Archive for the ‘Bobbie Nelson’ Category

Bobbie Nelson

Friday, January 3rd, 2020
Photo: Janis Tillerson
by: Ellee Fletcher

A familiar cadence resonating from a well-worn Trigger has long served as the official notice: Willie is in the building. The signature open begins with only Nelson alone, and crescendos with the addition –  note by note – of each member of the Family Band. It’s fitting that this arrangement of “Whiskey River” has kicked off Nelson’s show for decades; the legend is but a piece of a whole – and he intends for it to stay that way.

The Family Band is truly that: a band of brothers (and sister) whose steadfast creative bond has produced one of the world’s most beloved and influential acts. Behind the braids stands a crew of visionaries who together have created, and continue to foster, a culture of inclusion through music. Beyond the melodies, the “Family” members have been unwavering in their support of one another over their decades-long relationship.

At the very core of this collective is Nelson’s “little” sister, Bobbie. On stage, the petite and powerful performer requires no introduction: behind the piano her delicate fingers, seemingly unburdened by a pair of gigantic Family Band rings, sweep the keys effortlessly in time with her brother’s famously unique phrasing. But, without fail,  her proud younger sibling introduces her each night. As she takes the last note of her spirited rendition of the L. Wolfe Gilbert classic “Down Yonder”, she rises humbly and tips her oversized black cowboy hat to the crowd.

Throughout their shared 50+ year career the pair has remained an undeniable creative force onstage and in the studio. And, from Bobbie’s perspective, their bond through music from their earliest years has saved both their lives.

We were just little dumb kids that got dropped off in the world. And here we are.

The tiny town of Abbott, Texas is the foundation on which it all was built. Bobbie and Willie were raised by their grandparents, Nancy and Alfred Nelson, after their young parents hit the road to pursue their own creative dreams. “Mamma” and “Daddy” Nelson’s house was filled with music. When Daddy Nelson would return home, the family’s talk turned to music. Gathered around a small kitchen table, Nancy and Alfred shared with the children their latest learnings – they took a music course by correspondence –  and their plans for next Sunday’s music program at the local Methodist church. Bobbie was lulled to sleep each evening by the muffled sounds of her grandparents piecing together their own compositions late into the night. Bobbie and Willie started playing at an early age. When she was six, Bobbie began taking piano lessons from Mamma Nelson – and adored inviting her younger brother to join her on the bench as she practiced her chords. Willie received his first guitar two years later. The siblings soon started playing in the church on Sundays and beginning what Bobbie still calls “the best music education anyone could have”.

When the family purchased their first radio, she and Willie were mesmerized by the contemporary tunes and styles they were hearing for the first time. “That old box” allowed them to explore a world outside of their own through music; but in Abbott, Bobbie remained dedicated to the church music that she knew.

Then Bobbie met Arlyn “Bud” Fletcher. Some recall Bud as a con artist; a smooth-talking salesman just looking to make a buck. But Bud swept Bobbie off her feet. “He was just so charming. Oh, man, was he charming,” she recalls. He took her to the dance halls and honky-tonks she’d never imagined stepping foot in. Through Bud she was introduced to a crowd of rowdy artists and swindlers, many of which were “very fine people,” according to Bobbie. She married Bud when she was sixteen, graduating high school as Bobbie Fletcher. Not long after Bobbie got her diploma, Bud began putting a band together. Bud Fletcher And The Texans were a rag-tag group who just wanted to play real Western swing music. With Bobbie on piano; Willie on lead guitar and vocals; their father, Ira, on rhythm guitar; and Bud at the helm as a hard-selling promoter, the band made their rounds on the beer joint circuit. “I didn’t care for those kinds of places,” Bobbie says, “I saw people riled up at the bar on a Saturday night, and the next morning they were sitting front row at church. For me…I really did this only for the music. I wanted to play, and I wanted to learn.”

