For more than 30 years, Willie Nelson has performed onstage with the same ragtag gang of bearded, road–hardened musicians.
Look closely, however, at that petite piano player, with long, auburn hair usually topped with a wide–brimmed hat. That’ll be Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s older sister. She is not only his blood kin, she’s his oldest friend and the one musician who’s played alongside him since virtually the beginning. Her piano is the backbone of the band, which is officially called Willie Nelson and Family.
Bobbie and Willie were raised together in tiny Abbott, Texas, midway between Waco and Dallas. Raised by their grandparents, the siblings picked cotton, milked cows and faithfully attended the local Methodist Church, where Bobbie played the organ and they both sang in the choir.
At 76, Bobbie has just made her very first solo record. Audiobiography includes two guitar–and–piano duets with her brother, and a number of instrumental piano pieces ranging from church music to boogie woogie to Willie’s lounge classic “Crazy.”
“Whenever our band plays,” Willie Nelson said, “Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
Q. Why did it take you so long to make your own album?
A. Before I went out on the road with Willie, I used to play in hotels, supper clubs, churches and all of those things. I had thought a long time ago that maybe I would have a record for sale, but I never did do that.
Then I was on the road with him all those years, and I was happy recording with him, and I guess I just didn’t feel the need to make an album on my own then.
When I was asked why I never wrote my autobiography, I said I thought I could do it best with music, because my whole life has just been music. I don’t separate myself from that piano.
Q. You and Willie started playing and singing together when you were very young in Texas. His career in Nashville started in the early ’60s; what were you doing then?
A. Well, I had never dated anyone in my life, because my grandmother was very strict. I married Bud Fletcher at 16; he was 22. Willie was 14. I was playing revival meetings with a minister; Bud organized our first band, with me and Willie and our father on rhythm guitar. Then Bud was killed in a car accident, and I had three young sons to take care of. So I moved to Fort Worth and taught music for Hammond Organ, and played in the church. I spent 10 years there.
In Houston, Willie was selling encyclopedias, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, and playing some music at night. I moved to Austin in 1965 to play piano at the El Chico Restaurant. I opened a lot of hotels and taught music, and took a job playing piano at Lakeway Resort. Then he came to Austin and started playing at the Armadillo Word Headquarters, where he joined all the forces of the cowboys and the hippies … (laughing).
Q. Willie had already been in Nashville, making records, for years before you started working together professionally in the early ’70s. How did that come about?
A. Willie said “Sister Bobbie, would you like to record a gospel record with me in New York City?” I was tickled to death. I’d never been on an airplane before. I’d never been anywhere except my trips to Nashville to visit him.
I farmed out my little job playing piano at Lakeway and flew to New York City and did the Troublemaker album, the gospel album. Willie’s wife took me up to the Empire State Building — it scared me to death going up there — and then they asked me to help on the Shotgun Willie album. And that went very well.
Then Willie said “I sure have missed playing with you.” I said, I missed playing with you, too. He said “What in the world are we waiting for? Let’s just don’t stop.”
Q. And you’ve been on the road pretty much without a break since the 1970s. Was that lifestyle tough to get used to?
A. Our first band, we played about the same stuff we’re playing right now on the road. Some of the very same songs — “Down Yonder” and “Under the Double Eagle” and a lot of the country music we play.
But it was a new experience, because I didn’t drink, I didn’t do any of the habits of all of the musicians on the road, and I certainly didn’t dress the way they wanted me to dress, either. I’m use to getting dressed a little bit when I go to these cocktail lounges and perform. Or church.
Willie said “Just get you a pair of jeans, Sister Bobbie.”
I really did want to be a part of these guys. I didn’t want them to feel weird. Girls on the road, it’s another story. That used to be the rule — no girls on the road. Somebody asked Willie, what about your sister? And he said “Sister Bobbie’s not a girl, she’s a piano player.”
Q. What’s it like playing in that band?
A. You know, we are so bonded. Those guys have been so wonderful to me. In February, after we got back from Europe, I had a couple of strokes — I played three nights without anyone knowing — and when I got back to Austin, I went to my doctor and I ended up with a pacemaker.
By April I was back on the road with everybody.
Q. You’re very protective of your brother, aren’t you? Is that part of your job?
A. It’s not part of my job. It’s that I’m older than Willie, and I took care of him from the time he was born. And later, he took care of me. We took care of each other. And we still do. That bond will always be with us.
@2008 Bill DeYoung