Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s talented sister, died Thursday morning at her home in Austin, Texas. A post on Willie’s Instagram said she “died peacefully and surrounded by family.” No cause of death was given, although she had been recently hospitalized. She was 91.
Bobbie and Willie had been making music together — Bobbie on piano and Willie on guitar — since the butt end of the Great Depression when as kids in tiny Abbot, Texas, their grandparents showed them the chords to The Great Speckled Bird. This last is a country classic by Roy Acuff from back when country music was still called hillbilly (with good reason). Before deciding that music was to be their life’s work, they honed their talents in local churches on such gospel standards as Will the Circle be Unbroken and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, songs the Nelson band still featured decades later.
Even though she was obviously talented, Bobbie’s musical career was on and off when she was younger as she took time off for a family. She made her way back to music after losing her husband to an auto accident. She became part of Willie’s band in the early ’70s when sister and brother were both in their 40s. Before that, Willie was a great songwriter – Crazy, Good Hearted Women, and Funny How Time Slips Away, just to name three of many. But his own music had not taken off yet. With a new contract with Atlantic records and a new and unique sound, Willie, so ably backed by his band, became a musical powerhouse. He was an overnight success after 30 years, finally arriving perhaps thanks to Willie’s vocal cords by then having been sufficiently cured by endless weed and Lone Star beer. (Don’t try this at home.) He asked Bobbie to join him in a musical collaboration that would become a huge success.
When Bobbie flew to New York to join Willie and the band at a recording studio, it was her first plane ride and the first time she had been in a recording studio. But she soon learned the biz. While rarely standing out front or playing solos — leaving these to her more charismatic brother — she provided an important part of the band’s sound over the decades. She did release a solo album of her own music, Autobiography, in 2007.
“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie told Austin music writer Michael Corcoran. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, she’s been right there. Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.” He repeated this praise on the Today show in 2020 when he said, “Sister Bobbie is 10 times a better musician than I am.” He added, “I’m a little better con man, I think.” He’s likely right on both counts.
Always in the background or no, Bobbie’s talent was recognized when she was voted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017. In a 2020 book, Me and Sister Bobbie, Willie wrote: “If I was the sky, Sister Bobbie was the earth. She grounded me. There is no longer or stronger or steadier relationship in my life.”
You can hear Willie and Bobbie together here.
Bobbie on her own here:
RIP Bobbie Nelson. And best to Willie Nelson, now faced with a great loss at what his many fans (including me) hope and trust is a robust 88.
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