There was a time when playing piano in a honky-tonk bar would be enough to lose custody of your children, believe it or not? But that is what happened to one of the great pianists in popular music.
Bobbie Nelson found fame for being the piano player in her younger brother Willie’s band for almost 50 years. But seldom did any story about her high-profile musical career, not reference the fact that playing piano in a bar was cited a reason for her to lose custody – albeit briefly – of her three sons.
And this unhappy episode, which happened in the early 1960’s, has again surfaced in the reviews of Bobbie’s posthumous album, Loving You, with fellow-Texan singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, released on June 23. The album sessions were completed shortly before Bobbie died in March 2022 at the age of 91.
The album should serve as a wonderful tribute to Bobbie, whose enormous contribution to her brother’s success went largely unheralded. She was always happy to be just a member of his band – always suitably known as The Family - whether it be stage-right of Willie or buried behind an open piano lid in a recording studio.
But trawl through any of Willie’s work and her piano virtuosity soon becomes evident. She was already there in 1975 when he released probably his best album Red Headed Stranger which includes her stunning solo “Down Yonder.” And the following year, she was principal pianist on The Troublemaker. Her piano playing is simply sublime on two wonderful Willie covers of the gospel standards “Uncloudy Day“ and “Sweet Bye & Bye.”
Fast forward 47 years and her tinkling of the ivories is still as distinctive as it ever was.
And while Loving You is certainly not a Willie album, Bobbie makes sure the Nelson family sound is never far away, especially on the Willie classics “Always On My Mind” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.” She beautifully crafts the original piano melodies on both songs as Shires stays as true to the originals as her distinctive soprano tones will allow.
Willie himself makes one appearance when he and Shires duet nicely on George
Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Bobbie gently sets up the Porgy and Bess classic before a subtle orchestral arrangement paints a bluesy tone. There is similar treatment for another theatrical classic “Over the Rainbow,” where Shires is given full rein to demonstrate the full strength of her sometimes-under-rated vocal intensity.
The strings – clearly overdubbed – are again integrated nicely into the popular traditional
“Tempted and Tried” (commonly known as “Farther Along’) but they are never allowed to suffocate Bobbie’s so-sophisticated piano.
Which begs the question: why is there only one Bobbie solo? The title track is the only wordless number on the album. Surely there were other Bobbie solos available from the original recording sessions? Such an assumption should no way digress from the wonderful interpretation Shires has put on these standards. But given that Bobbie died during post production, what turned out to be a posthumous album would have been enhanced by at least one more piano solo.
Not that Bobbie’s key role in Willie’s 60-year career will ever be forgotten. In late April, there was a wonderful moment during the two-day Hollywood Bowl concerts to celebrate Willie’s 90th birthday when singer-pianist Norah Jones performed “Down Yonder” specifically to memorialize Bobbie. “I love Willie Nelson and I love everybody in his world so very much. And that includes Bobbie Nelson, one of my favourite piano players,” Jones added.
But the best posthumous accolade must come with the release of the work from her partnership with Shires. And in publicizing Loving You, Shires said it best when she told Variety: “He would have always been Willie Nelson, but he would have been a different Willie Nelson without her.”
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation