Dan "Bee" Spears, who was the beating heart of Willie Nelson's music for more than 40 years as bassist for Nelson's Family Band, died Thursday after an accident at his home near Nashville, Tenn.
Spears, who was 62, reportedly fell outside his home and died from exposure.
Nelson expressed "sadness and shock" in a Twitter message Friday afternoon. On Nelson's website the home page was replaced with a burning candle with the words, "In loving memory of Dan 'Bee' Spears, longtime friend and bassist."
"He was part of our family, it's a big loss," said Freddy Fletcher, Nelson's nephew and an Austin recording studio owner and partner in ACL Live. "He was basically the only bass player Willie ever really had. He was a great musician, a great guy; he was like a brother to me, and we're all really sad."
Spears — who appeared on several of Nelson's albums, including "Red Headed Stranger" and "Stardust" — was known as a crucial player in a band whose frontman notoriously played behind the beat.
"Playing with Willie is tricky business," Spears said of Nelson's style in a 2003 interview. "If you try to follow him too close, he'll lead you down to the river and drown you. You have to keep one eye on him and one eye on your part. Just play your part and trust that he's going to come back and meet you at some point."
"A normal bass player could not keep up," said Joe Nick Patoski, author of "Willie Nelson: An Epic Life."
"Bee held the time in his head that no one else knew," he said. "Bee was with the band in Nashville when they were in Nashville, and it was a very different ensemble. He made the transition to Austin when Willie played the Armadillo. It was Paul English and Bee. It's not just the loss of a member of the family, it's the loss of a sound."
Spears grew up in Helotes, outside San Antonio, across the street from John T. Floore Country Store.
His father was a fiddle player for a popular San Antonio band, the Texas Tophands. Before Nelson's band, Spears played in George Chambers' Country Gentlemen in San Antonio. In 1968, Nelson's first bassist, David Zettner, recommended that Spears, then 18, replace him after he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam War.
After joining Nelson, Spears, along with Nelson's sister Bobbie, drummer Paul English and several other musicians and friends, became part of a close-knit group that has remained with the country star for decades.
"He was just a sweetheart; he always had a hug for everybody," said Austin author and filmmaker Turk Pipkin, a friend of both Spears and Nelson. "They talk about the Family Band, and I think Bee really personified that."
There is no word yet on funeral arrangements.
The "Willie Nelson and Friends Family New Year" shows are still scheduled for Dec. 30 and 31 at ACL Live.