Sister Bobbie

With 'Audiobiography,' Willie Nelson's pianist lets her fingers do the talking

Sister Bobbie
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

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

Sister Bobbie
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

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.

Bobbie and Willie with paternal grandmother Nancy
Bobbie and Willie with paternal grandmother Nancy

"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.

Schoolyard pals
Schoolyard pals

"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.

Atlantic Records studio chums
Atlantic Records studio chums

"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.

Bud Fletcher & the Texans, with the Nelsons at left
Bud Fletcher & the Texans, with the Nelsons at left

"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."

Healing Hands of Time

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.

Fletcher and his new family
Fletcher and his new family

"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.

Bobbie and Willie, 2007
Bobbie and Willie, 2007 (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

"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."

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