Bobbie Nelson, country music pianist and older sister to Willie, has died.
Nelson was born on January 1, 1931. She and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents in Abbot, Texas, who began educating the duo in music at a young age. Bobbie’s grandmother taught the young girl how to play piano on a pump organ and her grandfather bought her her first piano at six years old for $35, selling the family cow to pay for it.
“I remember when I got my first piano. I thought, ‘I’ll never be lonely again,” Nelson told the Austin American-Statesman in 2017.
Her grandfather had her singing gospel at conventions in Hillsboro which would lead to the teenager traveling with evangelists around Austin and all around Texas before marrying Bud Fletcher. Fletcher formed Bud Fletcher and the Texans, a honky-tonk outfit inspired by Western swing sounds. He couldn’t play a lick, so simply directed the band which featured sixteen-year-old Bobbie on piano and her fourteen-year-old brother Willie on vocals and guitar. Bobbie divorced Fletcher, the group disbanded, and in 1961, Fletcher would die in a car crash.
It was perceived as scandalous that Nelson was playing country music in bars nightly, leading Fletcher’s parents to take custody of her three children—Randy, Michael, and Freddy—after his death. Nelson wanted nothing more than to get her children back, so she put aside the music game and enrolled in business college.
After graduation, she landed a gig demonstrating instruments at the Hammond Organ Co. in Fort Worth, and after retrieving custody of her three sons, she moved to Austin, Texas while her brother was establishing himself as a successful songwriter in the “Nashville system.”
By 1970, Willie Nelson was working with Jerry Wexler, a music journalist turned producer, who had recorded Aretha Franklin, signed Led Zeppelin, and produced Bob Dylan. Wexler was now the vice president of Atlantic Records and signed Willie to his label after his relationship with RCA fizzled.
In February of 1973, the recording sessions for Willie’s album The Troublemaker took place and Wexler encouraged Willie to put together his own band. Nelson put in a call to his sister. Bobbie was playing supper clubs and cocktail lounges in Austin and had never been on a plane before flying to New York to record with her brother.
The Troublemaker was released on Columbia records in 1976 where Nelson signed a contract that would give the singer total creative control, and Bobbie stayed in the band.
“My children were grown at the time and in college, so I didn’t really have any reason not to go on the road,” Bobbie told Still Is Still Moving in 2010.
Bobbie remained with Willie’s band until their last show together in 2021 at Whitewater Amphitheater. In 2008, at 76 years old, Nelson recorded her first solo record, Audiobiography, a collection of boogie piano instrumentals.
“Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there, “ Willie explained to the Austin American-Statesman in 2007. “Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
Bobbie Nelson passed away Thursday morning at age 91, “peacefully and surrounded by family.”