“Her shit is harrowing”, laughs Amanda Shires, remembering Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. “She played her feelings".
Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Amanda Shires got up close and extremely personal with those feelings when she and Nelson recorded their new album, Loving You. The record ended up being not just a curious collaborative project, but also a lovingly put together tribute to the life and music of one of country music’s greatest unsung heroes.
“When I was making Take It Like A Man, I was really considering putting 'Always On My Mind' on the record,” Shires explains about how the album came together in the first place. “I felt like it fit the subject material and, you know, there's memories attached to that song. I thought the only way to do it would be to have Bobbie on it, so I called her, she said 'Yeah' and so I went to Austin and we recorded it”.
“We just really hit it off,” she says. “There was some magic in being together, both being sidemen, both being women, both being mothers, both having the experience of life - her more than me, of course. Then Bobbie said, 'Shall we make a whole record?' I said, 'Let's do it' [to which she replied], 'Right, next song is 'Summertime!’”
The motive for making Loving You was for Shires to pay respect to the only woman she saw working in a band and pursuing a career as a sideman when she started out. “I saw her playing when I was young, then I met her and I got to play with her because of Mickey Raphael,” she says. “He invited me up to play with them back in 2016. Bobby and I were both wearing black, and we were both talking about our outfits and our sparkles. She was really the one that could tell if you were actually soulful; she knew if you could play or not".
Born on New Year’s Day in 1931, in Abbot, Texas, two years before her younger brother Willie, Bobbie Nelson’s start in life was hard. Their mother, Myrle, left six months after Willie was born and their father Ira soon followed, leaving their gospel music-loving paternal grandparents to raise them.
Their grandmother, a music teacher, had taught Bobbie to play pump organ at age five, and she taught herself piano by reading four-part shape-note harmonies in hymn books. It wasn’t long before she was performing in the local Methodist church. Willie began to accompany her on guitar and together they’d play at church services, schools, picnics and gospel conventions. After their grandfather died of pneumonia when Bobbie was eight, the family struggled to get by, and Bobbie and Willie went to work picking cotton. In their autobiography, Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, they describe how it was music, as much as faith, that held them together.
Willie started playing guitar in a local polka group, then he joined Bobbie in a band led by Bud Fletcher - who married Bobbie when she was sixteen - touring locally and playing songs by Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell as Bud Fletcher and The Texans.
As a member of the band, Bobbie was able to slip in and out of bars easily enough, but it was still considered fairly scandalous at the time for a woman to even be in a bar and, after her marriage to Bud Fletcher fell apart, she lost custody of their three children because of her playing piano in honky tonks. Bud Fletcher’s parents took custody of Bobbie’s three boys at their home in Vaughn, and Bobbie moved an hour away to Fort Worth. Close enough to still visit them once a week. Willie moved to Fort Worth soon after.
Bobbie and Willie both spent time in Nashville in the 60s – Willie making a name for himself as an in-demand songwriter with songs like ‘Crazy’ and ‘Night Life’ - and Bobbie playing piano bars and supper clubs, living on a pig farm in nearby Ridgetop, with Willie’s road band and friends.
In Christmas 1970, the house in Ridgetop burned down, and Bobbie moved back to Austin. Meanwhile, Willie’s frustrations with the music industry in Nashville led to some serious soul-searching, driving him to follow Bobbie back to Austin not shortly after.
It was around this time that they reignited their childhood musical partnership, with Willie inviting his older sister to join his band in 1972. The albums that followed – Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, The Troublemaker, Red Headed Stranger, and Stardust - are considered the turning point for Willie artistically.
“Willie would have always been Willie,” says Shires, “but he wouldn't be the Willie we know without Jerry Wexler and Bobbie. They're just the backbone”.
As well as the obvious influence of spirituals and gospel that Bobbie soaked up from the small-town chapels where she and Willie played, Bobbie also studied classical compositions, while spending hours listening to hit-makers-of-the-day like George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael.
The eclecticism of those early influences is reflected in the song choices on Loving You. From Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ to ‘Waltz Across Texas’ and Willie Nelson’s ‘Angel Flying Too Close to The Ground’.
“We just sat around and figured out what we knew and what we liked,” Shires says of the song choices. “We'd play something and then we'd play something else, and you could feel it when we both wanted to do one. It would feel something to us both".
Shires and Bobbie Nelson got together in 2021 to record at Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas – a facility co-owned and run by Nelson’s son, Freddy Fletcher. They cut songs Nelson and Shires had played and treasured their entire lives, along with ‘Loving You’, Nelson’s own solo piano title track. The album would eventually trace Nelson’s musical story – as well as her personal journey.
“To me, it goes in a sequence. I tried to sequence it to her life,” explains Shires. “'Tempted and Tried' should have been at the beginning where she started out with faith, but then I was like, well, she already had faith but then needed it again, so I moved it further down in the running order”.
Shires steps away from the microphone for two songs towards the back end of the album. “As I should,” she laughs, making way for the instrumentals ‘La Paloma’ and the album’s title track, ‘Loving You’.
“I tried to get her to sing but she said no,” she remembers. “My goal was to get her in the spotlight and to put 'Loving You' on a record. Then I had to learn 'La Paloma' and it took me fucking half a day to get that song".
“She had this magical ability,” Shires explains. “I don't know, because I can't speak for Willie, but what I saw is a return to centre. Her faith is strong and her purity with music and the effortlessness of it. She has a power to return you back to the centre. She did that for me. She even helped me kind of find my faith again, because how could you go through so much of life like she did? I asked her once, 'How do you do all that and deal with all the trauma and the way everything panned out?' She said forgiveness was the key. And that's hard to do”.
