Nelson Is on the Road Again and the Style Is Country, but This Time It's Susie, Not Willie
She never meant to be a singer. Unlike her dad, she began as a dancer, and still runs a ballet and tap dancing school at home in Round Rock, Texas, just north of Austin. Two and a half years ago her husband, insurance salesman Tony Brewster, died in a car crash and Susie was left with two children. So what's a 26-year-old widow with a heritage like hers to do?
Though Susie had an income of up to $40,000 a year from her studio and her husband's estate, she still felt adrift. Never terribly close to her roaming father—"He's hard to find to lean on"—she decided to work with a country band, Jo Bangles, that Brewster had run on the side. "I didn't want to see it fail, so I started managing it myself," she says. Soon she was fronting the band as lead singer: "It was much easier to book 'Susie Nelson and Jo Bangles' than just 'Jo Bangles.' " Her desire to perform was confirmed on New Year's Eve of 1981, when she told Willie of her ambition before a performance of his in Houston. Ever a man of few words, he just answered, "Well, do you know any songs?" But Willie brought her out onstage for his closing medley of gospel songs, and that helped persuade her to keep her faith in herself as a singer. Now, after months of rehearsals, she's on the road with The Susie Nelson Show, a C&W act she plans to take to several East Coast cities after a Panama City, Fla. debut. Soon Delta Records will launch her first album. Susie flaunts her lineage—both her show and her album include Willie's 1974 ballad Walk-in'—though she notes that she was grown and married when he became a big star. "I still don't realize he's that big," she says. "He'll always be just my dad to me."
She was the second of three children born to Willie and his first wife, Martha, a Cherokee Indian. Susie spent part of her childhood with them in Tennessee (where Martha left Willie in 1963), part in Las Vegas with her mom, part back in Tennessee with Willie and second wife Shirley, and part in Austin with Dad and third wife Connie. About all she recalls of Willie's tumultuous marriage to her mother is the way Martha dealt with his wandering ways: Once she sewed him up in a bed sheet and beat him with a broomstick; another time she chased him through a graveyard with a butcher knife. When she was a child, Susie says during a slide presentation in her show, Willie "was on the road so much that when he did come home, I didn't know if he was really my dad or a door-to-door Bible salesman. I'd almost forgotten what he looked like." Even today she sees her father only once or twice a year, and her kids, Rebecca, 7 (from a brief first marriage), and Anthony, 2, know "Papa Willie" mainly from his TV appearances and by listening to his songs on the radio.
Though Willie has said nothing publicly about Susie's career, he has helped by singing a duet with her on the flip side of her first single and by urging her to "make sure I did it right if I was going to do it." For herself, Susie isn't worried about being compared to the king of C&W: "They know I'm not going to come out there with a beard and bandanna singing Whiskey River. He wouldn't come out tap dancing either."