Bud’s family became increasingly wary of the Nelson siblings’ influence on their son – a backwards take on the reality of the situation – and later worried for the future of their grandchildren. When Bobbie was forced to separate from Bud after a tumultuous run, the band fell apart. The Fletchers went to court to remove Bobbie from her three sons, deeming her an unfit mother. “They didn’t want me playing in those joints. But I never took a sip to drink, I never broke the law,” she says. “I was broken, my spirit was crushed. I had to get my boys back.” Bobbie fought hard to regain custody of her children and, after Bud’s fatal car crash in 1961, set out to create a new life to provide for her boys. Her stint in a TV repair shop in Fort Worth fatefully brought her back to music when the owner found her a job with Hammond Organ Company.

In the meantime Willie’s career was picking up steam. “He was in Nashville and all those places, getting his songs on the radio. All the sudden, everyone knew who he was.” Her brother would often visit her home to take a break from his newfound fame. Their bond over music remained a pillar of strength for the siblings, and perhaps inspired the next generation of industry players: Bobbie’s youngest son Freddy – then six years old – caught on to his uncle’s notoriety and would charge the neighborhood kids 5 cents to watch the singer sleep. “He got that from his father,” Bobbie laughs.

Bobbie gained recognition herself in the Austin music scene, playing the town’s most buzzed about hotels and supper clubs. It wasn’t until 1973 that Bobbie and Willie reunited over music. Having signed with Atlantic Records, Willie called his sister from New York where he was recording a gospel album, and insisted that she join him. She boarded an airplane for the first time in her life, joined her brother in New York to record The Troublemaker, and never looked back.

Bobbie and Willie have been playing music ever since, with no plans of slowing down any time soon. “If we ever had to stop I don’t know how we’d take it,” she says. “Our hearts…and everything are in music. We’ve never gotten through anything in our lives without it.” Indeed, the pair has suffered great loss over their decades-long career. “When I lost two of my sons, I had Willie, Freddy, and music to turn to. Willie has suffered the same. And we turned to each other. We kept on playing. And we will keep on playing”.

Bobbie’s house, a short drive from “Luck, TX” property that Willie calls home, is an ode to the life they have shared and the music they have made. Framed platinum and gold albums line the walls; shelves and tables are littered with photographs of a whirlwind history filled with love and loss. There are perhaps more pianos than furniture – an instrument in nearly every room. A stack of cast iron skillets maintains a permanent position next to the stove, always prepared for Willie to drop in for his sister’s cornbread and sausage. As the dainty beauty takes a breath after regaling the tales of a life well-lived, she says softly, as if no one is listening “I’ve given up a lot of little things because I had a bigger thing to do. This is it for me.”

Happy birthday, Bobbie Nelson

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

Willie Nelson leads the audience in singing happy birthday to his sister Bobbie last year. She was born on January 1st.

Thank you Janis Tillerson for sharing your photos from that New Year’s Eve show at ACL Moody Theater.


Happy Holidays 2004

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019

Willie and Bobbie Nelson, “December Day”

Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Sister Bobbie

Wednesday, November 20th, 2019

Thank you, Janis from Texas, for these great photos of Sister Bobbie.

Willie and Bobbie Nelson

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

I just love this photo.

Willie Nelson, “I Thought About You Lord”

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Bobbie Nelson and Paul English

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Bobbie Nelson inducted into Texas Country Music Hall of Fame (August 12, 2017)

Monday, August 12th, 2019

Bobbie Lee Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas in 1931. She is an American pianist and singer, sister of Texas Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Willie Nelson and a member of his band, Willie Nelson and Family, touring full time since 1973.

At the age of five, Bobbie’s grandmother started teaching her to play piano on a pump organ, a year later, her grandfather, impressed by her potential talent, bought her a piano for $35. When her brother Willie picked up the guitar, the siblings started trying out popular tunes and gospel favorites together around the house with their grandmother. Soon the Nelsons were performing at Abbott High school functions and at the local Methodist Church.

At the age of 14 Bobbie turned pro and began traveling with evangelists all around the Lone Star State. In 1973, Bobbie and Willie teamed up again to record with Atlantic Records. Taking her first airplane flight, Bobbie met Willie in New York City to play piano on recordings that would later be released on the 1976 album “The Troublemaker”, and also joined her brother on the albums “Shotgun Willie” (1973) and “Phases and Stages” (1974). From then on, Bobbie stayed extremely busy keeping up with Willie’s frequent touring and recording sessions, occasionally playing with other artists (Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and the Supersuckers to name a few).

