Willie Nelson’s “Little Sister” Bobbie Has Passed Away

She was known as “Sister Bobbie” in the Willie Nelson universe, and Willie always referred to her affectionately as “Little” Sister Bobbie, even though she was two years her senior. For nearly half a century, she accompanied her little brother on piano as part of Willie Nelson’s Family Band, and played on countless of his studio recordings as well. Sister Bobbie was a rock in country music. And now just like the other legacy members of Willie Nelson’s legendary band—bassist Bee Spears, guitarist Jody Payne, and Paul “The Devil” English—Sister Bobby has passed on at the age of 91.

Born on New Years Day in 1931, Bobbie Nelson was raised by her grandparents just like brother Willie after their biological mother moved to Portland, Oregon, and their father was rarely around. Growing up singing Gospel music in church, she was given a pump organ at the age of five, and after impressing Grandpa Nelson while singing in front of 1,000 people at the Hillsboro, TX courthouse, he bought her a $35 piano at the age of six. As Willie began to grow older and picked up the guitar, the two began performing together.

The first semi professional band for both Bobbie and Willie was called Bud Fletcher and the Texans. Bobbie Nelson married Bud Fletcher at the age of sixteen, and proceeded to have three children—Michael, Randy, and Freddy. The band disbanded in 1955, soon Bobbie and Bud divorced, and when Bud died in 1961, Bud’s parents petitioned to have Bobbie’s kids taken from her since she played in honky tonks, even though by all accounts, she rarely or ever drank. To regain custody, Bobbie moved to Fort Worth, worked briefly in a TV repair shop and later for the Hammond Organ Company, and later remarried, in part to get her kids back.

It was in 1973 during country music’s Outlaw revolution that Bobbie Nelson would rejoin her brother in music. And once she did, she never left. In 1973—fed up with RCA and the way the label insisted Willie Nelson record other people’s songs with studio musicians—he signed with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records, and won creative control to record with whomever he wished. His first pick was to recruit Sister Bobbie.

The results are now the stuff of country music legend. Willie Nelson released the albums Shotgun Willie (1973) and Phases and Stages (1974) for Atlantic, and later, his masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger (1975), all featuring Bobbie Nelson on piano. The Family Band had also taken form for live performances with Bobbie as the beating heart, along with Bee Spears, Jody Payne, Paul English, and harmonica player Mickey Raphael.

Bobbie Nelson’s contributions to the Willie Nelson sound weren’t just functional. Willie Nelson always considered Bobbie the superior musician, and her honky-tonk style of melodically-sensible playing became a signature of the Willie Nelson sound, right beside the nylon string tone of Willie’s guitar Trigger, and Mickey Raphael’s mournful harp. The 1978 live album Willie and Family Live remains a testament to the chemistry of this legendary country band, as do numerous appearances on Austin City Limits, including the pilot episode of the series.

Bobbie Nelson released her debut solo album in 2017 called Autobiography, and released two books with her brother—Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of The Family Band (2020), and a children’s book, Sister, Brother, Family: An American Childhood in Music. Bobbie was also inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

It had been reported that Bobbie Nelson was admitted to the hospital earlier in 2022, and was not expect to join Willie Nelson back out on the road. She passed away Thursday, March 10th, “peacefully and surrounded by family,” according to the Willie Nelson camp.

More than just a sister or a piano player, Sister Bobbie Nelson was a country music institution with her signature long hair and cowboy hat, tickling the ivories in one of the most legendary bands in country music history for 50 years.

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