Amanda Shires on Keeping Bobbie Nelson’s Legacy Alive With Joint Album

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When Bobbie Nelson, longtime pianist for her brother, Willie Nelson, died in March 2022 at age 91, she left behind a recently completed posthumous album, recorded collaboratively with singer Amanda Shires. That record, “Loving You,” is finally seeing the light of day and shedding additional daylight on Nelson’s supreme talent as a player, which wasn’t always the main point of focus in the Nelsons’ family band, for obvious reasons. As a happy byproduct, this beautiful labor of love also casting sunshine on Shires’ skills as a vocal interpreter, as they both take on Willie songs, standards (“Over the Rainbow” and “Summertime,” the latter with a guest vocal from Bobbie’s brother) and other shared favorites.

Having just put in an appearance with the supergroup the Highwomen at the Gorge as part of an extended Brandi Carlile weekend, Shires is off to Europe for a summer tour, then recording her next solo album in Nashville in August, which will follow up 2022’s acclaimed “Take It Like a Man.” When that comes out next year, Shires may benefit from the increased visibility she has as the result of being the costar of the HBO documentary “Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed,” alongside Isbell, her husband and sometimes band partner.

But right now, she’s most eager to “shine some light on the enchanting Bobbie Nelson.” She told Variety how the project came about and why she has been an admirer of Bobbie, going back to when she was a teenaged fiddle player in the Texas Playboys, the band founded by Bob Wills. And she shed some additional light on how she thinks the HBO doc has played out for her.

How this collaborative album came about is an interesting story. As we understand it, you were going to include a cover of “Always on My Mind” on your last album, and you wanted to do it with Bobbie, and then that got spun off into a separate project. Why were you thinking that cover would have been a good fit on an album made up of your originals? And then how did you decide it was the seed of something else?

Well, that song “You Were Always on My Mind” is one that Jason and I always love when we’re doing shows with Willie. Or not doing shows with Willie — just loving it on the records. And during that time, as reported, marital life… we were struggling. And I thought that the song fit with what I felt like then, where you try to take in your own portion of the blame. I feel like that song does it well, where maybe you could have tried harder or done things different — “I hope you know that I was always thinking of you” and all that; I thought that fit well (on “Take It Like a Man”).

But when I went to record it with Bobbie, we just decided after we were in the studio that we were now making a record together. And I’m glad that we did. It still needs to be out there, her story. It is a little sad that she’s not here for the celebration, but I know she’s probably up there enjoying it anyway.

Did you choose the material jointly? It includes songs from the Great American Songbook, and then what we might call the great Texas songbook, and some songs associated with Willie. Did she have a favorite?

Her favorites were “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “La Paloma.” You know, she did study a lot of Mexican music when she had that beautiful lover of hers. But we chose the songs together. We’d sit around and talk about what songs we’d like to play and later get into the whys. But remembering the whys were the ways that I decided on the final songs to be released. We love Waylon and both think he’s handsome, but we didn’t have to put “The Wurlitzer Prize” on there for that reason. [Laughs.]

Did you feel like you’d completely finished the album, or had you had plans to record any more for it?

No, we’d finished it. The only things that she wasn’t really present for were the additional strings we added and a couple of extra production drums by Jay Bellerose and things that could be overdubbed, but she was there for all of it. We recorded several songs we didn’t wind up putting on the record because they were just songs we liked, and I didn’t think it followed the storyline as well to just interject some fun songs that we loved a lot. It’s a collected work, and I think these ones show it the best.

When you were doing the album, it came so close to the end of her life, as it turned out. How was her playing, toward the end? Did she seem diminished by age or illness at all, or was she totally on?

We started working together after her first stroke, and she was rejuvenated and reinvigorated and ignited by it. She told me so herself, and she would come in full force and full of energy. I truly do think that it made her life force stronger, then. Yeah, there was no harm done to that musical part of herself. It was always there even after that. And the fact that we were recording gave her more positive feelings and energy to get better for the time that she was better.

Do you feel like either or both of you sort of knew that these would be her last recording sessions?

I think we knew that we are facing our mortality. Here’s a little tidbit. We were gonna call our group the Leaky Hearts, because we both have bum heart valves. And she was giving me this speech on not waiting so long for the surgery to repair those types of things. Without giving too much of her medical stuff away, she had her own device that had to be outside her body, rather than repaired inside, (because of) waiting too long. So I think that when you have something that’s always calling attention to your own mortality, you kind of always sense that the end is near.

