Sunday, March 20, 2022

RIP "Sister Bobbie" Nelson

Bobbie Nelson, Willie's older sister who played keyboards in his band for nearly 50 years, passed away on March 10 at the age of 91. 

"When it came to pot smoking, I could never match Willie—literally no one can—but I did experience the benefits," Bobbie wrote in the 2020 book she and Willie co-authored Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band. In the book, Willie writes: "Without my sister I'd never be where I am today. I've always needed her.....I would have run into ruin if it hadn't been for my first and best friend, Bobbie. If I was the sky, sister Bobbie was the earth. She grounded me. Two years older, she also protected me." 

The depression-baby siblings' parents broke up and left them with their grandparents when Bobbie was three years old and Willie only six months. After "Daddy" Nelson died when the kids were six and eight, Bobbie would take Willie and hide in the fields whenever the authorities came around, threatening to take them from their grandmother and separate them into foster homes. "Mama" Nelson traded eggs from her chickens for groceries, taught music, grew vegetables, and picked cotton and corn to support the children. The kids worked in the fields with her, and she taught them how to braid her hair. 

Bobbie writes: 

Daddy was musical, but it was Mama Nelson who really made sure that Willie and I took music seriously. To our great fortune, she was a teacher and we her prized students. We loved the hymns she taught us, but even when Willie and I went far afield and started playing barrooms and honky-tonks, she never criticized. She understood that the spirit of music is stronger than any single genre. 

Willie calls Bobbie "the true musical prodigy" of the two, and recalls that she had an early ability to play any music she heard on the piano. He showed an early talent for writing poetry, and was encouraged to play the guitar, which he soon figured out brought him the female attention he liked. Bobbie started performing at church "tent meetings" and with Willie at school dances when they were still in their teens. At 16, she married Arlyn Fletcher and the Nelsons played in a band Fletcher put together. 

The fact that Bobbie played in a bar band went against her when she lost custody of the three sons she had with Fletcher (an alcoholic), to his parents (a deacon and his wife). When Bobbie and Mama Nelson decided to move to Ft. Worth to live with an aunt, Willie followed them there, looking to play music. But Bobbie looked for other employment, hoping to regain custody of her sons. Taking a job as a secretary at a store that sold organs, she learned to play a Hammond B3, and taught others to play the complicated new instrument, demonstrating it at car shows and conventions. The extra income enabled her to rent a house in Ft. Worth and get her kids back. 

Bobbie on the Hammond B3
Meanwhile Willie, who was unsuccessful in convincing Bobbie to join him playing music, began writing songs and selling them, going to Nashville with the encouragement of his sister (and his wife Martha, who waited tables to support their family). Bobbie began performing again, playing at a Mexican restaurant in Ft. Worth, and at hotels and clubs in Austin, where Willie eventually joined her in the town that became a hippie haven for Texans.

When producer Jerry Wexler offered Nelson a recording opportunity in 1973 including using his own musicians, "I immediately thought of Bobbie," Willie writes. "She was the main spark I'd been missing. I also thought of a gospel record." He convinced Bobbie to pick the songs they loved as children and perform on the Troublemaker record, bringing back the brother and sister team that hadn't played together for over 20 years. The Willie Nelson and Family band was soon formed and the rest is herstory (OK, some would say, history). Bobbie toured and recorded with the band nearly until her death.

Bobbie writes: 

We played the Austin Opry House on South Congress so often they called it the Willie Hilton. The dance hall section of the complex held two thousand fans. Weed was everywhere.  A while back, I'd watched Willie switch out liquor for pot and was impressed by the difference. I hated whiskey for all the misery it caused people in my life. Pot caused no misery. Pot took off the edge and made Willie mellow. 

Bobbie onstage with the Family band
I started taking a few hits myself. I liked the effect. When it came to pot smoking, I could never match Willie—literally no one can—but I did experience the benefits. Anxiety softened. Anger erased. Music was made to sound even more haunting. As a high-strung person, I found pot to be a relaxant. And even in these psychedelic-centric venues we played, with the hippies tripping on LSD and the hillbillies buzzed on beer, I was never nervous. Willie found a cool that calmed down the scene while still exciting the crowd with his own brand of music. 

Bobbie also tells of the time Willie mistakenly took an overdose of LSD a few hours before a show. "I had offers to do the same, but being more cautious than Brother, I stuck with an occasional hit of pot and an after-the-show glass of wine," she writes, adding:  

Willie and I both loved Eastern philosophy that talked about getting beyond your ego to join the Oneness of cosmic consciousness. I think he had the notion that acid might help bring about that consciousness. When it didn't, he swore it off. He stuck with pot, his tried-and-true friend that he began to consider as much a medicine as a relaxant. He learned all about marijuana and its healing and practical uses. He became a pioneer in championing the substance. He backed political candidates running on a let's-legalize-pot platform. It became Willie's personal crusade, and now, nearly fifty years later, we can look back and see that he was right. The world has finally caught up with Willie. 

Bobbie rejoining the band brought Gospel tunes back to the set list, and influenced her brother to return to his roots of old standards like "Stardust" with her "vast knowledge of The Great American Songbook." A concert the two siblings did together lead to the beautiful, stripped-down CD "Spirit." 

In 2007, at age 76, Bobbie released her solo debut album, Audiobiography, and in 2014, the brother-sister duo put out December Day, inspired by their many years playing and recording together. She is an inductee in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, and the state of Texas declared February 23 as “Bobbie Nelson Day.” A children's book Sister, Brother, Family: An American Childhood in Music also celebrates Bobbie & Willie. 

Bobbie is survived by her son Freddy and her granddaughter Ellee. 

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