By Todd Money
Getting a job working for your sibling isn’t always the easiest or most advisable career move.
Bobbie Nelson, the sister of musical legend Willie Nelson, made the most of it.
Never a stranger to music herself, Bobbie had played the Texas honky-tonks with younger brother Willie when they were in their teens, in a band with Bobbie’s husband and Ira Nelson, their guitar-playing father. But when her husband died in a car accident, she was left to raise three sons on her own. That brought her to business school in Fort Worth, Texas, where she aimed to learn secretarial skills.
It was music, though, that led to her first job out of college, with the Hammond Organ Co., where she was hired for her office skills – and her ability to demonstrate the company’s organs. Before long, she was working as a piano entertainer in restaurants, eventually making her living as a pianist in Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn.
It was in the early 1970s when brother Willie, who had just signed a recording deal with Atlantic Records, asked Bobbie to join his band. Her playing mixed well with the rest of the band’s free-wheeling style on hits such as “Whiskey River” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” and more than 35 years and countless albums and concerts later, brother and sister are still playing together.
Recently, the lesser-known Bobbie has garnered a little spotlight of her own. In 2007, at the age of 76, she released “Audiobiography,” a debut album that shows off her understated and romantic playing style on some of her favorite tunes.
- Back To Earth (With Willie Nelson)
- Boogie Woogie
- Death Ray Boogie
- The House Of Blue Lights
- Deep Purple
- 12th Street Rag
- Sabor A Mi
- Down Yonder
- Until Tomorrow (With Willie Nelson)
Bobbie Nelson, sister of legendary singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, talks about her career, her brother and life on the road.Â Recently, Bobbie talked about where they’ve been.
Question: How’s it going on the tour?
Bobbie Nelson: This is a great tour. We’ve just done Farm Aid up in Massachusetts, and I’m in New Jersey tonight, and we do Connecticut tomorrow night, and then we do (New York’s) Radio City Music Hall the next night, so we’ll be out a couple more weeks. Everything’s going very well. I’m very grateful.
Q: You guys still share a tour bus, from what I understand, and you’ve been playing for 35 years or so. How do you kill time on the bus?
BN: Willie is very busy, and he has all of his office there on the bus – his computers and phones and everything – so he actually does his office thing right there on the bus, and then we have our instruments. He’s got his guitar, and I have an electric keyboard â€¦ I can pull this little keyboard out, and we can practice and play music.
Q: Musically speaking, it seems like Willie’s always had a thing for these really super-complex chords and neat chord changes and stuff. How much of that is your doing?
BN: You know, we listened to the radio as we were growing up and listened to all kinds of music. That was, of course, during the big-band era, as well as all the border stations and all the country music that we listened to. He actually likes all the different kinds of music, the Latin rhythms and all the different, beautiful chords. He loves a lot of the jazz things.
Q: You can tell, just in the songs he’s covered over the years, how diverse his interests are.
BN: Yes! I love chords, too, and as you study piano, you get into all of that. â€¦ And the music we grew up with in the church – those hymns have a lot of beautiful harmony.
Q: Are you surprised that so many of these songs over the years have become classics? Do you think Willie knows a song is a classic when he comes up with it?
BN: No, I don’t think so. â€¦ When he writes, he just writes, and I don’t think he’s really ever thought, “I’m gonna write a song that’s gonna be a classic or a hit.” He’s just composing. He’s just letting go of some of his feelings and his thoughts that he’s got.
Q: You came out with an album last year. How did you pick the songs that went on that?
BN: Willie had scheduled studio time, because he had written a couple of new songs. So we were off the road during our holiday season â€¦ We were waiting for (guitar player) Jody (Payne) to get back, to get to Austin. So Willie just said, “Sister Bobbie, why don’t you just go up there and warm up that old piano?”
“So I went in the studio and just started playing this beautiful piano. I just was playing some of these songs I used to play when I played by myself, and also some of the boogies and things that we played when we were kids. And they recorded it. I didn’t know they were recording me. ”
(Justice Records owner) Randall Jamail, we were having lunch one day, and we were talking about it, and I said, “I’ve had people ask me why I don’t write my autobiography. And I always feel that I can do it better with music, because my life and Willie’s life have just been music.” And he said, “Well, that’s what we’ll call your album – ‘Audiobiography.’ ”
Q: Do you have any plans to put out any more music?
BN: They’re asking me if I will record some more â€¦ maybe if we’re off during the holiday season again this year, maybe I’ll have a little time to put into that.
Q: Obviously, growing up with Willie, you’ve got a lot of interesting stories. Is there anything that people would be surprised to find out about Willie?
BN: I don’t know, we’ve both done a lot of interviews â€¦ Willie has always been a wonderful person. He was a fun-loving kid, and he’s a fun-loving man. We have a lot of fun, and we both have the same feelings about wanting to make Earth a better place and making a better place for our children, and just to help humanity in general.
Q: If there’s one thing that’s been the secret to you guys’ success over the years, what would it be?
BN: Our grandmother took us to church every Sunday, and we were at prayer meeting every Wednesday night, and choir practice once or twice a week, and Bible school. The teachings that we were taught when we were growing up – our grandmother being one of these teachers … She had a love for music, as did my grandfather – so our lives have been about music. Learning music and performing it, and always trying to improve ourselves with our talents. I think that’s what has meant more to us than anything else, is the love we feel for others and the love we feel for music and performing it.