Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Me and Sister Bobbie' chronicles Willie Nelson's closest bond

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'Me and Sister Bobbie.'
'Me and Sister Bobbie,' by Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

A novelist might imagine a character like this: a famous male country singer's sister, a woman who also has talent but isn't able to make the same choices her brother made, who lives a parallel life in which the two sometimes collaborate but she never becomes a household name, whose triumphs and tragedies happen in the shadow of her brother's even as she supports her brother in his rise to stardom. It could be a dark story, and it certainly has its dark moments, but it has a happy ending in which the two look back at their long lives and recognize how much they've meant to one another.

It's a book, all right, but it's not a novel: it's nonfiction, in the form of Me and Sister Bobbie (buy now), the new joint memoir by Willie Nelson and his sister Bobbie Nelson. In alternating short chapters, the two share their remarkable stories — and there are a lot of stories to share. As Willie notes at the outset, he's now lived "nearly nine decades," and Bobbie is two years his senior: she turned 90 on January 1. The book is similar to Loretta Lynn's Me and Patsy Kickin' Up Dust in being a compact volume in which a venerable country legend pauses to celebrate a key relationship, the kind of relationship that sustains you and challenges you.

While Patsy Cline tragically wasn't around to contribute to Lynn's memoir, Bobbie Nelson is, in Willie's words, the "heroine" of this story — and she tells it herself. Willie's story's been told before, including in five books he wrote himself, but Bobbie's role in that story can now be appreciated in a newly full manner.

The story has a dramatic beginning: the siblings' parents leave both the kids and each other. Willie was just a toddler when the kids were left for their paternal grandparents to raise, but Bobbie was three years old and describes herself as frankly traumatized by the experience. The siblings don't do a lot of self-psychoanalyzing in these pages, but it seems uncoincidental that both accrued long histories of failed marriages. At some point in Me and Sister Bobbie, I gave up even trying to follow who was married and when.

The kids grew up in the "tiny farm community" of Abbott, Texas. There was musical talent on both sides of the family; Bobbie was drawn to piano (and, later, organ), while Willie became a guitar-slinger. The inevitability of the two close siblings joining a band together was accelerated by Bobbie's marriage, at age 16, to a man named Bud Fletcher. Willie describes Fletcher as "essentially a nonmusician," but he did love music and he had a bandleader's charisma; hence, he became a bandleader. In Bud Fletcher and the Texans, the Nelson siblings essentially handled the musical duties while Fletcher worked the crowd.

At this point in Me and Sister Bobbie, it's hard not to think of what musical history Bobbie Nelson might have made if not for...well, patriarchy. As Willie started testing his mettle in songwriting, easing into and out of marriages and other less formal arrangements with a wide range of women, Bobbie had three boys with Bud. Alcoholism ultimately drew Fletcher out of his own family's life, and his parents' reaction to seeing their grandsons with a single mother was to take her to court and take the kids.

On the specious basis that Bobbie was bad news due to her work as a musician, her in-laws claimed full custody of her three children. That completely derailed Bobbie's musical career, as she battled to regain custody and steered clear of any establishment that even served liquor. She entered into a loveless second marriage that later turned violent, and didn't get her boys back until they basically wore the older couple out.

By this point, Willie had become a DJ ("this is your ol' cotton-pickin', snuff-dippin', tobacca-chewin', stump-jumpin', gravy-soppin', coffeepot-dodgin', dumplin'-eatin', frog-giggin' hillbilly from Hill County") and would shortly move to Nashville, where a steady flow of royalties from his successful songs would earn him the financial security he needed to launch his solo career — and ultimately to buy a compound where both his parents joined him, one living on each end.

As for Bobbie, she'd mastered the challenging Hammond B-3 organ and returned to music as a performer, retailer, and teacher. She encouraged Willie's songwriting, starting from the day he played a few numbers for her including one about how crazy it was to fall in love. "Willie," she remembers saying, "These are classics. People are going to be singing and playing them forever."

The two still didn't play together publicly, though: professionally, they led separate lives. The '60s saw Bobbie embark on a passionate affair with a man she met while playing in a Mexican restaurant, following him to a new restaurant he launched even though he had a wife and kids in Mexico — and Bobbie had her own troubled marriage to extricate herself from. Meanwhile, Willie, as his industry experience grew, started finding kindred spirits in artists like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson: a cohort known today as "outlaw country" artists.

Finally, in the '70s, "Brother" and "Sister" were ready to take the stage together for the first time since they'd been members of Bud Fletcher's band. Bobbie proved a natural, crowd-pleasing fit in Willie's band: not only could she play keyboards and sing, she could do arrangements and help choose songs for albums like The Troublemaker (1976), for which she picked "music from our original hymnal at the Abbott United Methodist Church."

Is that the happy ending? Sadly, not quite. While Bobbie remains a member in good standing, to this day, of the band Willie Nelson and Family, both siblings had heartache yet to endure. Willie lost an adult son to an accident, while Bobbie opens up about the death of two of her three adult sons: one to AIDS, after an agonizing multi-year illness that Bobbie nursed him through even while undergoing a separation from her homophobic husband, and a second to a car accident.

That's the kind of sadness that never goes away, but the siblings had each other, and they had the music that still "provides and protects," as Willie writes. Me and Sister Bobbie won't replace any of Willie's other memoirs or biographies, but shines a crucial light on his career as seen through the eyes of a loving sister and musical collaborator, who sees the charismatic boy grow into an iconic man, a musical talent for the ages and, yes, a forward-thinking supporter of certain psychoactive substances.

How does Willie see Bobbie? It seems he needed literally half a book to express his admiration of his sister: a great musical talent in her own right, a rock for her family, the person he could always count on for solace, celebration, and inspiration. Now, she can inspire us as well.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

February 4: The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s by Emily J. Lordi (buy now)

February 11: The Big Life of Little Richard by Marc Ribowsky (buy now)

February 18: Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon (buy now)

February 25: This Thing Called Life: Prince's Odyssey On + Off the Record by Neal Karlen (buy now)


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