By Dan Craft
Joining 79-year-old patriarch Willie Nelson on stage Saturday at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum will be his Family members, tied either via blood or music or both. In order of seniority, they are:
Bobbie Nelson, 81, piano: The closest-allied of the Family members, Willie’s big sis (his senior by two years) began singing with her sibling when they were still in single digits. By her teens, she was playing the Texas honky-tonk circuit with Willie.
Following a young-adult stretch as a single mom raising three sons, she faced her “empty nest” years by joining Willie’s band at age 42 in the early ’70s.
In 2007, at 76, she recorded her first solo album, “Audiobiography.” Willie: “There’s no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family.”
Paul ‘The Devil’ English, around Willie’s age (or thereabouts), drums: After sister Bobbie, Willie’s longest-running musical crony, first crossing paths in the mid-’50s at Forth Worth’s Gray’s Bar.
Of all Willie’s outlaw pals, he’s the one with the most street cred (self-confessed former gang leader and pimp). Quote: “Had it not been for Willie, I’d be dead or in a penitentiary.” Famed for his glass eye, onstage cape, gun-toting and nickname “The Devil” (per his “striking resemblance”).
Mickey Raphael, 60, harmonica: Joined Willie’s band in 1973; see accompanying interview.
Billy English, Paul’s younger brother: Following Paul’s 2010 stroke, Billy began pitching in on percussion.
Kevin Smith, upright bass: By far the Family’s tree’s newest branch, having sprung just months ago in the wake of longtime bass player Bee Spears’ sudden death. He’s best known for his long run with Asleep at the Wheel, the band Nelson joined on the Grammy-nominated 2009 album, “Willie and the Wheel.”
Dan ‘Bee’ Spears, 62, bass: The 40-year Family member was found dead outside his motor home in Tennessee last December. According to reports, he slipped and fell while exiting the home and succumbed to exposure.
He was often described as “Willie’s left hand.”
Jody Payne, 76, guitar: First crossed musical paths with Willie in 1962; joined Nelson’s Band in 1973; retired in 2008.
Ben Dorsey, 87, “world’s oldest roadie”: Former chauffeur to John Wayne, later same to Willie. Lately, notes Mickey Raphael, Ben doesn’t drive but still tags along on occasion “and is used for spare parts.” He also dresses a la Willie and is often mistaken for a worse-for-wear version of same by hotel lobby onlookers (“Willie, what happened?”).
Here & there
Chips off the block: Though not permanent members of the touring Family and not (per Mickey Raphael) expected here in Bloomington this weekend, Dad is joined off-and-on/here-and-there by daughters Paula, an Austin-based singer-songwriter, and Amy, of the acoustic duo Folk Uke; and sons Micah, a musician and visual artist, and Lukas, who fronts his own band, Promise of the Real