“It resonated with me a lot,” Shires says. “The idea of somebody getting her kids taken away over music, to have her reputation tarnished. Just that accusation. This is what kind of went on before #metoo and for a long time, if you weren't playing at a revival or in churches or whatever, you were automatically put into this other category that was promiscuous".
"She didn't drink or anything and she was called an unfit mother and all these kinds of things. That's terrifying, that something that brings you so much joy, that comes from a higher power, could also lead to that because of what other rules were forced upon us”.
“Much of my path seemed possible because I saw a woman working and making a career of music at a young age, and that woman was Bobbie Nelson,” says Shires. “This was at a time when women were played even less! In that field of sidemen. Sidemen are already not given enough credit, let alone if you're a woman. But she was a magical being”.
In March 2022, at the age of 91, Bobbie Nelson died. Her and her brother had played together for over 80 years, from the time they were children in tiny Abbott, Texas, to their last show at the Whitewater Amphitheater, in New Braunfels, in October 2021. The record Amanda Shires had made with her was recorded, but still unmixed, so she and producer Lawrence Rothman set about finishing a record that had taken on a renewed direction as a tribute to her life and legacy.
“It was hard to do because she wasn't here,” explains Shires, “our plan was to do something that wasn't just me talking about her. The goal was for her to be here, and we would celebrate, and we would do our shows together somewhere for a weekend, two or three days. It would have been nice, just the two of us doing shows somewhere and then doing some shopping".
"I hope she's up there leading me right, because I'm doing my best, Bobbie. There's a whole lot that goes into it, but you can't not put it out because she deserves that, plus with everything she did, she deserves her time back".
For Amanda Shires, it’s proving to be something of a golden age for her artistically. Loving You will be her fourth album in nearly as many years - following on from The Highwomen album with Natalie Hemby, Brandi Carlile and Maren Morris in 2019, her seasonal album For Christmas in 2021 and last year’s sublime Take It Like A Man. It’s something that she attributes in part to her relationship with Los Angeles-based musician and producer Lawrence Rothman, who also takes the helm on Loving You.
“I was done with music before Lawrence,” Shires admits. “I was finding no joy. Lawrence kind of just coaxed me into the studio. I was like, 'I'm not making record. We're just working'. We weren't done on recording, and it was almost Christmas and I was like, 'Let's do Christmas songs'. So, we did that and then we also started the Bobbie project, because the idea was born during Take It Like A Man. They're so generous. Because I found a passion for it, they're willing to make sure the passion stays”.
“Lawrence and I like to get crazy,” she laughs. “We're very tedious together. You know when you meet somebody, and you just know that you know, and they know that you just get it the same way. You hear music the same. Their birthday's in June, so we're three months apart. We both started working professionally young. They're from the Midwest, St. Louis. It’s not even Texas, but it's okay, we can still be friends”.
“We have the same taste in music and the same references. We have so much in common. They listen really well, and they're not bothered by emotions and vulnerability. They've modeled for me how to accept myself better because they accept themselves".
Wherever the credit lies, Amanda Shires feels like a star reborn; the kind of out and out pop icon that Americana has always been missing. Rothman’s often larger-than-life melodramatic pop production gives her singing voice the platform it always deserved. One of the byproducts of Loving You is how truly remarkable her vocals are on this record, as she breathes new life into old standards.
It’s not that she’s only just finding her voice, but she seems to be joyfully embracing the formidable power of it for the first time. She sings loud and fearlessly in a world where “loud” women are often vilified. Men might be allowed to be loud in society - it’s something they’re entitled to - but for women, it’s considered an act of aggression, so to sing loudly feels like a bold statement of intent and a demand to take up space.
“That's why I started playing music though, because I didn't have a vocabulary to express myself or my emotions," she explains. "Music was the way I expressed myself. I still am a little stunted in that other way of talking, but I don't give a shit now”.
“I don't think linearly, and my sentences don't come out linearly, so sometimes I just have to accept myself for who I am and go out there and be myself. This is me".
Amanda Shires has turned herself up, and it's not just on record. She speaks her mind wherever she goes, expressing all the messiness and frustration and anger of being a woman with irreverence and sincerity.
When she talks about everything that Bobbie Nelson went through in her life, that idea of being punished by society just for doing something that brings you joy, it feels particularly pertinent. Shires has become one of the more outspoken figures in music, particularly country music. She's speaking out on everything from abortion rights to drag legislation, and in support of progressive political candidates and creating opportunities for marginalized artists.
“I feel deeply for folks that have to deal with shit harder than me every day”, Shires says. “The puritanical shit is just a bunch of bullshit that keeps us all down when the world could be a much more beautiful place. America is fucking crazy. As far as bodily autonomy goes, it's a fucking shit show”.
“About six weeks ago, I got so down. I was like, 'What the fuck am I doing?’ I keep saying shit and it's like screaming into the wind. I told two people how I felt, and they gave me some major pep talks and I think that's what we'll all have to do for each other when it seems hopeless: blow on embers”.
“When you think about it all in your head, it's dark. Is there any hope for the world? Of course there's not. But if we talk about it out loud, it's like, 'Yeah, there's hope for the world!'
“If we share our hopelessness, then of course there's hope”.
Loving You by Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson is out now via ATO Records.
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