Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and a member of his Willie Nelson and Family band for more than 50 years, died Thursday morning at age 91. She was described as having died “peacefully and surrounded by family,” and no cause of death was given.
“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson told the Austin American-Statesman in 2007. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there. … Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
Willie Nelson fans rarely got a good look at her face on stage, but her voluminously long hair provided assurance that family was present and accounted or on stage and that, whatever other changes the band might go through, there was no separating the siblings.
Nelson’s love for his sister was strong enough that he released both albums and books with her, as a duo. A year and a half ago, the Nelsons released a memoir about their relationship, “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band” (co-written by David Ritz), and promoted it in interviews.
“My little sister was always on the piano doing great music,” Nelson recalled on the “Today” show in November 2020. “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,” he said. When she demurred, he added, “I’m a little better con man, I think.”
The country superstar often referred to Bobbie as his “little sister,” although she was a couple of years older. When she was 6 and he was 4, their grandparents taught them “The Great Speckled Bird,” and their musical relationship was forged, although it would be decades before it occurred to him that it was possible to bring Bobbie into his professional life.
In the joint memoir, Willie Nelson recalled how his creative renaissance in the early 1970s coincided with his bringing Bobbie into his band. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler had brought him over from an unsatisfying stint at another label to Atlantic Records, where he was about to begin recording the series of classic “outlaw”-era albums that defined him. When Wexler gave him the shocking news that he could use whoever he wanted as studio musicians from that point forward, “I immediately thought of Bobbie. She was the main spark I’d been missing.”
At 42, Bobbie had never been in a record studio before or been on a plane, but both those things changed in a hurry when he convinced her in 1973 to come work on the first album he was cutting for Atlantic, a gospel album called “The Troublemaker,” then “Shotgun Willie,” and his stardom and direction were forever set. “The Atlantic Records experience put me on a new course. 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 2017, Bobbie released her first and only solo album, “Audiobiography,” an album of piano instrumentals. But even without going out on her own, she was familiar to her brother’s fans from getting a showcase number of her own on tour each night, and from duo projects they did, along with just piano playing that was nearly as recognizable as her brother’s licks with his signature guitar, Trigger.
More to come…
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