A quiet, yet steadying, presence on the piano at live shows, Nelson passed away while surrounded by family. “Her elegance, grace, beauty, and talent made this world a better place. She was the first member of Willie’s band, as his pianist and singer,” reads a statement from the Nelson family. “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 on New Year’s Day in 1931, Nelson was two years older than her more famous brother, but he still referred to her as his “Little Sister Bobbie” on stage. They played together for more than 80 years, from their childhood growing up in Abbott, Texas to their final show on October 9th in New Braunfels.
When she was 16, Nelson married musician Bud Fletcher, who formed his band The Texans with Bobbie on the piano and Willie on vocals and guitar. The group broke up after Nelson’s divorce from Fletcher in 1955. Several years later, she left music for a secretarial job at Hammond Organ Company following her ex-husband’s death in a car accident.
Bobbie eventually moved to Nashville in 1965, playing in restaurants and other venues until receiving a call from Willie in 1973 to join him on piano for his Atlantic Records sessions, which produced albums including The Troublemaker, Shotgun Willie, and Phases and Stages. She joined The Family full-time that same year and began touring with her brother.
On The Troublemaker in particular, Bobbie was credited for being the lynchpin of the recording sessions. When Bobbie arrived, Willie was suffering from writer’s block and so they recorded gospel tunes for the first few days in the studio until he got his groove back for the career-defining Shotgun Willie.
Together as a duo, Willie and Bobbie released several albums together, including 1996’s How Great Thou Art, 1997’s Hill Country Christmas, and 2014’s December Day. Last November, she teamed up with Willie, her nephews Lukas and Micah, and nieces Paula and Amy for the gospel album The Willie Nelson Family.
Although Bobbie was traditionally protective about her private life, in 2020 she wrote a collaborative memoir with her little brother titled Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band. In 2008, Nelson released her solo debut, titled Audiobiography, a primarily instrumental album featuring Willie singing on two songs.
Hear some songs highlighting Bobbie Nelson at her best below.