by: Michael Corcoran
She had done whatever it took to raise three sons alone after their father died in an automobile accident in 1961. She demonstrated organs for Hammond, taught at J.R. Reed Music on Congress Avenue and at night played elegant solo piano at local lounges and restaurants.
But what Bobbie Nelson really hungered for, especially after her boys had grown up and moved out by the early 1970s, was to play music again with her brother Willie. The pair had forged an instinctive instrumental bond since she was 6 and Willie was 4 and their grandparents showed them the chords to “The Great Speckled Bird.”
Then one day in early 1973, Bobbie got a call from “Hughtie,” her name for Willie, summoning her to New York to play piano on his gospel album The Troublemaker. Willie had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records that gave him the creative control, including choice of session players, that had been denied him in Nashville. It was a new start for Willie, who had just moved to Austin, where Bobbie had beat him by a few years.
So at age 42, empty-nester Bobbie Nelson took her very first airplane flight and embarked on a glorious musical journey that is still en route. Willie and ” Sister Bobbie,” as she’s known in the extended Nelson family, have been musical partners for an incredible 77 years. The culmination of all this musical family love is the upcoming LP December Day, coming out Dec. 2. Although the “Vol. 1” of the “Willie Stash” series of archival recordings features the full band, included bassist Bee Spears who passed away in 2011, the cover credit goes to Willie & Bobbie. She’s the one who’s always there when he wants to jam.
ABOUT THE VIDEO: 17 years ago, I was channel-surfing and came across a segment on the Austin Music Network featuring Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie playing guitar and piano in a living room studio. The show was “Rogers & Hammerhead,” hosted by Freddy Powers and Bill McDavid and I was completely blown away by the musicianship and warmth of this brother and sister, then 64 and 67 years old. Anyway, I finally tracked down the tape at the Wittliff Collection at Texas State, and they transferred it to digital, so here’s a sample of that magical hour. First song is “She Is Gone,” followed by “It’s a Dream Come True,” both from the great 1996 LP Spirit. Directed by Ingrid Weigand. Used by permission of Freddy and Catherine Powers. Edit master Willie & Bobbie Nelson Rogers & Hammerhead, Freddy Powers Collection, Southwestern Writers Collection / Texas State University.” – Michael Corcoran
“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson told me in 2007, from the tour bus he shares with his sister. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there… whenever our band plays, she’s the best musician on the stage.
While Brother Willie has become a modern folk hero, as instantly recognizable as anyone on the planet, Sister Bobbie has happily remained in the shadow, except for the one spotlight turn – usually “Down Yonder” from “Red-Headed Stranger” – she gets at each Willie Nelson and the Family concert. “I’ve always been very shy,” said Bobbie, who always wears a cowboy hat onstage, but never off. “I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d always tell him, ‘you sing, Willie, and I’ll play the piano.’”
Bobbie didn’t really do many interviews until 2007 when she gingerly stepped out of the background to promote her first solo album, Audiobiography, put out by Randall Jamail. I first met with her at the Pedernales recording studio owned by her son Freddy Fletcher and then we followed up the next week at Farm Aid on Randall’s Island in New York City. She’s got a smile bright as Willie’s, but is much more soft spoken. “I’ve always expressed myself best through music,” she said. “I remember when I got my first piano. I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again.’”
Not that there weren’t painfully trying times in the devout Christian’s life. She lost two of her three sons, Michael to leukemia and Randy in a car crash, in a six-month period in 1989. “Me and my three boys grew up together, and we had so much fun … and then to lose two of your three babies, well, it’s something you never get over,” Bobbie said. “It taught me to never take life for granted.” Bobbie turns 84 on New Year’s Day. Willie is 81.
“It’s just the most wonderful therapy in the world to play with Willie,” she said, adding that sometimes when she’s away from her brother for more than a couple weeks, she gets a cold and feels worn down. Vitamin W always gets her right.
Willie and Bobbie ride together on the tour bus, where Bobbie slides a keyboard from the bottom of an adjoining bunk and Willie sits there with his famous battered Trigger and they play as Honeysuckle Rose V hurtles through the deep darkness between gigs. Some nights they don’t quit until they play every gospel song they know. From church to teenage honky tonk bands to 40 plus years in Willie Nelson and Family, the brother and sister have played music together many more days and nights than they haven’t.
Bobbie Lee, born on the first day of 1931, and Willie Hugh, born April 30, 1933, were children of the Depression. Their biological parents were a pair of married teenagers who had recently moved from Arkansas to Abbott, a farming community about 70 miles south of Dallas. But Bobbie and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents, whom they called Mama and Daddy.
“Daddy Nelson was the sweetest person I’ve ever known,” Bobbie said. “He had the most gorgeous tenor voice.” A proficient player of stringed instruments, Daddy Nelson taught Willie how to play guitar, while Mama Nelson, who lived to be in her 90s, showed Bobbie how to play piano. “It was just so amazing to us that I could play one part and Willie could play another and together we had a song. We’d look at each other and our eyes would light up.”
After Daddy Nelson died when Willie was 7 and Bobbie was 9, the distraught brother and sister took to tunes, both spiritual and secular, to soothe their sorrow. “Playing music made us realize that there was something bigger out there, something more than human life,” she said.
