Bobbie Nelson, Longtime Pianist for Brother Willie, Dies at 91

Bobbie Nelson, the longtime piano player in her brother Willie’s band and a grounding influence in his life and music, died on Thursday in Austin, Texas. She was 91.

Mr. Nelson’s publicist, Elaine Schock, confirmed the death.

Ms. Nelson and her brother, who is two years younger, had been playing music together since they were children; their grandparents, who were raising them, introduced them to instruments. Bobbie was the more able musician, Mr. Nelson noted in his 2015 autobiography, “It’s a Long Story” (written with David Ritz).

“Sister Bobbie’s vast musical mind could deal with all those white and black keys on the piano,” Mr. Nelson wrote. “She knew what to do with them. Six strings was about all I could handle.”

Both of them played in the band of Bud Fletcher, whom Ms. Nelson married when she was a teenager. For a time, their career and domestic paths took them in different directions. But in the early 1970s, they both found themselves living in Austin, where Ms. Nelson was teaching piano and playing in lounges.

“Then Willie signed with Atlantic Records and asked me if I wanted to do this gospel record with him,” she recounted in a 2008 interview with The Reno Gazette-Journal in Nevada. “I took my first airplane flight then and flew to New York City, and we did ‘The Troublemaker’ and ‘Shotgun Willie,’ and we’ve been playing together from that time on.”

She became a foundational member of the Family, Mr. Nelson’s backing band, which he formed in 1973. The band helped rejuvenate his career, which had hit a plateau after a decade of working and recording in Nashville. As Mr. Nelson began to tour extensively and record albums like “Red Headed Stranger” (1975) that branched out from traditional country music, Ms. Nelson was at his side.

“She is the best piano player for me,” he wrote in “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From the Road,” a 2012 collection of miscellany. “She rolls with whatever I throw at her, and it doesn’t matter where I run off to in music, she is always there when I get back.”

Ms. Nelson was generally content to be in her brother’s shadow, but she would occasionally take a more out-front role, as in 2014 when, billed as Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie, the two of them released “December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1,” an album of 18 of their favorite songs. James Beaty, reviewing it for The McAlester News-Capital & Democrat in Oklahoma, called it “as smooth as lightly falling snow and warm as a glowing fireplace on a winter’s afternoon.”

They released other albums together as well, including several gospel records, and in 2007 Ms. Nelson released a solo album, “Audiobiography.” In 2020, they collaborated on the book “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band,” (with Mr. Ritz), in which they told their intertwined life stories, alternating chapters.

“Without my sister,” Mr. Nelson wrote in that book, “I’d never be where I am today.”

Bobbie Lee Nelson was born on Jan. 1, 1931, in Abbott, Texas, north of Waco, to Ira and Myrle Nelson. They had married when they were teenagers, and soon after Willie was born they divorced and went their separate ways, leaving the children in the care of their grandparents Alfred and Nancy Nelson.

“I believe my brother’s happy-go-lucky personality stayed happy-go-lucky because he wasn’t traumatized by the shock of our parents’ departure,” Ms. Nelson wrote in “Me and Sister Bobbie.” “He was too young to understand what was going on. But the trauma got to me.”

As a child, Ms. Nelson was mesmerized by the pianist she saw in church each week.

“I loved watching her fingers fly over the keys,” she wrote. “I watched her form the clusters of notes that I’d later learn were chords. I watched her, in short, make magic.”

When she started playing herself, she wrote, “the piano felt like a friend.”

Ms. Nelson and her brother played at local functions before landing in the Fletcher band. After her marriage to Mr. Fletcher ended — she would marry twice more — Ms. Nelson and her three sons ended up in Austin, where she played at piano bars and shopping center openings to make ends meet. When Mr. Nelson’s house in Nashville burned down, she urged him to join her in Austin. They had not played together publicly for years.

“If I did come down,” Mr. Nelson recalled saying in his autobiography, “what would you think about playing with my band, Sis?”

She replied: “I wouldn’t be thinking, Willie. I’d be crying with joy.”

In addition to her brother, Ms. Nelson’s survivors include a son, Freddy, and a granddaughter.

Back to top button