Legendary outlaw spearhead Willie Nelson has long billed his troupe of road show musicians the Family Band, and with good reason—all the players are blood-intimate with one another and, significantly, Willie’s sister Bobbie has been playing piano with them since 1972.
While Willie’s hopelessly battered little Martin guitar Trigger probably enjoys greater name recognition than Bobbie, she has been an integral part of Willie’s musical life since the pair were children in Depression-era Texas. With arrival of Audiobiography (Justice Records), her first solo CD, Bobbie finally gets her own well-deserved turn in the spotlight; Book-ended by a pair of new Willie originals, the balance of the album is just Bobbie and her 88 keys alternately strutting and smoldering through an engaging mixture of blues, boogie, pop standards, even a Latin twist, and Nelson delivers it with impressively understated style and technically impeccable technique
There’s much more to this than a mere vanity or sibling indulgence—Bobbie and Willie grew up playing together; in fact, big sister Bobbie had more experience and helped teach Willie music, establishing a bond even deeper than their natural sibling relationship; at the tender age of sixteen, Bobbie married Bud Fletcher, an amateur bassist who, as Willie wrote in his 1988 autobiography, was “tall, good-looking and slicker than bacon grease.”
Slick enough that Fletcher started a band despite barely being able to play, and he used his new wife and brother-in-law to play the area’s notoriously rough and tumble honky-tonks.
“That was a marvelous experience,” Bobbie Nelson said. “Willie was just 14, but it was really a nice band and we worked at clubs in Texas, mainly worked in Waco in beer joints. We didn’t have very much trouble going on most of the time—one of the clubs was a little rowdier than the others. They did a lot of beer drinking and dancing and good times, not too much brawling—or, at least, I didn’t know about it at the time!”
It was that heady, golden period when “Hank and Lefty cried at every juke box” (as Merle Haggard said) and country music was undergoing a revolutionary upshift, going from traditional corny entertainment to starkly graphic examinations of emotional issues and psychic torment—subjects rarely broached, and ones that Willie would, within a few years, dramatically expand with his own songs. While female talent in country music was more the exception than the norm, the great Lefty Frizzell used female pianist Madge Suttee on his classic early sessions, providing an important context for Bobbie.
“I sure did enjoy listening to Madge Suttee—we did a lot of those Lefty songs and I tried to play like her at the time, but I did not meet her.” Bobbie said. “We played a lot of Lefty, and Hank, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, all of the old stars, and we did pop songs and I loved to play boogie. I loved all of the jazz players. We used to listen to the radio, that’s where we really heard all the music and on the jukebox in these clubs—Ella Mae Morse, Freddie Slack, and I loved all of the old boogie piano men, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons. That was the music that I first got into.”
It didn’t last: “We had a little tragedy that kind of kept us apart,” she explained. “After six or seven years my husband was killed in automobile accident, and neither Willie or I had any money, so we didn’t work together.”
Suddenly a single mom in her mid-twenties, Bobbie struck out on her own, as her brother drifted from Texas to Los Angeles to Nashville. “I was raising my family and working for Hammond Organ studios in Fort Worth demonstrating the organ,” she said, “but I also played a lot of supper clubs, and I was always playing Willie’s songs.”
Soon, everyone else was too; after Patsy Cline and Faron Young topped the charts with Willie’s “Crazy” and “Hello Walls,” her little brother’s star began a steady, if uneven, ascendancy, and by 1972 Willie was poised to knock country music into a bold new artistic era. That year, he brought Bobbie into a New York recording studio, renewing a musical dialog that continues to this day.
“It my first airplane flight,” Bobbie says with a laugh. “And in New York, he said ‘We don’t have to stop playing together do we? Let’s just continue. All my kids were grown, two sons in college, so I went on the road. In Austin he was playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters, which was combining all the hippies and cowboys, and it was really something to see.”
The rest is outlaw history, and for the better part of 40 years, she has faithfully accompanied her brother through dizzying heights and some spectacular lows—marijuana busts, that infamous IRS hassle—and, finally Audiobiography affords her a chance to show just how much of a musical force she really is.
The album is a delight from start to finish, loaded with earthy, expressive stomps and frosty-cool uptown sophistication. It closes with Willie singing “Back to Earth,” his new, Bobbie-appreciative, cosmic slice-of-life-on-the-road song.
“When I hear him sing it, it touches me emotionally, and the words are so true, every night we do ‘make the rafters ring.’” Bobbie said. “I don’t know if we really do come back to Earth or not, but, hopefully we’ll just stay there—wherever we are.”
Willie and Bobbie Nelson will be performing at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84-245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio, (800) 827-2946, on Friday, February 15. Doors at 8PM, $59-$89 (sold out)