Bobbie Nelson, an original member of her younger brother Willie Nelson’s Family Band, has died. She was 91.
Nelson, whose traditional yet graceful piano playing was a key component of Nelson’s live show, died Thursday morning surrounded by family, according to a statement from the Nelson family. “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,” it read. “Please keep her family in your thoughts and give them the privacy they need at this time.”
Born January 1, 1931, in Abbott, Texas, Bobbie Lee Nelson was two years Willie’s senior, but that didn’t stop him from referring to her as his “Little Sister Bobbie” onstage. When she was just in her teens, Bobbie married the aspiring musician Bud Fletcher, who formed a band with his young wife and her brother. Following Fletcher’s death in a car accident, Bobbie abandoned music for a secretarial job, but the keys that she learned to play as a child were always within reach: Her office job was with the Hammond Organ Company.
Eventually, she returned to performing and in 1973 reunited with her brother, who had just signed a record deal with Atlantic Records. Bobbie appeared on many of Willie’s studio albums, from 1973’s Shotgun Willie and the 1975 masterpiece Red Headed Stranger to 2021’s The Willie Nelson Family, but it was her role onstage behind the piano where she left an indelible mark.
An inconspicuous visible presence at Willie’s concerts — in later years, just the top of her hat would peek out from behind her grand piano — her playing was impossible to miss. She added graceful accents to Willie’s “Crazy” and helped set the rhythm for “On the Road Again,” while her solo turn on “Down Yonder” became a cornerstone of the freewheeling concerts that made the Family Band popular with cowboys, rednecks, college kids, and hippies. “We were just playing the same music we’d played since forever,” Bobbie told Rolling Stone in 2014. “It was just a different audience.”
Bobbie spent nearly 50 years in the Family Band, happy to play a supporting role to her brother. But in 2008 — at the age of 76 — she decided to release her solo debut. Titled Audiobiography, the mainly instrumental album (Willie sang two songs) featured ragtime standards like “12 Street Rag” and Willie’s “Crazy,” reimagined as a lounge number.
Other albums on which Bobbie’s name figured prominently included 1996’s How Great Thou Art and the following year’s Hill Country Christmas, both with Willie. In 2014, the siblings released December Day, a record inspired by their loose jam sessions on the bus that arrived with a brother-and-sister music video for the song “Laws of Nature.” Last year, she joined Willie, nephews Lukas and Micah Nelson, and nieces Paula and Amy on The Willie Nelson Family album, another LP of gospel numbers.
Bobbie was a private figure in the Nelson universe. She rarely gave interviews and chose to let her playing speak for her onstage. But in 2020, she wrote at length about her childhood with Willie in their book Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band. According to Willie, “Bobbie got the best story in our whole family.”
He also credited her with his success.
“If I was the sky, Sister Bobbie was the Earth. She grounded me,” Willie wrote. “There is no longer or stronger or steadier relationship in my life.”