But I also also know that she was living a long, full life, while knowing it could be any day now. But I think that she faced those… I guess they’re existential questions, but not so much if you have so much faith in God. I mean, nobody ever wants it to be the end, but I feel like we all kind of know. What I’ve heard from folks, because I’ve had a lot of old friends go — a lot of the Playboys have died — is that, in my witnessing of people approaching old age and death, they tend to have a feeling and, in my experience, a peace with it. The only one that I know that’s not at peace with (death) is Todd Snider, and who knows why. He’s Todd Snider and he’s not old yet.

The cover photo is a very spontaneous-looking shot of what might have been an emotional moment in the studio. Were you hoping to do a portrait for the album sleeve before she died, or would that studio shot have always been the thing to capture what you experienced together?

I think ideally we would’ve probably done a portrait session. When facing the fact that she wasn’t gonna be here for this release, I went back to the photo where we were definitely having an emotional response to music and the feeling of making something and loving something.

I feel a lot of love for her and respect for her as a mom, too. And how she survived two kids’ deaths within six months [in 1979-80] is just… I can’t imagine. But then to still be joyful and to still shine light and hope… It’s more than just the music I admired about her, although that’s what got me to admire her first. She was also sassy and willing to get in a fight with the waitress. [Laughs.] Not sassy — fiery. Sassy’s the wrong word, and dudes can’t be fiery, can they? “Tough” is good. She was tough, and she was witty.

She’s so kind of still mysterious to a lot of us, because she was not an attention-seeker…

Some of that was, I think, a direct result of having been in the light before and having such horrible things happen. Had she been a musician of this time, she might want it… not want… but the attention might be shown to her more. But after those experiences, I can see why you would rather be mysterious and just play music and support. She was always happy and comfortable supporting and playing music and found great joy in it. But I think in the times that she lived through in music, it was better as a woman to just be there, but not be all out there.

When we think of the list of inspirational, pioneering female musicians, some usual suspects come up, and Bobbie Nelson is not among the ones cited. Maybe people subconsciously put an asterisk next to her name because she was supporting her brother, so they think she doesn’t count somehow.

And what they forget is how instrumental she was in the success of his career. Or at least it can be said that that’s true.

What was it that she brought to him that was so crucial?

You know, they grew up together and were orphaned together, and she took to music real fast and early and showed him a good deal of what playing music is. Then she got her kids taken away [in the early ‘60s], so she quit playing in bands and places that served alcohol. Boggie went on to demo B3 organs and then eventually go back to business school, and eventually did get her kids back, and then she had a life that still included music, albeit in restaurants or churches. Then later, in the (Jerry) Wexler years (at Atlantic in the early ‘70s), she was able to rejoin Willie.

He would’ve always been Willie Nelson, but he would’ve been a different Willie Nelson without her. I think what she brought to his music outside of just like musicality and musical wizardry and prowess was a return to center, to the foundation of who he was as a person and where he came from. And a return to that identity of that, because he struggled in Nashville (before returning to Texas). When she came in and they returned to faith-based things and things that were truly Willie, she was supportive in those ways. … As an onlooker, I would think that having somebody that knows you in your corner, who you can trust their motivations and have some kind of assurance that you’re on the right track, that will naturally give your music more confidence, and a sense of self, ever-present.

You’ve said that you first saw her playing with Willie when you were 16, and that you thought of her at the time as inspirational, as far as being a woman in a band, which you weren’t seeing.  So you weren’t even necessarily thinking about the family aspect of it, so much, or if you were…

No, I wasn’t. I didn’t know they were related when I first saw her! She had long golden hair, flowing, not in pigtails. And in my lack of frontal lobe development, that never would have occurred to me. But learning it later was pretty cool.

So just seeing her up there playing with the boys struck a chord with you?

Yeah. You know, I never saw the genders thing (while playing) in the Playboys. I didn’t even realize that that was a thing — though that was a thing I grew to know and see. But I saw her, a woman doing side work for a life career in music, and I was like, “Oh, this is another person that does this. But she’s a professional. I want to be a professional.” Later, the second side person I saw was Cindy Cashdollar… Your eyes get opened, I guess, is a simple way of saying it. And, yeah, I admired her musicality first. I loved her solos, and then later I learned that she had say in who was out on that stage and who was given solos. That was pretty cool, too, for her to be a behind-the-scenes kind of musical director, in a way.

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Was there anything about her style of playing piano that stuck out to you?

She did the gospel and revival and stride piano, but she also learned the songbook [i.e., the Great American Songbook], as we call it, as it was made available. She studied it and retained it and could recall it forever, and all that influenced the way she played. … I’m basically saying that she was as old as hell, and as every song came out, she knew it and retained it. She loved all the wonderful things — Gershwin, a lot of soul music, Mexican music — and played it really well. I admired her retention. She could play anything you named, from fiddle tunes to standards. I was like, “Really? Do you know ‘Red Wing’?” And she’s like, “Of course I know ‘Red Wing.’”

