At eighty-seven, the musician knows what it’s like to lose a partner, your house, all your money, those big dreams.
November 8, 2020
Illustration by Aline Zalko
“Well, you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say,” Willie Nelson sings on “Shotgun Willie,” the opening track from his LP of the same name, from 1973. Nelson, who turned eighty-seven in April, has released seventy full-length records since his début, in 1962, and doesn’t seem anywhere close to running out of material. In September, he published “Me and Sister Bobbie,” a memoir co-written with his older sister and longtime piano player, Bobbie Nelson. Through alternating chapters, the Nelsons tell the story of how they were brought up by their grandparents in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, and the decades of triumphs and devastations (romantic, professional, familial) that they helped each other through. Nelson has published memoirs before (his first, “Willie: An Autobiography,” was released in 1988, and his most recent, “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” came out in 2015), but “Me and Sister Bobbie” feels especially tender and intimate. While music became a lifeline for Willie, Bobbie, who is now eighty-nine, suffered deeply for her art. In the nineteen-fifties, she briefly lost custody of her three sons, after her in-laws successfully argued that she spent too much time playing music with her brother. “Women were made to be homemakers. Women weren’t meant to make music,” she writes. “This sharp-tongued lawyer called me the kind of woman whose only means of earning a living was playing piano in honky-tonks. He referred to me as a harlot. I broke down in tears.”
Although Nelson is now one of the most beloved and iconic figures in American music—the bandanna, the braids, the ever-present haze of marijuana smoke—he didn’t find real success until he was in his late thirties. “I’d been struggling like the dickens to make some money at the music game and failed miserably,” he writes. Part of what makes Nelson’s music so resonant across generations is his deep and visceral connection to failure—he understands, on a cellular level, what it feels like to lose a partner, your house, all your money, those big dreams. Before he moved to Nashville, in 1960, he worked as a radio d.j., pumped gas, did heavy stitching at a saddle factory, worked at a grain elevator, and had a brief gig as a laborer for a carpet-removal service. He eventually discovered that he had an uncanny aptitude for hocking encyclopedias door to door. “Folks I was selling to were living in bare-bones apartments. Many were scraping by with hardly any food in the fridge. Then here comes this slick-talking Willie saying that, for only the daily price of a pack of Camels, the whole world of knowledge would open to them,” he writes. Nelson felt too guilty about the entire enterprise and quit. (He still jokingly refers to himself as a better con man than musician.) Once he arrived in Nashville, things didn’t click into place overnight. One snowy evening, he recalled, he lay down in the middle of the street, “half hoping a car would ride over me.” None did. “I had to get up off my ass and, like everyone else in this cold world, keep on trying to figure out how to make a living.” Nelson and I spoke on the phone in mid-October. In conversation, he laughs often and loudly. It is a sweet and welcome sound.
In “Me and Sister Bobbie,” you write that you were “born restless. Born curious. Born ready to run.” Has it been challenging for you to be grounded these past few months?
It’s been a real challenge. I’ve never really run into anything like thisbefore—but neither has anyone else! We’ll have to sweat it out, I guess. I’m here in Texas now.
You’ve done a few virtual broadcasts since quarantine started. As someone with a couple million live shows under your belt, how have those felt?
Well, it works all right. [Laughs] But it’s not the same thing, you know? I miss the audience. And I know the audience misses the music—whether it’s me or someone else up there, the audience has come a long way and paid a lot of money to come in and clap their hands for somebody. There’s a great energy exchange that we just can’t have right now. I can remember the last show that we did, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. That was back in early March—that’s the last time we got to play music. We had eighty thousand people there. I’ll never forget that show.
In your new book, you and your older sister, Bobbie, share the story of your life together in alternating chapters—we get her version of events, and then your version of events. Toward the end of the book, you write, “Having Bobbie in the band changed the course of my music in more ways than most people understand.” How else did she influence your art?
Well, in every way possible, I’m sure. Because she could read and write music from the time that she was a little girl. She’s an incredible musician. It’s impossible not to learn something when you’re four years old, and you’re sitting there on the piano stool by her.
She was the one who first suggested that you record standards for your album “Stardust,” from 1978, which, incidentally, remained on the country chart for a full decade.
We’d been playing those songs all our lives, so it wasn’t like they were strangers. I love the songs “Stardust” and “Moonlight in Vermont”—those are some of my all-time favorite songs. To be able to play them with my sister and my family—well, that was just the best.
Another idea that comes up a lot in the book is Texas itself. At times, it almost feels as if there’s some kind of invisible line that keeps tugging you both back there.
It goes all the way back to where I was born. Bobbie and I were born in Abbott, Texas, which is a really small town of three or four hundred people. Used to say the population never changes, because every time a baby’s born a man leaves town. So, anyway, I grew up in that town, and—excuse my language, but our motto down there was all we know how to do is fight, fuck, and throw rocks. [Laughs] It was fun. We fought bumblebees, each other—it didn’t matter. We just had a good time wrestling and boxing and growing up, like kids do.
You describe the Abbott United Methodist Church as the site of some of your earliest musical memories. I’m curious what you recall about the hymns that you sang there, and how performing that music made you feel?
Well, the church is still there, and me and Sister Bobbie are still a huge part of it. We bought that church a few years ago. It actually launched us. The preacher up there is a real good friend. He’s doing a good job—with this pandemic and everything, it’s hard to get a crowd together, but people still love to go to that church.
For the most part, it seems that you didn’t really see your proclivity for mischief and your religious faith to be at odds. But were there ever moments where you did feel that tension acutely?
You know, it’s funny. I have mixed emotions about it. The way I’ve made my money was playing in honky-tonks. One good example is the Night Owl, in West Texas, north of Waco about thirty miles. It’s close to Abbott, six miles from Abbott. I grew up playing music there. I picked cotton up until I was ten or twelve years old, so to be able to make some money playing music in a beer joint—I felt pretty lucky. And the funny part of it was the people that I was singing to on Saturday nights—I was also singing to a lot of them on Sunday morning, at church. Abbott has a Methodist church, across the street is a Baptist church, across the street is a Church of Christ, down the road a little bit is the Catholic church. So we have churches all over the place—it’s impossible to live in Abbott and not go to one of those churches.
There’s a line in the book where Bobbie writes that, as a child, you were never afraid of anything. Is that true?
Well, it is true—you name it, I’ve been in trouble for it. I’ve never learned to be afraid. I’m still not afraid. I’m afraid of fear. Who was it that said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?