Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and bandmate, dies

Bobbie Nelson, who played the piano for most of her life alongside her younger brother Willie Nelson, died Thursday. She was 91.

Her death was announced by Willie’s publicist: “Your elegance, grace, beauty and talent have 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 greatly missed. But we are so lucky to have had her in our lives.”

No cause of death was given.

An anchor in Willie’s aptly named backing band The Family – his son Lukas joined the group in 2013 – Bobbie provided smooth, personable support and was able to play greasy honky-tonk with the same ease as western swing. The siblings made music together as children; Their professional connection was formed when Willie began building his illicit country in the early 1970s, shortly after spending a frustrating few years in Nashville. Bobbie played on Shotgun Willie, the 1973 album on which he developed his blueprint for Outlaw Country, then stayed with her brother for the rest of her life and found a comfortable family home. She rarely stepped out of the group; In 2007, at the age of 76, she released her debut album, Audiobiography.

Two musicians on the stage

Bobbie Nelson and brother Willie performed in 2017.

(Gary Miller/Getty Images)

Willie had a deep love for Bobbie, whom he affectionately and jokingly called his “little sister” on stage. (Willie will turn 89 on April 29.) Unlike her brother, Bobbie did not use marijuana; She was a Christian and a teetotaler. Despite their different temperaments, the two have been close throughout their lives — she once claimed they’ve never had a fight — and the siblings documented their relationship in a collaborative memoir, Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, which was released in 2020.

While promoting the book, Willie remarked, “Sister Bobbie is a ten times better musician than I am.”

He wasn’t her only admirer. Americana artist Amanda Shires wrote on social media, “She was the first example of a woman making music and having a family at the same time.” Country singer Margo Price tweeted, “Nobody played the piano like Bobbie Nelson and nobody ever will. She was the epitome of class, grace and style…”

Born on January 1, 1931 in Abbott, Texas, Bobbie was the first child of Myrle Marie and Ira Doyle Nelson, who became parents in their teens. The couple separated shortly after the birth of their brother Willie, with the two children being raised by their paternal grandparents.

Bobbie’s grandmother taught her to play the organ and she began singing gospel music in church. Her grandfather bought her a piano when she was 6 years old. She recalls, “When I first played the piano, I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again.'” Within a few years, she and Willie were regularly playing music together around the house and at church and school.

At 16, she met an Army veteran named Bud Fletcher. The couple married within a year. Fletcher didn’t make music, but he saw something special in the instrumental chemistry between his wife and her brother, so he formed Bud Fletcher & the Texans and hired Nelson patriarch Ira as rhythm guitarist. As the band got rolling, Bobbie and Bud started a family. When she was 19, she gave birth to Randy; At 23, she had two more sons, Michael and Freddy. The couple’s relationship began to crumble in 1955 when Fletcher’s parents filed for custody of their children, claiming that Bobbie was unfit because she spent her nights playing the piano in beer bars.

Distraught, Bobbie left the band and took office work, getting a job at the Hammond Organ Co. in Fort Worth. She regained the rights to her children but was unable to save her marriage. After the divorce, Bobbie moved to Austin, where she demonstrated Hammond organs by day and played lounge piano by night.

By the early 1970s, Bobbie had had two more marriages and their sons had come of age. When her brother Willie invited her to his first sessions for Atlantic in 1973, she was ready to agree. Willie signed with Atlantic after a creatively frustrating run at RCA. His new label encouraged experimentation, so he bolstered his road band with members of Doug Sahm’s Sir Douglas Quintet, adding Bobbie as the final element to the mix. During those sessions in New York City, they landed on the centerpiece of “Shotgun Willie,” the album that helped define the outlaw spirit of the 1970s, and “The Troublemaker,” a gospel record that showcased the vastness of Willie’s vision demonstrated.

Willie didn’t have a mainstream hit until Columbia released “Red Headed Stranger” in 1975, but these early Atlantic records established the aesthetic he stuck to for the rest of his career. Bobbie kept him grounded as the family wove together country boogie, blues shuffles, cowboy ballads, pop standards and open-end jams, playing with the skill required of a band whose performances are so improvisation-heavy could like those of the Grateful Dead.

After “Red Headed Stranger,” the family membership continued, with Bobbie forming the core of the band alongside drummer Paul English and harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Bobbie’s fortune was often linked to Willie’s – in 1976 he bought her a magnificent Bösendorfer grand piano which the Internal Revenue Service confiscated during its protracted battles with the organization; Family friends bought it back for her – but her humble presence and graceful engineering helped keep the family alive into the 21st century.

Bobbie’s last performance was on October 9, 2021 alongside Willie at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels, Texas.

She is survived by Willie and her son Freddy Fletcher. Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and bandmate, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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