ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
SIEGEL: From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I am Robert Siegel. Bobbie Lee Nelson has been a mainstay of country music for 35 years. In fact, some musicians say she's the best player in her brother's band. Her brother is Willie Nelson. Yet, Sister Bobbie, as she's known, has never sought the spotlight. 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's not what you what might expect. Lara Pellegrinelli reports.
LARA PELLEGRINELLI: He only leaves his tour bus when he has to. About two minutes before he is due on stage.
Unidentified man: Willie, Willie, will you sign my guitar?
PELLEGRINELLI: A few dozen fans have been on the stakeout by the loading dock at the Mayo Center in Morristown, New Jersey. They're waiting for an autograph, or just a glimpse of the red-headed stranger.
Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Singer): Let me sign that guitar.
Unidentified man: Beautiful, Willie, beautiful.
PELLEGRINELLI: Behind the security detail with its walkie-talkies, a woman had already slipped by unnoticed. Her face obscured by a black cowboy hat about a gallon too large for her petite frame. Even when it's her turn for a solo, the hat is all that's visible above the piano's open lid.
Mr. NESLON: This is our little sister Bobbie playing the piano for y'all. She'd like to play "Down Yonder"
(Soundbite of song "Down Yonder")
PELLEGRINELLI: Bobbie Lee Nelson has been on the road with younger brother Willie since the early 1970s. Yet she shares little of his fame. Holly George-Warren is the author of "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry." She says Willie Nelson wouldn't be the icon he is today without his sister's crucial support.
Ms. HOLLY GEORGE-WARREN (Author, "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry"): They've had such a history playing together that the fact that she's open-minded, she'll be improvisational, and that's the key to Willie Nelson is his improvisational guitar playing and phrasing as a singer. And Bobbie lived the music with Willie out on the road, in the roadhouses, you know, back home when they were kids. And that's something you can't read off charts, you can't learn, you can't - it's got to be in you.
PELLEGRINELLI: The Nelsons grew up in the tiny town of Abbott, Texas, raised by gospel-loving grandparents who studied music via mail-order courses. Bobbie learned to play by reading the four-part harmony in hymn books. But she also discovered boogie-woogie.
(Soundbite of song "Death Ray Boogie")
Ms. BOBBIE LEE NELSON (Musician): My grandmother said, I don't know why you want to play that old stuff. But she started enjoying it I think, herself, because she was a fun-loving woman, too. And all the kids at school loved the boogies.
(Soundbite of song "Death Ray Boogie")
PELLEGRINELLI: Sister Bobbie had her first taste of honky-tonks at 16. With her soon-to-be-husband, Bud Fletcher, the charismatic Army veteran built a band around the Nelson siblings, recruiting their father to play rhythm guitar and one of their school teachers to play trombone. Fletcher modeled the music on the Western swing of Bob Wills with a twist, says Holly George-Warren.
Ms. GEORGE-WARREN: Bobbie is pretty rare in that she was able to go out on the road for all those years being the only woman in the band playing an instrument. I mean, I think most of the cases of women out on the road, they were the front person or the singing partner or the harmonizer - something like that.
PELLEGRINELLI: Working with family members almost made it all right for women to do something as scandalous as perform in bars. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to protect Bobbie's reputation as the mother of three young boys. Fletcher became an alcoholic and his parents took custody of their children.
Ms. NELSON: I thought, how can I earn enough money to support my children and to show the world that I can support my children? I want my babies. And that was the hardest part of my life. And I couldn't play with Willie at that time, because I wasn't supposed to even enter into a club. They would not have agreed to let me have my children back.
PELLEGRINELLI: The answer was business college. Sister Bobbie landed a job with the Hammond Organ Company working in its Forth Worth offices and demonstrating instruments. Meanwhile, Brother Willie 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 who to play with, he called Bobbie to New York to make his album "The Troublemaker" in 1973.
(Soundbite of song "In The Sweet Bye And Bye")
Mr. WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) In the sweet bye and bye, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.
PELLEGRINELLI: It was a turning point for both of them.
Ms. NELSON: I had never been on an airplane in my life. I'd never been any farther than driving to Nashville to see Willie. And then he said, gee, I've missed playing with you Sister Bobbie and I said, I've certainly missed playing with you. Everything else didn't seem to matter at that time. My boys are all grown, fabulous young men and if Willie wants me go play some honky-tonks, I can certainly do it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of song "Sister's Coming Home")
Mr. WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Down at the corner beer joint Dancing to the rock and roll. Sister likes to do it Lord, sister likes to move her soul
PELLEGRINELLI: Bobbie has been playing with Willie Nelson and family ever since. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael jokes that her hands are a blur on the keyboard.
Mr. MICKEY RAPHAEL (Harmonica Player): We photographed her with a strobe and just slowed it down, so we could really watch what they're playing. Not once during the song that her fingers ever leave her hand.
PELLEGRINELLI: Bassist B Spears says she's the foundation of the group.
Mr. BEE SPEARS (Bassist): She's amazing probably the best player in the band.
(Soundbite of song "12th Street Rag")
PELLEGRINELLI: Yet it wasn't until her son Freddie and brother Willie played a little trick that her solo debut came to be. They asked her to warm up the piano in their Austin recording studio while they went golfing. They secretly rolled tape.
(Soundbite of song "12th Street Rag" by Bobbie Lee Nelson)
PELLEGRINELLI: With her album now in stores, Bobbie is back on the road with a bunch of wise guys.
Ms. NELSON: Whenever I came to work with the band, they had made a rule that no girls, don't bring the girls on the buses. So somebody said, well, Bobbie? And he said, she's not a girl, she's a piano player...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. Nelson:...which was sort of the truth at that time, because I was a piano player and that came before everything else. And I guess I've put it before a lot of other things in my life in my later years, I've really have.
PELLEGRINELLI: Everything else but family. For NPR News, I am Lara Pellegrinelli.
SIEGEL: To hear songs from Bobbie Lee Nelson's solo record visit nprmusic.org.
(Soundbite of song "Laura")