Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and a member of his Willie Nelson and Family band for more than 50 years, died Thursday morning at age 91. She was described as having died “peacefully and surrounded by family,” and no cause of death was given.
“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson told the Austin American-Statesman in 2007. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there. … Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
After five decades of playing together professionally and eight and a half of teaming up at home, Willie and Bobbie played their last gig together at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels, Texas on Oct. 9.
Willie Nelson fans rarely got a good look at her face on stage, but her voluminously long hair provided assurance that family was present and accounted or on stage and that, whatever other changes the band might go through, there was no separating the siblings.
Nelson’s love for his sister was strong enough that he released both albums and books with her, as a duo. A year and a half ago, the Nelsons released a memoir about their relationship, “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band” (co-written by David Ritz), and promoted it in interviews.
“My little sister was always on the piano doing great music,” Nelson recalled on the “Today” show in November 2020. “I would sit there on the piano stool beside her and try to figure out what the hell she was doing. … Sister Bobbie is 10 times a better musician than I am,” he said. When she demurred, he added, “I’m a little better con man, I think.”
The country superstar often referred to Bobbie as his “little sister,” although she was a couple of years older. When she was 6 and he was 4, their grandparents taught them “The Great Speckled Bird,” and their musical relationship was forged, although it would be decades before it occurred to him that it was possible to bring Bobbie into his professional life.
In the joint memoir, Willie Nelson recalled how his creative renaissance in the early 1970s coincided with his bringing Bobbie into his band. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler had brought him over from an unsatisfying stint at another label to Atlantic Records, where he was about to begin recording the series of classic “outlaw”-era albums that defined him. When Wexler gave him the shocking news that he could use whoever he wanted as studio musicians from that point forward, “I immediately thought of Bobbie. She was the main spark I’d been missing.”
At 42, Bobbie had never been in a record studio before or been on a plane, but both those things changed in a hurry when he convinced her in 1972 to come work on the first album he was cutting for Atlantic, a gospel album called “The Troublemaker,” then “Shotgun Willie,” and his stardom and direction were forever set. “The Atlantic Records experience put me on a new course. Most important, it brought me back together with Bobbie. When the sessions in New York were over I made it plain. ‘Sister,’ I said, ‘you’re now a member of the band.'”
In 2017, Bobbie released her first and only solo album, “Audiobiography,” an album of piano instrumentals. But even without going out on her own, she was familiar to her brother’s fans from getting a showcase number of her own on tour each night, “Down Yonder,” and from duo projects they did, along with just piano playing that was nearly as recognizable as her brother’s licks with his signature guitar, Trigger.
Bobbie Lee was born into the Depression on Jan. 1, 1931, two years and five months before Willie followed on April 30, 1933. Their parents were teenagers in the farming community of Abbott, Texas, but they were raised by their paternal grandparents, with the man they called “Daddy” teaching Willie how to play guitar and “Mama” instructing Bobbie on piano. Both would play on Sundays at the Abbott Methodist Church, but Bobbie’s talent led her to also find favor playing at other local churches.
“I remember when I got my first piano,” she told writer Michael Corcoran in a profile. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again.'”
Although the early ’70s marked their real coming together as mature musicians, Bobbie and Willie did have a very brief semi-professional stint together for five years in the late ’40s and early ’50s. At 16, Bobbie was married to a musician, Bud Fletcher, who played in a band in local honky-tonks with the siblings’ father, Ira Nelson. Bobbie’s husband died in a car accident, and with three children at that point, she gave up music and moved to Fort Worth to attend secretarial courses.
But after going to work for the Hammond Organ Company, she began demonstrating the company’s products as well as working in its music library. Bobbie eventually went to work as a pianist in restaurants and lounges in the Austin area. Meanwhile, her brother was finding success writing songs like “Crazy” and “Hello Walls” in Nashville, but finding less satisfaction as a solo artist, before he rejoined her in Texas. A big part of the lure of Austin for him was that Bobbie lived there; it was almost incidental that he would soon become the patron saint of a burgeoning counterculture scene developing there.
Bobbie was described as a devout Christian who, even after a half-century of constant touring with her brother, did not approve of his marijuana use, although she would cite health concerns for her disapproval. Nonetheless, she told Corcoran, she and her brother had never had a fight.
Recordings that Willie and Bobbie made as a duo include 1980s’s “Family Bible” and 1996’s “How Great Thou Art.” In 2021, the two of them were joined by four of Willie’s children in releasing an album titled “The Willie Nelson Family.”
When their dual memoir came out in 2020, Willie told People magazine, “She’s my closest friend for a whole lifetime. I’m glad she’s getting some recognition for what she’s done with her life.”
A statement from the family Thursday said, “Her elegance, grace, beauty and talent made this world a better place. She was the first member of Willie’s band, as his pianist and singer. Our hearts are broken and she will be deeply missed. But we are so lucky to have had her in our lives. Please keep her family in your thoughts and give them the privacy they need at this time.”