For some four decades now, Willie Nelson has been performing with a group he calls the Family, but only one of its longtime members is a blood relative, and that’s his piano-playing sibling Bobbie Nelson. She’s known as “Sister Bobbie” to Willie fans the world over because that’s exactly how he’s always introduced her each night when he trains the spotlight on the dynamo pumping out barrelhouse piano beneath a broad-brimmed, black cowgirl hat.
Only when a pair of musicians share as much history can their collaboration feel as intimate, self-referential and embroidered in memory as December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1. The 18-song duo project gestures toward their habit of pickin’ on old, familiar songs while the tour bus rolls down the road, equipped with her portable keyboard and his timeworn, nylon-string guitar Trigger.
Then again, the collection also brings to mind the 1978 revelation that was Willie’s album Stardust — a long-haired Outlaw songwriter flaunting his freedom by interpreting the Great American Songbook with the insouciant musical support of his Family.
On a certain level, the new project even conjures Willie and Bobbie’s formative years when they were tutored side by side on their instruments by their gospel-loving grandparents and, a little later, when radio stations broadcasting jazzy, classic pop forever expanded their listening diets beyond the quartet gospel, hardcore honky-tonk and western swing they already knew.
“We play together, I think, as well as anybody,” Willie mused in a video interview. Later on, he added, “It’s nice to know that Sister Bobbie is over there because whenever I need someone to take the lead, all I have to do is nod at Sister Bobbie, and she’s already there. She knows what to do. It gives me a chance to relax a little bit and figure out what I’m gonna do next.”
As Bobbie observed, “I get an energy from just sitting with me and the piano. But when I sit with Willie, it’s just an all-new energy. When we put that all together, you can really feel it.”
Over half of the songs the siblings selected for this set are Willie originals, some of which initially appeared on his earlier, iconic albums, like “Walkin’” from 1974’s Phases and Stages. The rest are from the likes of Irving Berlin, Al Jolson and Django Reinhardt, whose repertoires Willie has mined before, in addition to being a recognized disciple of Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz guitar style.
Willie sounds as relaxed as can be bringing the spry, shifty, sprung rhythms of his vocal and guitar phrasing into conversation with Bobbie’s swinging, sensitive ad-libbing on piano. In the album’s liner notes, the band’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael — who backs them on some of these tracks — describes the overall effect as “spontaneity borne out of familiarity.”
Midway through the album comes Willie’s gently loose-limbed waltz, “Who’ll Buy My Memories.” Though its theme is romantic wistfulness, you can’t help but hear a salute to his sister and faithful sidewoman in these lines: “When I remember how things were/My memories all lead to her.”