Bobbie Lee Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and a renowned pianist in her own right, died on Thursday at the age of 91. Her death was publicized on social media by her family. They didn’t say what killed her, but they did say she died “peacefully and surrounded by relatives.”
Nelson, a pianist, and vocalist was the first member of her younger brother’s band. She grew up in Abbott, Texas, with her brother, where they were reared by their gospel music-loving grandparents. Myrle and Ira separated when Willie was six months old, and Ira followed suit shortly after, leaving the children in the care of their paternal grandparents.
Bobbie Nelson, who was born on January 1, 1931, learned to play the piano by reading four-part shape-note harmonies from hymn books. She also fell in love with boogie-woogie, which she performed for her peers at school.
Willie Nelson claimed in his 2015 autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life, that: “Bobbie rose to prominence at a young age. I was behind the times, and I still am. Bobbie is a true musician in the sense that she can play in any style with ease. She excelled at reading and was regarded as a true piano prodigy across Hill County.”
Nelson had fallen in love with and married a man named Bud Fletcher, who had recognized the siblings’ potential when he was 16 years old. Despite his lack of musical ability, Fletcher formed Bud Fletcher and The Texans, which included the Nelson siblings and their father on rhythm guitar. Bobbie Nelson was able to get into bars to perform because she was with her family, which was a scandalous circumstance for a young woman.
When Fletcher and Nelson separated in 1955, the marriage began to break apart, and The Texans split. However, because of Bobbie’s shameful employment in honky-tonks, Fletcher’s parents were given primary custody of their three young sons, and Nelson was unable to continue playing in bars.
In a 2008 story on All Things Considered, Nelson reflected on this tough moment in her life. “‘How can I earn enough money to sustain my children and demonstrate to the rest of the world that I can support my children?’ I wondered. ‘I want my children,’ she says “She recalled something. “That was the most difficult period of my life. And I couldn’t play with Willie since I wasn’t allowed to enter a club at the time. They would not have allowed me to reclaim my children.”
Nelson came up with the solution of going to business school and then working for the Hammond Organ Company in Fort Worth, where she exhibited instruments.
However, when her brother, who had already created songs for musicians like Ray Price and Patsy Cline within the Nashville country machine, went to New York in 1973 to record himself, she answered the call for “Sister Bobbie” to join him on the project that became Shotgun Willie. Her children had grown up by that time.
Bobbie Nelson toured and recorded with her brother Willie Nelson for decades, performing on several of his albums, from Red Headed Stranger in 1975 through The Willie Nelson Family just last year.
Nelson did not release a solo album until 2008, just before she turned 77 years old. Audiobiography was the name of the album, and it was the only one she ever released. She did, however, release several albums with Willie, including I’d Rather Have Jesus in 1986, How Great Thou Art in 1996, Hill Country Christmas in 1997, and December Day: Willie’s Stash, Vol. 1 in 2014.
Willie and Bobbie Nelson collaborated on a memoir titled Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, which was released in 2020. Willie wrote in it: “I’ve written a few books in the past, but one, in particular, has eluded me. Probably went unnoticed by me because the heroine is far too modest to grab attention. Bobbie, my sister, is the heroine. Bobbie has the most interesting story in our family. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my sister. I’ve always had a yearning for her.”