Is there anything that stands out most about the kinds of things you talked about with her?

She spoke a lot about her faith in God. I would ask questions about how she survived so many of her life’s tragedies, and she said that she could say that the only way to make it through anything is with forgiveness and trust in God and just being forgiving. I find that to be one of the hardest things to do sometimes, in my own dealings with music business stuff, and life stuff, or even political stuff. It’s hard to forgive a bunch of folks for taking our rights away.

We’re talking about Bobbie’s contribution to this album, but your contribution is substantial, and it’s a real showcase for your voice as well as her playing style. She had decades worth of experience in how to do her thing, but not overshadow Willie, and there’s a real dance that goes on with that. When you’re doing a singer-songwriter album, people tend to get so focused on the emotional content of the original material that we’re not really thinking so much about the quality of your voice, like maybe we do here.

With Bobbie, something I didn’t know would happen was, when we were playing music, she does have that way of grounding you and returning you to center. She had a mysterious power. And we would come to Bob Wills songs that she’d known her whole life, and that was the band that I started in, and a return to where I started was beautiful too, to harken to the songs and music that moved me and brought joy to me and were the reasons I became a person in music. That thing that she had, I didn’t know that it was gonna take hold in me too, but I’m grateful for it, to return to the origins.

Lawrence Rothman, who produced “Take It Like a Man,” worked with you on producing this as well, so that has turned out to be a good team, it seems.

She really loved Lawrence. She was a person that found beauty and differences and could relate to differences with young folks. Like, she had no problem with non-binary. Her first son was gay and died of AIDS, and she never had a problem with any kind of LGBTQ+ folks… She really loved Lawrence.

There were not a lot of projects like this in Bobbie’s life, and to get one in right under the wire, as it were, is pretty incredible.

And what a shame it would’ve been to just not put it out. It’s a shame that she’s not here, but it has to be in the world, you know? No matter which 50 people care.

It’ll be more than that… A few non-Bobbie-related questions, to wrap up on, about recent events for you, if we can…  Since the documentary Sam Jones made (“Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed”) has been out there and gotten so much attention this year, people have wondered: Do you think Amanda will have an acting career after this, since there is something that works on screen? And I did talk to Sam Jones about why the camera loves the people it loves, including you and Jason.

I acted before. I was in a movie you might have not seen called “Country Strong.” And I helped Jason through his auditioning process with the Scorsese film, because of what little knowledge I did have, which turned out to be helpful. But… will I act? Do people cast 41-year-old women anymore?

If the camera loves them, maybe they do?

If somebody darest, I will do it.

The documentary got so much attention, even from people who aren’t hardcore fans of either you or Jason.

That was hard for me to watch, that documentary. It was hard for both of us to watch, but we survived it. It’s hard sometimes when you think about… I know I shouldn’t care what other people think, but I sure hope they don’t watch that and think that this (document of) four years ago, or five, or however many years ago that was filmed, is how we are at present, because we did navigate through that. So I hope that’s not their lasting impression of us.

The documentary ends in early 2020, or somewhere around there, and it does establish that there is a process to a relationship, that has been ongoing and will keep on developing. But yeah, it must be interesting to have that out there and then remind people that it was filmed a while ago.

Yeah, and I have this other thing, which I don’t need to remind people about, really. The point of it is that marriage is not always the first days of infatuation, and it does take work. But it also is a slow process when you discover that you are having what a lot of folks call a rough patch, and then you find out from friends, now that you’ve spoken about it, that they’re gonna tell you that there’s often more than one rough patch. And then you’re like, “Oh, shit, really? Well, if I can handle one and know that there might be more, I can be kind of prepared.” And it also helped reading Michelle Obama’s book, when she talked about some similar things. She was pretty candid. I really liked that.

If it wouldn’t have been true, that wouldn’t have been the movie. It just happened that that was all happening. It’s not contrived or anything, so that’s cool.

There could be a sequel…

A sequel? [Laughs.] Why not? It could only go uphill from here.

You heard that a photo Variety ran of you from your Troubadour show last fall is nominated for an L.A. Press Club photo award, right?

I’m just glad somebody was there to witness that event, with wings… the ascension in music of that night. We saw sheer take off after that photo. Did you notice that the word “sheer” took off, everywhere in fashion? You should go back and look at that and then see the timeline of everybody doing it… Not saying that I did it, but it was your photo. [Laughs.] You changed fashion.

Amanda Shires performs at the Troubadour, 2022
Chris Willman/Variety

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