In 2008, Bobbie Nelson released her solo debut album, “Audiobiography” and seven years later Bobbie and Willie recorded the album December Day, which was inspired by the jam sessions the siblings often enjoyed while on the bus from one show to another.

Read entire article here

Willie and Bobbie Nelson on the Austin Music Network, Rogers and Hammerhead Program

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Paul English and Bobbie Nelson

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

photo: Janis Tillerson

Sister Bobbie Nelson

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

by Doug Freeman

A curtain of white Christmas lights foregrounds the stage at Antone’s, cascading against the black sheen of the grand piano set on the floor. Bobbie Nelson seats herself at the keyboard with tender elegance, a quiet “thank you” almost imperceptible without a vocal mic. Her debut CD, Audiobiography, takes the place of sheet music and doubles as tonight’s set list. As the spiked heel of her shoe leverages against the instrument’s pedals, her fingers glide in effortless recall of songs that have made music history.

On her left hand, a male-sized class ring refracts light as she works the low end keys. Impressive and conspicuous on her slender fingers, its six diamonds surround another at the center. On one side, her name is engraved above the Texas state flag. On the other rises a portrait of her brother Willie. Embossed around the stones are the words “Willie Nelson and Family.”

For nearly 35 years, “Sister Bobbie,” as she’s affectionately called by her younger brother, has accompanied Willie Nelson onstage and in the studio. Their playing together dates back to their earliest childhood, the siblings’ lives as conjoined musically as by their bloodlines. The ring she wears, commissioned by Willie after the release of 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, represents more than their success. It’s a symbol of the pillars of family and music that, along with her faith, have been the constant motivation, joy, and solace of her life. Likewise, Audiobiography presents a personal document of some of the songs closest to her, memories and moments of her past ingrained in 88 keys.

Home Is Where You’re Happy

Some 20 miles north of Waco and a half-mile east of I-35, Abbott seems a relic of bygone times. A sign on the edge of town declares the population 300, and just beyond the railroad tracks, crossroads mark its boundary. A rusty water tower surveys the horizon from the southwest corner, opposing the weary brick building that houses the post office and small general store. Anchoring either side of the intersection’s east end are a Baptist and a Methodist church, both shining white within the fading husk of the town.

In 2006, Willie purchased the Methodist church to save it from being torn down, preserving a piece of his hometown history as well as his family’s. It was in this quaint, wood-framed building that he and Bobbie first began playing music together, singing “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” for the small congregation, songs that are still part of their shows today.

“I was just so in love with the piano at church,” recalls Bobbie, sitting in the lounge of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel. “My grandfather loved the gospel singing, and my grandmother was really active in the church and was a Sunday-school teacher there. This church I just grew up in.”

Ira and Myrle Nelson moved to Abbott from Arkansas just as the Great Depression set in across the country, freshly married teenagers looking for their own start. The marriage lasted long enough to bring Bobbie into the world on New Year’s Day, 1931, and Willie two years later. The children were raised by their paternal grandparents, William and Nancy, who had also moved west and imparted their love for music to their grandchildren.

“My grandmother was a wonderful teacher,” says Bobbie. “She had come from a background where her father was a singing instructor in Arkansas. She and my grandfather studied from a mail-order course, and we always remember them sitting at the table with a lamplight studying music they got in the mail. I was about 5 when I started learning to play, because my grandfather insisted that my grandmother start teaching me on the pump organ we had in the house.”

Her grandfather also took Bobbie to singing conventions held 10 miles up the road in Hillsboro. On the first Sunday of every month, the courthouse opened for afternoon gospel presentations, and Bobbie counts her first performance as a child standing before a crowd of nearly 1,000 people and directing the singing.

Recognizing both her talent and enthusiasm, Bobbie’s grandfather bought a piano from the local grocer for $35 when she was 6. When he passed away three years later, William still owed money on the instrument, and Bobbie remembers her grandmother selling calves to pay off the debt so they could keep the piano. Willie joined her on the bench when he was old enough.

