“We had so little money but so much love.” ~ Bobbie Nelson
As a longtime Willie Nelson fan, I was especially pleased to learn that he and his older sister Bobbie had published their first ever children’s book last fall.
Co-written by Texas children’s author Chris Barton and illustrated by Kyung Eun Han, Sister, Brother, Family: An American Childhood in Music (Doubleday BFYR, 2021), is a picture book adaptation based on the Nelsons’ joint memoir, Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band (Random House, 2020).
Though much had already been written by and about Willie, the memoir was essentially the first time folks got to hear from and learn about Bobbie, who officially became Willie’s bandmate in 1973. Now, with this new picture book, Willie and Bobbie tell the moving story of their childhood, as they forged an unbreakable bond through their shared love of music.
With alternating perspectives, brother and sister have seamlessly woven a narrative of two distinct voices in lyrical and spiritual harmony.
As Bobbie says, “Family and music have been one and the same ever since Mama Nelson placed my hands on the keys of a piano, and Daddy Nelson put a guitar in Brother’s arms. Music has been our way of feeling, giving, and receiving love. It sustains us to this day.”
Willie and Bobbie were raised by their grandparents during the hardscrabble Depression years in the small town of Abbott, Texas. Daddy Nelson was a blacksmith, and Mama Nelson tended the home and worked in the fields picking cotton and corn.
As Willie tells it, there was always “so much music” – in church, from their neighbors, and most of all, from their grandparents, who were always singing and teaching them new songs.
One of Bobbie’s earliest memories is of playing her first piano – one made of cardboard with a keyboard drawn in crayon. She and Willie would sit for hours under the peach tree singing while she “played.”
Not long after, Daddy Nelson bought Bobbie a secondhand piano from the general store, and he ordered a guitar for Willie from the Sears Catalog. Mama Nelson taught Bobbie while Daddy Nelson taught Willie.
It seems Willie had been writing poems all along. Now with his guitar he could make music to go with his words.
Things were going well until the close knit family suffered a devastating loss: Daddy Nelson became ill and died when Willie was only six. Willie, Bobbie, and Mama Nelson found great comfort and solace in music; it brought them even closer.
When Willie and Bobbie played together, they felt “connected to something bigger out there.” In addition to playing music at home, they performed in church and at school dances. Willie even joined a family polka band when he was about ten, the first time he was paid for making music.
Though Mama Nelson wasn’t happy about Willie playing in dance halls, she changed her mind when she saw how much Willie could earn – eight dollars in just one night! It would take a week working in the fields to make that much. She soon made peace with both her grandchildren playing in dance halls. It sustained them emotionally as well as financially. Bobbie said, “I guess she knew that no matter where we performed, Brother and I would be carrying a good message and making people happy.”
Well, Willie and Bobbie have been making people happy all over the world for nearly 50 years. Bobbie turned 91 in January, and Willie will turn 89 in April. They’ve essentially being making music together for over 80 years.
About his singular connection with Bobbie, Willie says, “There’s no stronger, longer, or steadier relationship in my life. When I go out there every night and look over, there she is.” And when he ends every show with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away,” he knows Mama and Daddy Nelson are right there too.
Kyung Eun Han’s heartwarming digital illustrations, rendered in subdued earth tones, evoke a sense of nostalgia and homespun contentment. Readers get a sense of the family’s tight bond as they pick fresh produce from the garden, gather eggs by the hen house, and of course, play music together.
The story begins and ends with Willie and Bobbie as adult performers, and it was touching to read memories about their musical roots, the unwavering support of their grandparents, and how music truly has been heart and soul of their lives for so many years.
I enjoyed seeing Willie and the Family Band perform in person a couple of times. Bobbie was a fascinating mystery with her long hair and black hat. She never took center stage or sang lead, but her distinct, ever present piano stylings let the audience know she meant business. Willie considers her the most naturally gifted musician in the family.
Sister, Brother, Family is an excellent way to introduce kids to the Nelsons and their music. Theirs is a story of deep familial love, hard work and determination, showing how music can be, for some, as vital as oxygen, part of one’s DNA.
What better family legacy than the gift of music, songs with stories passed down through the generations, then shared with millions of others?
Next time you hear American country music legend Willie Nelson strum his ancient guitar “Trigger” while talk-singing one of his tunes in a slightly nasal, jazzy voice aged like the finest oak barrel whiskey, think about gifted, soulful, tender hearted Bobbie, Willie’s anchor, sibling, friend, touchstone, and musical soulmate tickling the ivories stage right.
Time to let Willie and Bobbie do the talking. Enjoy this video of their 2019 Farm Aid finale. In the book, Willie fondly remembers periodically attending “an all-day singing and dinner on the ground,” i.e., a big picnic — where friends and family sang hymns together.
The feeling of all those people joining in on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” got into my soul and never left.
When Daddy Nelson was on his deathbed, he asked Bobbie to play him, “I’ll Fly Away.” As she played the piano, Willie and Mama Nelson sang along.
Here are Brother and Sister with “Who’ll Buy My Memories” (written by Willie). I like to imagine them playing together as children 80 years ago. “A girl who fell in love with the sound of a piano. A boy who fell for the guitar.”
Finally, here’s Bobbie to play us out with her solo rendition of “Stardust.” Glad she released the album “Audiobiography” in 2008. It gave fans a rare opportunity to appreciate her piano playing without the band. Just beautiful!
ETA: Since writing this review, I sadly learned that Bobbie Nelson passed away on Thursday, March 10, 2022. We send our love, prayers, and deepest condolences to the entire Nelson family.
SISTER, BROTHER, FAMILY: An American Childhood in Music
written by Willie Nelson & Bobbie Nelson
co-written by Chris Barton
illustrated by Kyung Eun Han
published by Doubleday BFYR, November 2021
Picture Book Biography for ages 3-7, 32 pp.
NATIONAL POETRY MONTH 2022 KIDLITOSPHERE ROUNDUP
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*Interior spreads text copyright © 2021 Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson, illustrations © 2021 Kyung Eun Han, published by Doubleday BFYR. All rights reserved.
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