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Bobbie Lee Nelson: Brother Willie's Foundation

A crowd of a few dozen fans waits outside Willie Nelson's tour bus for a glimpse of the Red-Headed Stranger. Behind a security detail armed with walkie-talkies, a small woman slips past the supplicants, her head buried under a black cowboy hat about a gallon too large for her petite frame.

Bobbie Lee Nelson has been the piano player in her brother's band for more than 30 years, yet she shares little of his fame. In fact, it wasn't until this year, just shy of her 77th birthday, that she made a record of her own — and she didn't even plan it. It's called Audiobiography, and it features some of the hottest boogie-woogie piano playing around.

The Nelsons grew up in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, and were raised by gospel-loving grandparents who studied music via mail-order courses. Her grandfather got tired of hearing Bobbie try to squeeze music out of the family's old pump organ, so he bought her a piano for $35. The family had to sell a cow to pay for it. She learned to play by reading the four-part harmony in hymn books. But she also discovered boogie-woogie.

"Grandmother said, 'I don't know why you want to play that old stuff,' " Nelson says. "But she started enjoying it herself, because she was a fun-loving woman. And I had to play at school, and all the kids loved the boogies."

A Key To Willie's Success

Bobbie Lee Nelson's driving piano playing has helped her brother become the icon he is, according to Holly George-Warren. She's the author of Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry.

"Because they've had such a history playing together and the fact that she's open-minded, she'll be improvisational — and that's the key to Willie Nelson," George-Warren says. "He's an improvising guitarist. And Bobbie lived that music with Willie out on the road — in the roadhouses and back home when they were kids. That's something that's in you; it's something you can't read off charts."

Bobbie Lee Nelson had her first taste of honky-tonks at the age of 16. Her soon-to-be-husband, Bud Fletcher, recognized the siblings' talent and built a band around them. The charismatic Army veteran got their father to come back off the road to play rhythm guitar, and he recruited one of their schoolteachers to play trombone. Fletcher modeled the music on the Western swing of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. But George-Warren says that there was a big difference.

"I think Bobbie is pretty rare, in that she was able to go out all of those years being the only woman in the band who played an instrument," George-Warren says. "Most of the cases of women out on the road, they were the front person, or the singing partner, or the harmonizer."

Working with family members made it almost all right for women to do something as scandalous as perform in bars. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to protect Bobbie Lee Nelson's reputation as the mother of three young boys. Her husband had become an alcoholic, and his parents took custody of their children.

"Bud wasn't able to take care of us, so his parents wouldn't let me have the children," Nelson says. "I thought, 'How can I earn enough money ... and show the world I can support my children? I want my babies.' And that was the hardest part of my life. ... I couldn't play with Willie at that time, because I wasn't supposed to even enter a club. ... They would not have agreed to let me have my children back."

The answer was business college. When she graduated and registered at the unemployment office, Nelson was the only person who knew stenography and could also play the organ. She landed a job demonstrating instruments for the Hammond Organ Co. in Fort Worth.

A Turning Point

Meanwhile, Willie Nelson had established himself as a songwriter, scoring hits for Ray Price and Patsy Cline. When he finally broke free of the Nashville system that told him what to record and whom to play with, he called Bobbie to New York to make The Troublemaker in 1973. It was a turning point for both of them.

"I had never been on an airplane in my life," Bobbie says. "I'd never been any farther than driving to Nashville to see Willie. And he said, 'I sure have missed playing with you, Sister Bobbie.' And [I said], 'I certainly have missed playing with you.' And everything else didn't seem to matter at that time. My boys [were] grown — fabulous young men. If Willie wants me to go play some honky-tonks, I can certainly do it."

Can she ever. The band's longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, jokes that her hands are a blur on the keyboard.

"We've photographed her with the strobe and just slowed it down so we could really watch what they're playing," Raphael says. "Not once did her fingers ever leave her hand."

Despite her abilities, Bobbie Lee Nelson remains modest to a fault. She prefers to stay behind the keyboard: Even when it's her turn for a solo, her big cowboy hat is all audiences see above the piano's open lid. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that she had to be tricked into making an album of her own. Her son Freddie and brother Willie asked her to warm up the piano in their Austin recording studio while they went golfing. She obliged, and they secretly rolled tape. The resulting impromptu performances make up the bulk of her solo debut, Audiobiography.

Now that it's in stores, Bobbie Lee Nelson is back on the road with a group of tricksters and wise guys.

"Whenever I came to work with the band, they'd made a rule: Don't bring the girls on the bus," she says. "So somebody said, 'Bobbie?' And somebody else said, 'She's not a girl, she's a piano player.' Which was sort of the truth at that time. I was the piano player, and that sort of came before everything else."

Everything else but family.

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Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.
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