“I must have been about 8 or 9 whenever we first started playing together,” says Bobbie. “My grandmother stood at the treble end of the piano and sat Willie at the bass end, and she showed him three different chords and how to do the other parts. She would sing while Willie and I played, so we really started learning to play together.

“We might have been some of the poorest people in town, but we didn’t know it,” she laughs. “We thought we were rich as could be. We knew we didn’t have any money, but we had a real good time!”

Phases, Stages, Circles, Cycles, and Scenes

Abbott was hardly a musical epicenter, but neither Bobbie nor Willie were want for opportunities to perform. Bobbie played piano for all the functions at her school, and the siblings played regularly together in church. Summers were marked by revival meetings at which the Nelson children became fixtures.

Bobbie remembers her brother writing his first song at the age of 9, though neither can now recall the tune. At 14, she began traveling with evangelists working the revival circuit, which took her throughout Texas and to Austin for the first time. Willie, meanwhile, began playing rhythm guitar with a Czech band in town.

During one meeting when she was 16, Bobbie met Bud Fletcher. Returning from service in World War II, Fletcher was six years older than Bobbie. He came to church to meet her that April, and by August they were married.

“When I got married, Bud immediately organized our first band,” says Bobbie. “He loved Willie, and Willie went with us on all of our dates. He also loved to dance and to drink beer, and he knew all the joints in West and Waco, which Willie and I had never been to. It was a big beginning for me.”

Bud Fletcher & the Texans became fast favorites throughout the area. Bobbie ventured beyond gospel on honky-tonk numbers, while Willie picked up lead guitar and contributed a couple of original songs to the repertoire. Their father joined them on rhythm guitar, along with trombonist Glen Ellison, who taught at the Abbott school and was subsequently fired for playing bars with his students. Fletcher held down drums and fronted the outfit with Bob Wills-inspired yelps.

“Every night we’d do different things: Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff,” recounts Bobbie. “We did all of the old stuff. We listened to our radio after we got electricity and could hear all this music, the Grand Ole Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. And every time we’d hear a song on the radio, we’d learn to play it by ear.”

The band lasted until 1955, when Bobbie and Bud were forced to separate. Bobbie moved back to her grandmother’s house and then to Fort Worth.

“I never did want to divorce him,” she says. “I really loved the man. We didn’t either one want a divorce. But Bud was sick, and I think it was due to drinking. I might be wrong about that, but I was very young and didn’t know exactly what the problem was.”

Worst of all, Bobbie lost custody of their three sons, Randy, Michael, and Freddy, the courts considering the pianist unfit because of her playing honky-tonks despite the fact that she has never drank in her life. Bud’s parents took the children while Bobbie tried to recover and build a new life to get them back. Bud died in a car wreck in 1961.

“It broke me,” she sighs, still hurt. “I was totally broken and actually ended up with a complete physical breakdown. It took me years to recover. I was not able to raise up without passing out – that was what it kind of amounted to – and I spent a lot of time in the hospital in Fort Worth. I remarried because the judge said I needed to remarry to get my children. And they told me that I couldn’t play, that I couldn’t enter inside any place that served alcohol. I didn’t have any reason for them to take my babies away, but they did.”

Inseparable in times of trouble, Willie moved with Bobbie to Fort Worth as she tried to establish a new life. She worked in a TV-repair shop while attending business classes at night. The owner, having heard her play, rented a piano for the store, offering Bobbie a modicum of consolation through her music. She eventually landed a job with the newly established Hammond Organ Co.

“I was the only piano player that was also a stenographer on record at the employment office in Fort Worth, and Hammond was looking for just that person to learn to play the Hammond organ, to demonstrate it, teach it, and to sell it,” she says. “I learned to play the Hammond and was right there with the sheet-music department, so I had access to all the sheet music and could order anything. That’s how I learned so much music.”

Steady employment gave Bobbie the opportunity to make a living playing music but, more importantly, to regain custody of her children. After a year and a half of separation, Bobbie was reunited with her boys.

