She was his anchor, his rock. Raised, like her brother, in Abbott, Texas, Bobbie Nelson, elder sister of Willie and longtime piano player in his The Willie Nelson Family Band, passed away March 10. She was 91.
The Nelson family issued the following statement: “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. 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.”
There’s grief in that statement, but it only scratches the surface. Bobbie had learned music on a pump organ, and as her skills developed, her grandparents bought her a piano. Early on, she developed a free-flowing, honky-tonk style. Willie sat with his musically skilled sister at the piano soaking it all in. Nearly three years older than Willie, they grew up with a shared passion. Playing church music, listening to the radio, music was formative in their young lives, and Bobbie was the lynchpin.
Her marriage, at age 16, to Bud Fletcher, began a difficult period in her life. She and brother Willie both played in a band Fletcher directed, but it fell apart when the couple divorced, and she began a long fight for custody of the couple’s three sons. Bobbie moved to Fort Worth, where she worked demonstrating organs for Hammond. She remarried. After Fletcher’s death, she suffered a breakdown, and upon recovering, regained custody of her children and moved to Austin. She visited her brother Willie as he was getting his career started in Nashville. And when Jerry Wexler signed Willie to Atlantic in 1972, sister Bobbie got the call to join him in a New York recording studio. She played on numerous tracks and became a full-time member of his touring band after that.
Willie credits visiting his sister in Austin as the reason he decided to adopt the city, and their musical partnership in the Family Band launched what came to be known as the Outlaw Country movement. In countless live appearances around the world, she was always there at his side.