Bobbie Nelson, the older sister of country music legend Willie Nelson, has died. She was 91. A cause of death was not disclosed.
In a statement posted to her brother’s Facebook page on March 10, the Nelson family revealed that Bobbie had “passed away this morning, peacefully and surrounded by family.”
“Her elegance, grace, beauty and talent made this world a better place,” the statement read. “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. Please keep her family in your thoughts and give them the privacy they need at this time.”
Born in Abbott, Texas on January 1, 1931, Bobbie’s grandparents raised the siblings and encouraged them early on to explore music. Her grandfather bought her a $35 piano when she was 6, and it wasn’t long before she was making music around the house with her brother. Their grandparents even taught the pair their first song “The Great Speckled Bird,” when Bobbie was 6 and Willie was 4. By her teens, Bobbie was performing at gospel conventions. It wasn’t long before she was playing churches and high school functions in and around Abbott along with Willie.
“I remember when I got my first piano,” said Bobbie. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again.’”
By 1972, Willie asked Bobbie, who was then 42 and had never recorded inside a studio, to join his sessions for gospel album The Troublemaker, then again for his first album with Atlantic, Shotgun Willie, and from that point on she was part of the band. The siblings continued to play together for another five decades.
“The Atlantic Records experience put me on a new course,” said Willie Nelson. “Most important, it brought me back together with Bobbie. When the sessions in New York were over I made it plain. ‘Sister,’ I said, ‘you’re now a member of the band.’”
In 2008, at the age of 78, Bobbie released her first solo album Audiobiography and released five albums with her brother from 1986 through 2013. Their final album together was Farther Along: The Gospel Collection.
The siblings also collaborated on books, including Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band in 2020 and 2021 release Sister, Brother, Family: An American Childhood in Music.
Throughout her life, Bobbie faced many hardships, but music and her tight union with Willie kept her going. Married to Bud Fletcher at 16, Bobbie continued raising their three sons Randy, Michael, and Freddy after Bud died in 1961. In 1989, Bobbie lost two of her sons within a six-month period when Michael succumbed to leukemia and Randy died in a car accident.
Willie often referred to Bobbie as his “little sister,” even though she is the older of the two. “My little sister was always on the piano doing great music,” said Nelson in a 2020 interview. “I would sit there on the piano stool beside her and try to figure out what the hell she was doing. Sister Bobbie is 10 times a better musician than I am. I’m a little better con man, I think.”
The pair played their last show together at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels, Texas on October 9, 2021.
Bobbie is survived by her brother Willie, son Freddy, and eight nieces and nephews.