With Bobbie touring the Hammond organ at conventions and clubs across Texas, Willie left the state and by 1960 had landed in Nashville, supported by hits like “Hello Walls,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Crazy.” Bobbie proudly peppered her demonstrations with her brother’s songs.

She moved to Austin in 1965, but when her third and final marriage fell apart a few years later, she joined Willie in Nashville, leaving behind everything she owned to escape a desperate situation, including the piano her grandfather had bought her. Willie, too, lost everything when a fire destroyed his Tennessee home in 1970.

“Willie had nothing, no possessions or anything; he was just burned out, so he moved to Bandera,” says Bobbie. “I waited just a few weeks until I could make a move, and then I moved back to Austin, and Willie just fell in love with Austin. When he did the Armadillo World Headquarters, that was it. We were going to be Austinites.”

Bobbie continued to play hotels and dinner clubs around town, opening the most prestigious establishments like the Stephen F. Austin Hotel and Polonaise Restaurant. In 1973, Willie called her from New York and asked her to join him in the studio.

“Willie had signed to Atlantic Records, and he was going to do a gospel record and wanted me to help him,” she recalls. “I had never been on an airplane or even been any farther than Nashville, but I went to New York, and we recorded The Troublemaker, the first time I recorded with him. Then we did the Shotgun Willie album while we were there, and it all went so well, and we had such a good time that Willie said, ‘I sure have missed playing with you; let’s just don’t stop.’”

Still Is Still Moving

Bobbie and Willie haven’t stopped playing together since. For the past three decades, the two have been at each other’s side through their moments of greatest achievement and lowest despair, a journey that in its course has helped reshape American music.

Shotgun Willie annunciated a string of hit albums for Willie during the 1970s, works like Red Headed Stranger becoming cornerstones of outlaw country. Furthermore, Bobbie and Willie’s return to Austin established Central Texas as the hub of the progressive-country movement, a geographical relocation that mirrored creative efforts of like-minded artists like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash to work outside Nashville’s populist machine. By the release of 1976 compilation Wanted! The Outlaws, featuring Willie, Waylon, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, the industry had been transformed; Wanted! was country music’s first platinum album.

Yet even amidst success, the bond born in a small Texas town between brother and sister has remained the fulcrum of their lives when all else fails. In 1989, the family faced their most trying period: Bobbie’s son Michael succumbed to leukemia at the age of 36, and less than six months later, his older brother, Randy, was killed in a New Year’s Eve car crash.

“Any losses are horrible,” Bobbie says softly. “I lost my grandfather early, when I was 9, and that was hard. When I lost Michael, I realized there was just no comparison with any other loss than losing one of my babies. You think it can’t get any worse, and you find out it can.

“I had to find a new desire for living, and it wasn’t easy, because I was so unhappy and sad for so long,” she continues. “It’s just a matter of time. But one thing I did was go on the road. I didn’t feel like being social, but I could go with Willie and play the piano and go to work. That was a solace for me. I wasn’t playing churches anymore, but I could play with Willie.”

Bobbie’s debut album follows on the heels of another testament to life’s precious fragility. Last February, she suffered a minor stroke while the band was on tour in San Francisco. Though she temporarily lost speech, she kept the stroke a secret and played the final three shows of the tour.

“I’m lucky,” acknowledges Bobbie, who turned 77 with the new year. “I’m very, very lucky. The first night [onstage], I was really scared and didn’t know what would happen. I really had to concentrate, but then it got easier, and I realized, ‘I’m all right; I can play the piano.’ I just had to find out if I could play.”

When she returned to Austin, she eventually had a pacemaker installed. By April, she was on the road again with Willie, perhaps the best therapy of all.

“My experience at church taught me that talent given by God isn’t your talent,” explains Bobbie. “It’s something you were given, and you have to give it back. That’s the way I feel when I play the piano. That’s the way I recovered from my nervous breakdown, too, playing the organ. It’s my medication. My piano is always there. As long as I’m healthy enough and can play, the piano will be there, like my truest friend.”

Happy Mother’s Day

Sunday, May 12th, 2019

Happy Mother’s Day to these great mothers, Bobbie Nelson and Annie Nelson