The Nelson Brothers & Wilson Sisters Team Up for Sibling Duet on 'This Christmas': Premiere

Brian Lowe
Gunnar Nelson, Wendy Wilson, Carnie Wilson and Matt Nelson.

The legacy of brother acts in popular music is a long and storied one -- and the same goes for sister acts. Brothers teaming up with unrelated sisters? Not so much history there, since the Stanley Brothers never did manage to make a record with the Andrews Sisters. So it’s a unique wrinkle that finds Matthew and Gunnar Nelson -- formerly known as Nelson in their early ‘90s hard-rock heyday -- combining with Carnie and Wendy Wilson, of Wilson Phillips fame, for a new Christmas single that doubles up on blood harmonies.

Billboard has the premiere for the video of “This Christmas” (an original tune that’s no relation to the Donny Hathaway oldie of the same name). The identical-twin Nelsons, now 49, say it’s a wonder that the collaboration took this long, “because, shoot, when we were growing up, the girls were just one hill over from us in the Hollywood hills,” and they first met as toddlers. Aside from the sibling-duo configuration, they also have the scion factor in common, with the Nelsons being the sons of pop star Rick Nelson and their counterparts the daughters of Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson.

The video for “This Christmas” was shot just a week ago, at the home of Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, the sisters’ mother, an ex-member of the Honeys and the first wife of Brian Wilson. It was Marilyn who surreptitiously shot the smartphone footage that appears at the very beginning of the clip, capturing the first moment all four actually harmonized together in person, since the vocals on the single itself were captured in separate sessions.

Gunnar says he’d stayed in contact with Carnie to try to make the collaboration work for a couple of years, and it finally came together when a separate holiday project the Wilsons were looking at doing this year fell out. Schedules were still hard to align, with the Nelsons now based out of Nashville, Wendy raising four boys in Portland, and Carnie starting a new baking company and participating in the upcoming reboot of The Apprentice with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We did a lot of things when our parents actually hung out together a little bit [in the ‘60s]," Gunnar says. “I think we were all in swimming class together when we were baby-babies. The next time I saw Wendy and Carnie, Matthew and I were presenting them with their very first Billboard Award [in 1990]. Then we stayed in touch after that. Carnie is just so dear to my heart — and I’m getting to know Wendy a lot better now, which is really lovely. But Carnie is like the female incarnation of me. She’s a chef, and I’m a chef. She has a really bawdy sense of humor; so do I. She has a similar level of drive as mine, and also is used to working with someone she loves so much. Man, you can’t overstress how special it is when family members sing together. It’s just different and resonates in a special way. All of us were a little nervous, though, because we had the safety of having sung in our own respective pairings, but combining them was kind of going out on a limb.”

When the four of them finally met up last week for the first time since those Billboard Awards 26 years ago, “it felt like we had all known each other forever,” says Matthew. “It was a very natural hang, with a lot of humor and gratitude and humility. We all shared the same vocal coach, Roger Love, in the late ‘80s, before we both released our debut albums in 1990, and way back then he suggested we get together and sing. Charles Koppelman of EMI/SBK and Jodi Gerson of EMI also brought it up back then. So this is the most ridiculously obvious collaboration I've ever been a part of. If it took this long to happen, it must be for a reason.”

“This Christmas” is actually an instant remake of a version the Nelsons released a scant year ago, which debuted on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart at No. 22 last December. That version featured female vocals by their Nashville co-writer, Alyssa Bonagura. “I’m very proud of what we were able to do last year with the song with our independent label,” Gunnar says, “and of course Alyssa is a very, very good singer. The finished performance was technically perfect, but I always felt there was more emotion to be had with the song. Honestly, when I wrote the song with Matt, I always envisioned the two girls doing this with us. These girls sound so honest and so vulnerable and so right for this song.” 

Last year, the Nelsons released a Christmas album named after the song, and in December, they’ll put out the full-length follow-up, This Christmas Too. Anyone who remembers the twins’ perfect hair fitting in with the hair-band era of 1990 may be only slightly surprised to know they’ve moved on to gentler sounds. Though it’s being promoted as pop/AC, “This Christmas” has a country-ish feel, which they say is inevitable, given that “my father invented country rock in southern California with the Stone Canyon Band. With this, we wanted to do it as if Crosby, Stills and Nash had done a Christmas record.”

The month of December will find the Nelsons on the road with a part-music, part-scripted, part-video Christmas tour centered around three holidays: one with TV-star grandparents Ozzie and Harriett, one with dad Rick in the ‘70s, and one with their kids in the present day. It’s a complement to their Remembering Rick Nelson Tour.

“The people that I admire who have done something great are my friends Vince Gill and Amy Grant, when they go out and do their tour every year,” Gunnar says. “Theirs is a really high-integrity Christmas show, and that’s what we’ve been modeling our thing on. If and when this single with Carnie and Wendy connects with people, nothing would make me happier than being able to do a Christmas tour with them, because obviously they’ve got some Christmas cred with ‘Hey Santa’ having been a big hit. It’s a really fun time of year to actually get to tour with your family.”

Gunnar is happy to have the new single premiere with Billboard because of some extended family history. Besides the Billboard Awards ceremony connection, there’s the historicity of their dad having had the very first Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 song when the chart debuted in 1958, with “Poor Little Fool” topping the inaugural list.