Bobbie Nelson, elder sister to music legend Willie Nelson has passed away, peacefully and surrounded by her family, at the age of 91. Bobbie Nelson was the longtime keyboardist of the Willie Nelson and Family Band and has toured with her younger brother for half a century. Nelson was instrumental in bringing her brother Willie to Austin, Texas from Nashville. She joined Nelson in New York in 1973 and became the first member of The Family, playing piano on his seminal albums The Troublemaker, Shotgun Willie, and Phases and Stages
Bobbie Nelson was raised with her brother in Abbot, Texas. The sibling’s paternal grandparents, who raised the pair, encouraged them to practice playing instruments as well as pursuing music careers. “My grandfather had said to me when I was learning to play the piano: ‘You know, if you really work at this, you could earn your living playing music one day,’” Bobbie said, as reported by Billboard. “I never forgot that.”
Both siblings were making a go of music careers by the time they reached their teens. Willie and Bobbie both became members of Bobbie’s husband’s band Bud Fletcher and the Texans — although the musically non-talented Fletcher’s duties were confined to “direction”. Bobbie later divorced Fletcher and, as a result of her musical career, which involved the de facto crime of playing in honky-tonks, lost custody of the couple’s three sons. Bobbie subsequently suffered a mental breakdown in 1961 following Fletcher’s death in a car accident.
Bobbie Nelson remarried and began to work a series of jobs to recover custody of her sons. After a string of jobs, she began working for the Hammond Organ Company as a demonstrator playing the company’s products. Once she regained custody of Randy, Michael, and Freddy she moved to the then sleepy college town of Austin Texas.
Bobbie was always called “Little Sister” by younger brother Willie, despite her being the elder sibling at two years older. In 1973 she answered “big brother”‘s call to join him in New York. Legendary producer, Jerry Wexler, had made Willie an offer — he could leave the Chet Atkins dominated grind of Nashville, come up to the Big Apple and record his own music for Wexler and Atlantic Records.
“I immediately thought of Bobbie. She was the main spark I’d been missing,” Willie says in the memoir he co-wrote with his sister, Me and Sister Bobbie. The rest was history. Bobbie became the first member of The Willie Nelson Family Band, a seminal force in country music that continues to this day.
Of the long-lasting collaboration, Bobbie stated to local Austin musician Bobby Earl Smith, “We were back in our childhood at the same time we were together in our adulthood. Our music merged like it always had. Time melted.”
Bobbie never stepped into the spotlight like her sibling though. Austin music Journalist Michael Corcoran noted in a 2017 Austin360 article that Bobbie “happily remained in the shadow, except for the one spotlight turn – usually ‘Down Yonder’ from ‘Red-Headed Stranger – she gets at each Willie Nelson and the Family concert.”
‘I’ve always been very shy,’ said Bobbie. ‘I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d always tell him, ‘you sing, Willie, and I’ll play the piano.'”
Bobbie was an integral member of the Family in ways not often noticed by fans but appreciated by her fellow members. Family Harmonica player Mickey Raphael told Smith that Bobbie was the “glue” that held the band together.
“Bobbie is an amazing person. When I first moved to Austin she offered me her home till I found a place. Like the big sister I never had, immediately making me feel like family. Musically she was and is a treat to play with. One of the most important things about playing in a band is being able to listen to what the other players are doing and not get in the way. I’m a fan of her playing so listening to what she was doing and blending in with her was easy. We are not a rehearsed band and our arrangements are action and reaction. Play what serves the song and Bobbie’s style always did that. She is the glue that holds us together. At 91 years young, last time I saw her on stage she was dressed head to toe in black leather. Now that’s inspiring.–Mickey Raphael
In a statement on Willie Nelson’s Facebook page, a representative for the Nelson family and the Willie Nelson Family wrote the following: “Her elegance, grace, beauty, and talent made this world a better place,” reads a statement confirming her passing. “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.”
RIP Little Sister