They played together for hours every day, and on Sundays they played and sang at the Abbott Methodist Church (which Willie bought in July 2006 when he heard prospective buyers had planned to move it to another town). Bobbie, who could read music at age 6, also played at other churches in the area. When she was 16, she met 21-year-old ex-GI Bud Fletcher at a revival at Vaughn Methodist Church, near Hillsboro. The couple married a few months later, while Bobbie was a senior at Abbott High. “I’d kiss my husband goodbye every morning then get on the school bus,” she recalled. Seeing so much talent in his new bride and her brother, Fletcher organized a western swing dance band around them – Bud Fletcher and the Texans. Because they played in Czech-centric towns of West and Ennis, they also played polka in the mix. A non-musician in the beginning, Fletcher took on the role of emcee, adding a Bob Willsian “Ah-HA” to that cowboy jazz and pumping up the crowd. He eventually learned to play bass fiddle and then the drums.
“Bud was one of those outgoing guys who could talk to anyone,” Bobbie said. “And he was a fabulous dancer.”
Bobbie became pregnant with Randy when she was 19; by age 23 she had three sons and was still playing in her husband’s band. But too many nights in a roadhouse were wearing Fletcher down. “Bud was a great person and we loved each other very much, but he was having a rough time,” she said. “That’s why, to this day, I hate alcohol. I’m so glad Willie doesn’t drink anymore.”
The young parents of three small boys also had very little money. In 1955, Bud’s parents went to court to get custody of Randy, Michael and Freddy and won. “Bud’s father was the road commissioner of Hill County and had a lot of influence,” Bobbie said. “They tried to portray me as unfit because I played honky tonk piano. It just broke my heart.”
Bobbie said she had a nervous breakdown after losing her children.
“The Fletchers hated the Nelsons,” said Freddy Fletcher. “They looked down on musicians and blamed my mother for getting my father involved, when in reality it was his idea to start a band.”
After she gave up the nightlife, took bookkeeping courses and got a job with the Hammond organ company in Fort Worth, Bobbie got her sons back after a year with their grandparents. She later divorced Fletcher and remarried, but that new union ended in divorce after a few years, as did her third and final marriage in the late 1960s.
While Bobbie’s life revolved around her three sons, Willie had hit the jackpot as a Nashville songwriter. In 1961, three of his compositions were big country hits: “Hello Walls” by Faron Young, “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Billy Walker.
“I was just so proud of him,” Bobbie said. “People got tired of hearing me say ‘my brother Willie wrote that one’ whenever one of his songs came on the radio.”
Bobbie moved to Austin from Fort Worth in 1965. She came to town to demonstrate a Hammond organ for the El Chico restaurant, set to open at the spanking new Hancock Center, and the owners were so impressed by her interpretations of such standards as Stardust” and “Laura,” as well as her boogie-woogie and swing numbers, they offered Bobbie a job playing nightly. She later opened the Chariot Inn in North Austin and played regularly at the Lakeway Inn.
“When Willie called me (in 1973) to come to New York, I was ready,” Bobbie said. “I was always playing the piano, using music to survive, so I never got rusty.”
Although Willie and producer Arif Mardin had blocked out five days at Atlantic studio that year, Bobbie was told she’d be needed only the first day, when The Troublemaker was knocked out in ten hours. The next day, Willie was back with his band to record what would become Shotgun Willie and when she popped in to say goodbye, he asked Bobbie to stick around to play some more piano. He was exploring a new musical direction and needed the comfort of Sister Bobbie, who’s been in the band ever since.
Willie said there’s an instinctive connection between him and his sister that he doesn’t feel with any other musician. “She knows what I’m going to do even before I do sometimes,” he said with a laugh. In a recently unearthed access TV appearance (above), Willie and Bobbie played with their backs to each other and were still able follow subtle cues.
“I’m just always listening to what Willie’s doing,” she said. “He shows me the way.”
In 1976, Willie bought Bobbie an $85,000 Bosendorfer grand piano like the one she played on Red Headed Stranger. But when IRS agents seized Willie’s property in 1990 to help satisfy a $16.7 million tax lien, Bobbie’s piano was among the Pedernales studio contents auctioned off. Luckily, the winning bid was from friends of Willie, who gave the Bosendorfer back to Bobbie. It’s the piano she plays so exquisitely on Decoration Day and all of Willie’s records.
The brother and sister have never had an argument, Bobbie said, even after she was awakened by police in Louisiana in September 2006 and charged, with Willie and three others, with possession of a pound and a half of marijuana and three ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. The prim and proper churchgoer has never used drugs, but since they were found on the bus she was traveling in, Bobbie was cited with the others. Rather than vitriol from being awakened in such a way, Bobbie’s reaction was unwavering loyalty to baby bro. “All I knew was that if Willie was going to jail, they’d have to take me to jail, too,” she said. But Willie and company were issued only misdemeanor citations and sent on their way.
In the mid-’70s, when Red Headed Stranger hit and the parties and groupies got crazy, Bobbie didn’t ride with Willie and the band, but flew to gigs and stayed in hotels. But she’s traveled with Willie since 1983 and has learned to tolerate the ever-present illegal perfume.
“I think he smokes (marijuana) too much,” Bobbie said in 2007, “but that’s just because I’m worried about his health.” At Randalls Island, Bobbie suggested moving the interview from the back of the bus when Neil Young and all his rowdy friends came onboard to do what you’re supposed to do on Willie’s bus.
“Sometimes I need a break,” she said, as Willie’s assistant David Anderson led us to an empty trailer about 50 yards away. Bobbie had heart surgery in 2007 and uses a pacemaker, but she has almost never missed a Family show since 1973. Playing with Willie, she said, “is a gift. We are just so blessed to be still doing what we’re doing after all these years.”
In a small Texas town in the 1930s, a 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother learned the power and magic of making music together. Blessed are those who know their purpose so young. And lucky are we who get to hear what they create.
(note: a different version of this article appeared in the Austin American Statesman in 2007)