AUSTIN, Texas - Wives have come and gone, but one woman has been at Willie Nelson’s side from the start. He calls her “Sister Bobbie,” and if the name evokes a little gospel imagery, it’s fitting because their musical origins spring from Southern, churchgoing folk.
It’s also fitting that Bobbie Lee Nelson, who just turned 77, is celebrating her first solo album after spending the last three decades on the road and onstage with her famous little brother.
She was having so much fun, she never recorded anything of her own. Truth is, she might never have gotten around to it, but Willie turned on the tape machine one day when Bobbie wasn’t looking. The result is a step back in time, to the “boogie woogie” sound and the old standards she and her brother cut their musical teeth on.
Bobbie Nelson recently sat down for an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, whose pages her family once plastered over the cracks of their Hill County shack to keep out the north winds. She spoke of her love for Fort Worth, the uneasy joy of eating Willie’s mud pies and how she wound up with her own CD.
“Willie said, `Well, Sister Bobbie, why don’t you just go over there and warm up that piano,’” she recalled. “I didn’t think I was really recording an album.” The compilation, called “Autobiography,” features two songs with her brother - “Back to Earth” and “Until Tomorrow.” The rest were pulled from a list of her favorite piano songs, including “Stardust,” “Death Ray Boogie” and “Laura.” The album also includes a soulful, instrumental rendition of “Crazy,” the 1961 hit that put Willie Nelson into the songwriting stratosphere.
“Everybody loves `Crazy.’ Everybody loves to sing it,” she said. “When I heard Patsy Cline do this song, I guess like everybody else in the world ... it was like an angel singing.”
Raised by their grandparents in tiny Abbott, Texas, north of Waco, Willie and Bobbie grew up dirt-poor but happy, absorbing spiritual nourishment from their constant companion - music.
Their great-grandfather was a traveling singing instructor from Arkansas, and her grandparents spent every spare hour studying, playing and composing music. As a little girl, before her family had electric lights, Bobbie remembers seeing them huddled over a kerosene lamp at the dinner table, studying music theory from mail-order books. Even before she got her first piano at age 6, Bobbie Lee had fashioned a fake one herself and pretended to play it.
“I had already built this piano out of cardboard in the back yard, with Willie and I one summer afternoon sitting under a peach tree that we had,” she said. “We played like we were having a piano there and I would play and we’d sing. We had a great childhood, may I tell you that?”
In those days they called Willie “Booger Red,” thanks to his auburn hair. Bobbie remembers him as a fun-loving boy, and a “slight bit mischievous.” He seemed equally comfortable playing dominoes with the old men at the grocery store and eating dirt in the back yard with his sister.
“We had this little toy stove and we made mud pies in the sun,” she said. “When they would get baked he would say, `Sister Bobbie, it’s so good. Just take a bite.’ And he had me eating dirt with him. That’s how much I love Willie. I do anything he tells me to do.”
Bobbie was only 9 when her grandfather died, giving her an early feel for the inevitable tragedies that lay ahead. Her grandmother had to sell a calf to finishing paying off their $35 piano.
At 16, Bobbie married her sweetheart, Bud Fletcher, and soon they were all playing music together in a honky-tonk band, with Bobbie on piano and Willie playing guitar and singing. The $40 or so they brought home every week seemed like a fortune in the late 1940s, and it nourished their unshakable desire to leave the cotton fields behind for a career in music.
But Bobbie and Bud ran into marital trouble, and in 1955 she moved off to Fort Worth, where an aunt and uncle, like so many others, had gone to work in the booming airplane-building business. As fate would have it - Bobbie is big on fate - Hammond Organ called looking for a musician.
“They came to me because I was the only piano player on record at the unemployment office,” she recalls, laughing now at what seemed pretty serious at the time.
Brother Willie, who eventually joined the family in Tarrant County, has described Fort Worth as the place where he first smoked marijuana and sometimes played in the honky-tonks behind chicken wire to avoid flying beer bottles. But for Bobbie, it’s where she went to heal, to get back on her feet and, most of all, to rekindle her musical passion.
“Fort Worth was a haven for me. I went there at the saddest part of my life at that time,” she said. “I went to Fort Worth and recovered.” Her happiness grew with every passing Sunday, when she played the organ at Edge Park United Methodist Church and her three boys sat in the front row. Before long, she was playing restaurants and nightclubs, and Bobbie’s musical skills grew as her troubles faded.
A piano-playing gig at El Chico’s Mexican restaurant took Bobbie to Austin in the mid-1960s, and once again destiny called. Her brother, done with Nashville, soon decided to relocate to Austin after a visit there with Sister Bobbie, and the outlaw music scene was born. Right around the time he played his first gig at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972, Willie asked Bobbie to join the band.
“I’ve been traveling with him ever since,” she said.
There have been good times and bad, to be sure. She lost two sons, one to terminal illness and another in a car accident in 1989. But music has sustained her as always, and being Sister Bobbie in Brother Willie’s band is about as good as it gets.
“This is the ultimate,” she said. “I’m not ready to retire. ... I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to stop playing the piano.”