inspired one familiar figure on the local music scene to shake out some cobwebs and pick up playing again in earnest. Calvin Hardy, the tall, ringleted man-with-a-flashlight who ushers performers on and off the Coach House stage (and takes charge of backstage hospitality) has organized Nelson's backing band and is playing bass in it.

The last time Hardy played on a professional stage, it was 1986 and he was at the Coach House, finishing up a tour with Elvin Bishop. Soon thereafter, Hardy, who also has toured or recorded with Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner and Loudon Wainwright III, got a job at the Coach House (he thought it would be short-term, just to raise some cash) and hasn't played professionally in the 10 years since.

But Hardy says he was excited when Folgner asked him three months ago if he could put together a band for Nelson.

"I saw her open up for Willie in February, and the last song of her set was so beautiful," Hardy said. "I asked, 'Did you [write] that?' I was so impressed with her from then on."

Hardy called on Stu Nesbitt, the former drummer of the jazz/world music band Shadowfax, who lives in San Clemente; rounding out the band are two of Nesbitt's associates, keyboard player Bruce Malament and guitarist Steve Wills.

In one way, at least, Nelson is doing exactly what her dad has done: Willie Nelson always has been accompanied by his piano-playing sister, Bobbie; Paula's Nelson's band includes her younger sister, Amy, as backup singer. The two have been harmonizing since they were youngsters who would join their dad onstage to sing gospel songs. Amy Nelson, 23, rooms with her sister and recently began working as a publicist and promoter for Folgner's concert business.

Nelson says she also tends to disregard that fatherly advice to "watch what I do and do the opposite" when it comes to songwriting.

"I can't just sit down and write something. I have to be going through" an experience that inspires a song. "I think that's how he is as well. He writes very simply [about] how he's feeling. If [inspiration] hits at 2 or 3 o' clock in the morning, I'd better jump up and write it down."

* Paula Nelson opens for Willie Nelson and Leon Russell Nov. 18 and 19 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 7 and 10 p.m. $50-$52. (714) 496-8930.

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