Willie Nelson, the country icon, activist and household name, has another Nelson on the road with him – his sister, Bobbie, who has toured with him since the 1970s.
Maybe you’ve seen her at a show – she’s the lady at the piano with a kind face and a pleasant Southern drawl that seems to add an extra syllable or two onto every word.
Bobbie Nelson, 79, and her brother were raised in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, by their grandparents – music lovers who would compose songs in the evenings after supper and who insisted the children learn the craft, too. Bobbie was reading music and playing the pump organ by age 6.
“Our grandmother and grandfather loved us so much and started us with a music career that they didn’t even know they were starting us on,” Bobbie Nelson said. “They just loved music.”
Aside from touring with her brother’s band, Bobbie Nelson released her debut solo album, “Autobiography,” at age 76. It’s a collection of her favorite piano pieces, guitar-and-piano duets with her brother and a couple of his classic songs, such as “Crazy.”
Bobbie Nelson recently spoke to Cue about her childhood in Texas, the travel schedule of her piano, and what it’s really like on Willie Nelson’s tour bus.
– Danielle Hatch
How did you get started in music?
Willie and I lived with our grandmother and grandfather, they were gospel singers and into writing their own music, studying it. I was really in love with the piano. My grandfather insisted that my grandmother teach me. We had a pump organ in our house and I got started on that. I learned to read music and play at age 6.
How did you come to live with your grandparents?
My mother and father were just so young when they got married, I was born when they were 17. That marriage never did last.
Willie and I really just clung to each other, because our grandmother worked in the fields, and my grandfather died when we were really young – I was 9 and Willie was 6. I tried to look after him, keep him from getting hurt.
We had such a close, beautiful relationship as children, and that hasn’t changed. Willie and I are as close as we are because we played music together.
What was it like at home in those early days?
We watched our grandmother and grandfather work on their music every night. He was a blacksmith and when he came home, after we had our dinner, they would work on their music. They took lessons from a mail order school and were studying composition, it was really wonderful watching them.
Then we got electricity in our little house and our grandfather got us a radio. This radio brought the rest of the world and the music to our ears that we hadn’t heard before.
How did you come to play in your brother’s band?
When I was 16 and Willie was 14, I married a man who was a little older and he organized our first band (Bud Fletcher and the Texans). We worked together for a few years. (My husband) was killed, and Willie went to the Air Force.
I didn’t play with him until after he had been recording and gone to live in Nashville and written “Hello Walls” and “Crazy” and had become very famous already as a songwriter. It was about ‘71 when he was recording with Atlantic Records and wanted me to do a gospel record with him. We did the “Troublemaker” album. He said, “We sure have missed playing together, haven’t we?” And I said, “Yes, we have.” I was playing supper clubs and cocktail lounges, that sort of thing, and teaching music in Austin. He said, “Let’s just start playing together again.” So it gave us an opportunity to regroup.
Was it hard to accept his offer, because it meant you’d have to go on the road?
It did. But my children were grown at the time and in college, so I didn’t really have any reason not to go on the road. He never did want me to leave my (three) sons until after they were older. After we did “Troublemaker” and “Shotgun Willie,” we started working more locally. Then we did “Red Headed Stranger,” and it was all much better after that. We could get better transportation, I could have a piano to travel with me.
What kind of piano do you play?
It’s a 7-foot Steinway. I’ve traveled with that piano 15 years now. It’s fabulous. I’ve never had so much luxury in my life, and I’m very grateful for it.
In fact, we’re going to do a European tour. We haven’t gone there in a few years, but we’re going back this year and they say we’re going to take my piano with us. I’m really not sure how that’s going to work out – I hate to put my piano on an airplane.
Your brother has his guitar, “Trigger.” Do you have a name for your piano?
I’ve never named it. But I just say it’s my companion, and it’s really true.
When Willie gave me my first band ring years ago – it was after we had done “Red Headed Stranger” – I had ordered it to fit my ring finger on my right hand. But it didn’t fit; it fit the ring finger on my left hand. So I guess that was fate telling me that’s what I’m really married to.
You released your first album, “Autobiography,” at age 76. What made you finally decide to record?
I wanted to do something so I could leave something for my youngest son. And I have a little granddaughter, she’s 19 now and in school.
I was going into the studio with Willie to record a couple of songs that Willie had just written. We have a studio out here in Austin, where we live. There’s a little golf course and a studio, and Willie and my son were playing golf. He said, “Sister Bobbie, why don’t you go warm up that piano?” So I did, and they recorded what I was warming up with – I had no idea.
And, I had learned a lot of music that I didn’t want to forget – jazz, boogies and piano songs from when I was a kid. I was working with Hammond Organ Studios, I used to demonstrate organs and play for dinner clubs, songs like “Laura” and “Deep Purple” and “Stardust,” all of these beautiful old songs. It was hard for me to choose which ones I really wanted to put on an album, because I had so many that I loved. And I loved the things that Willie has written.
Willie Nelson and Family has quite a reputation; there are arrests for marijuana and Moonshine every now and then. What’s it really like on the road?
Every now and then? It seems like we don’t know for sure when we go out if we’re going to come home or not (laughs).
I ride the bus with Willie and we travel around together, we have a couple of bus drivers and our road manager. We really work hard. We do a show almost every night. Then we travel that very night to the next city where we’re going to perform the next day. So our lives are spent sleeping on the bus.
I go inside a hotel when I get there, but Willie lives in the bus. It’s very difficult for him to get off the bus because there are people waiting for him. It’s really kind of funny. Anywhere we park the bus we’re going to have a crowd.
Willie really feels about marijuana that it is his medicine, that he uses it to relax himself. And he doesn’t really smoke like he used to. He’s getting older and has some problems, too. So we don’t really need to do a lot of those things. We maybe drink too much coffee or wine at night, but that’s about the extent of our party (laughs).
Now, I don’t know how the other guys live their lives, but we have already determined that after we had so many arrests, some of the road crew have said, “We’re not going to smoke on our bus anymore” (laughs). Because they’re tired of getting arrested.
I’ve heard that Trigger, the guitar, has a hole in it. And once the hole makes Trigger unplayable, that Willie is going to stop touring. Is this true?
I certainly hope that Trigger doesn’t decide that he can’t come with us anymore, because that would make a huge difference in the way that Willie feels about playing. It’s the only instrument that can give him the sound that he really wants – between that instrument and the amplifier he uses. He could change guitars, but it’s not the same. It’s just like me and a good piano. I could probably replace my piano, but I don’t know that he could replace Trigger. So I don’t know what would ever happen when Trigger says “I’ve had it.”
How long do you plan to tour?
We hope to be able to tour as long as we can. Because we really do feel that this is our life. We have a new challenge every day to do a great show, to meet as many people as we can, and to bring to them, hopefully, the good that they get from it. I don’t think Willie and I, either one, would be very healthy if we didn’t tour. It keeps us young and healthy and happy.