Bobbie Lee Nelson, the sister of Willie Nelson and a renowned pianist in her own right, died on Thursday at the age of 91. She was the first female country music pioneer. Her relatives shared the news of her passing on social media platforms. Although her cause of death was not disclosed, the coroner’s office stated that she died “peacefully and surrounded by relatives.”
Nelson was the very first member of her younger brother’s band, and she played both the piano and the lead vocals. Like her brother, she grew up in the small Texas town of Abbott, where they were raised by their grandparents, who were avid fans of gospel music. When Willie was six months old, Myrle left the house, and Ira followed shortly after, leaving the children in the custody of their paternal grandparents.
Bobbie Nelson, who was born on January 1, 1931, started to play the piano by reading four-part shape-note harmonies from hymn books when she was a child. And she fell in love with boogie-woogie, which she introduced to her schoolmates by performing it for them.
Willie Nelson said the following in his 2015 autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life: “Bobbie started out as a talented young lady at a young age. I was and continue to be a step or two behind the times. Bobbie is a musician in the truest meaning of the word since she is capable of performing in any style with ease. She was well-known across Hill County as a true piano prodigy who had learned to read brilliantly through her studies.”
Nelson had fallen in love with and immediately married a man named Bud Fletcher when he was 16 years old after he had noticed the siblings’ skill. Despite the fact that he has no musical abilities himself, Fletcher formed a band named Bud Fletcher and The Texans, which included the Nelson siblings and their father, who played rhythm guitar. In addition, because she was with her family, Bobbie Nelson was allowed to sneak into clubs and play, which was a scandalous scenario for a young woman.
The marriage, on the other hand, began to break apart, and the Texans were forced to disband in 1955 after Fletcher and Nelson divorced. However, as a result of Bobbie’s job in honky-tonks, the couple’s three young sons were initially given to Fletcher’s parents, and Nelson was unable to continue working as a bartender.
Nelson shared her thoughts on this tough period of her life in an interview with All Things Considered in 2008. “‘How can I earn enough money to sustain my children and demonstrate to the rest of the world that I am capable of supporting my children?’ I wondered.
‘I want my children,’ I said “She had a recollection. “And that was the most difficult period of my life. It was also during this period that I was unable to play with Willie since I was not permitted to even enter a nightclub. They would not have consented to allow me to reclaim my children if I had asked.”
The solution Nelson came up with was to go to business school and then land a job with the Hammond Organ Company in Fort Worth, where she demonstrated instruments for customers.
However, when her brother, who had already written hits for artists such as Ray Price and Patsy Cline while working within the Nashville country machine, went to New York in 1973 to record himself, she heeded the call for “Sister Bobbie” to come record with him on the project that would become Shotgun Willie and the Outlaws. Her children had all grown up at that point.
She continued to tour and record with her brother Willie for decades, featuring on several of his albums, from Red Headed Stranger in 1975 to The Willie Nelson Family, which was released just last year.
When Nelson turned 77, she was still working on her first solo record, which was not released until 2008. Audiobiography was the name of the album, and it was the only one she ever released. When she was co-billed with Willie, she released four albums: I’d Rather Have Jesus in 1986; How Great Thou Art in 1996; Hill Country Christmas in 1997; and December Day: Willie’s Stash, Vol.1 in 2014. She also appeared on Willie’s tour in 2014.
Willie and Bobbie Nelson collaborated on a memoir titled Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, which will be released in 2020. Willie included the following in his letter: “I’ve written a few novels in the past, but there’s one that I completely forgot about. It’s likely that I didn’t notice since the heroine is too modest to demand attention. Bobbie, my sister, is the main character. Bobbie has the most interesting story in our entire family… I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for my sister. I’ve relied on her for years.”