Country music pioneer Bobbie Lee Nelson — the sister of Willie Nelson, and a vaunted pianist in her own right — died Thursday, March 10, at age 91. Her death was announced via social media by her family, who noted she’d died “peacefully and surrounded by family.”
Nelson was the first member of her younger brother’s band, performing as a pianist and singer. Like her brother, she grew up in Abbott, Texas, where they were raised by their gospel music-loving grandparents. Their parents, Myrle and Ira, divorced early; Myrle left when Willie was six months old, and Ira departed soon after, handing the children to the care of their paternal grandparents.
Born Jan. 1, 1931, Bobbie Nelson learned to play the piano by reading four-part shape-note harmonies in hymn books. And she fell in love with boogie-woogie, which she played for her school classmates.
In his 2015 autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life, Willie Nelson wrote: “Bobbie became accomplished at an early age. I lagged behind — and remain so to this day. Bobbie is a musician in the true sense of being able to play with great facility in any style. She learned to read beautifully and was known far and around Hill County as a genuine piano prodigy.”
By age 16, Nelson had fallen in love with and quickly married a man named Bud Fletcher, who recognized the siblings’ talent. Despite having no musical skills himself, Fletcher built a band called Bud Fletcher and the Texans featuring the siblings, with the Nelsons’ father playing rhythm guitar. And because she was with her family, Bobbie Nelson was able to slip into bars to play — a scandalous situation for a young woman.
The marriage began to fall apart, though, and the Texans disbanded in 1955 when Fletcher and Nelson divorced. But because of the shame of Bobbie’s work in honky-tonks, initial custody of their three young sons was given to Fletcher’s parents — and Nelson couldn’t continue to play in bars.
In a 2008 interview, Nelson reflected on this difficult time in her life. “I thought, ‘How can I earn enough money to support my children and to show the world that I can support my children? I want my babies,’” she remembered. “And that was the hardest part of my life. And I couldn’t play with Willie at that time, because I wasn’t supposed to even enter into a club. They wouldn’t have agreed to let me have my children back.”
The answer Nelson hit upon was to attend business college, and then get a job with the Hammond Organ Company in its Fort Worth location, where she demonstrated instruments.
But once her brother, who’d already written hits within the Nashville country machine for artists like Ray Price and Patsy Cline, went to New York in 1973 to record himself, she heeded the call for “Sister Bobbie” to come record with him on the project that became Shotgun Willie. By then, her children were grown.
Bobbie Nelson went on to tour and record with her brother Willie for decades, appearing on many of his albums, spanning Red Headed Stranger in 1975 to The Willie Nelson Family just last year.
Nelson didn’t release a solo album of her own until 2008, shortly before she turned 77. It was called Audiobiography — and it was the only one she ever released. Co-billed with Willie, however, she released several albums: in 1986, I’d Rather Have Jesus; 1996’s How Great Thou Art; in 1997, Hill Country Christmas; and 2014’s December Day: Willie’s Stash, Vol.1.
In 2020, Willie and Bobbie Nelson co-authored a memoir called Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band. In it, Willie wrote: “I’ve written a few books before, but there’s one that passed me by. Probably passed me by ’cause the heroine is too humble to demand attention. The heroine is my sister, Bobbie. Bobbie’s got the best story in our whole family. . . . Without my sister, I’d never be where I am today. I’ve always needed her.”
Cover photo courtesy Shock Ink