Honoring the quiet, loving force behind the genius of Willie Nelson
From her piano bench dutifully placed behind her brother, Willie Nelson, Bobbie Nelson looked out across the many stages of the world.
From old honky-tonks, to the finest concert halls, she graced us with her piano playing while under the cool shade of her wide-brimmed cowgirl hat – she lived every Texas girl’s dream of music, family, and travel.
From her humble roots in Abbott, Texas, Bobbie grew up with music as a member of the family. Her grandparents were both musical, they made sure their grandchildren learned music theory and performance – Bobbie had all 88 keys of their family upright, while Willie took to a six-string from a Sears catalogue. Like most musicians of her generation, she had a “regular gig” every Sunday morning, playing gospel music in church.
While gospel was the main form of music consumption for Bobbie, the geographical location of Abbot meant that she also grew up around the Czech community and their polka music, as well as Mexican families and their Conjunto. The radio stations in Texas could also reach all the way down to Mexico, which meant for lax radio rules, opening her up to a world of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and R&B. At school dances, however, her classmates loved when she played boogie woogie.
It was in high school, much to the dismay of her church congregation and grandparents, that she began playing in the honky-tonks in a band with her then-husband, Bud, along with her brother, father, and school principal: Bud Fletcher and the Texans. When the relationship didn’t work out, and she already had three sons, the courts didn’t want to give Bobbie her babies because she was an “unsavory woman” – playing in the bars in a band full of men (even when her husband was the front man). So, facing adversity head-on, she went to business college, practiced typing which was essentially just another keyboard for her to master, and got a job with the Shield Company. Conveniently, they had a Hammond department.
The mid-fifties saw a great interest in the Hammond B3 organ, so her job as a typist and stenographer quickly turned into an instrument demonstrator, and then, the head of sheet music. Through this job, she was able to get a regular gig at a chain of Mexican restaurants, El Chico, which took her to Fort Worth, and then to Austin. It was playing at these restaurants, and the historic Stephen F. Austin Hotel on 700 Congress Ave that Bobbie really expanded her repertoire. She was a human jukebox who could churn out standards, the Great American Songbook, popular music, and any request given (often by prominent politicians working in the state capitol).
When Jerry Wexler signed Willie Nelson to Atlantic Records in 1973, he gave Willie free reign over his own music, and suggested recording in New York. This was completely different to the strict rules of the Nashville music scene. Instead of label-established studio musicians, Willie was able to choose his own crew, writing in Me and Sister Bobbie, “I immediately thought of Bobbie. She was the main spark I’d been missing.” Willie approached this project as a gospel album. He made Bobbie the creative director, relying on her deep knowledge of gospel music to select the songs. This was The Troublemaker, which marked a moment where the Neslons’ musical childhood intersected with their professional careers.
Then along came Shotgun Willie, which bolstered Willie’s “outlaw” persona at a time where he was carving out the outlaw country movement. Bobbie, however, is the unsung hero of the album. Her piano keeps it all together, at once honky-tonk, western swing, sophisticated waltz, and boogie woogie. As the lyric in the title track says, “Shotgun Willie’s got all his family there,” nodding toward the fact that his sister is there with him in the studio as part of his official backing band: The Family. One of the moments where Bobbie’s piano playing really shines is in the song ‘Whiskey River.’ In the bridge, where the band lightens up, you can hear Bobbie in the background trickling away on the ivories that bring that “amber current” to life.
Among many of Willie’s other releases, she’s also featured in Red Headed Stranger, Phases & Stages, December Day: Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1, and The Willie Nelson Family (which was released just last year). In 2008, she was coaxed by Willie to do her own solo album, which she cleverly called Audiobiography. Up until her death, she has been a consistent member of The Family band, travelling the world with Willie and her nephews and nieces. At live shows she stayed away from the spotlight, but she was always given the opportunity to shine on ‘Down Yonder,’ effortlessly coaxing the sounds of the south out of her piano. Her playing was open and free; she created a landscape for Willie and The Family to meander through with their spontaneous, improvisational style.
There’s this concept of “blood harmony,” that describes a biological chemistry that is shared between siblings when they sing together. What was shared between Bobbie and Willie was deeper – yes, they had blood harmony, but they also had the harmony of picking cotton in the fields to help their grandmother make ends meet, they had the harmony of playing gospel music at church, they had the harmony of two people who have been playing music together for over eighty years. Bobbie was probably one of the only people who could anticipate Willie’s just-behind-the-beat vocal swagger.
In their book Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, Willie wrote “When I go out there every night and look over to my right, there she is. Bobbie Nelson. Doing what she’s always done with grace and style.”
And that’s where her spirit will persist.
VIDEO: Bobbie Nelson “Down Yonder”