Bobbie Nelson, older sister of Texas country music icon Willie Nelson and the pianist in his band for nearly five decades, died Thursday morning, “peacefully and surrounded by family,” according to a statement from the Nelson family. She was 91.
“Her elegance, grace, beauty and talent made this world a better place,” the statement reads. “She was the first member of Willie’s band, as his pianist and singer. Our hearts are broken and she will be deeply missed. But we are so lucky to have had her in our lives. Please keep her family in your thoughts and give them the privacy they need at this time.”
‘The epitome of class, grace and style’: Musicians offer tributes to Bobbie Nelson
Nelson had been hospitalized in recent weeks with an undisclosed illness. She last performed with Willie’s longstanding Family band in late 2021, after he began to tour again following a long break during the pandemic.
“I’ve always been very shy,” Nelson told American-Statesman writer Michael Corcoran in 2007. “I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I’d always tell him, ‘You sing, Willie, and I’ll play the piano.'”
Willie is scheduled to perform March 17, March 20, March 26 and April 2 on his ranch in Spicewood just west of Austin. A spokesperson for the family said Thursday evening that those shows will continue as scheduled.
From the archives: Our 2007 interview with Bobbie Nelson
Bobbie Nelson considered best musician in the family by Willie Nelson
Born Jan. 1, 1931, Nelson showed a talent for music at an early age growing up in Abbott, a small Texas town near Hillsboro. Her younger brother, Willie, born two years later, looked up to her and always considered her the best musician in the family, as he made clear in “Me and Sister Bobbie,” a dual memoir they published in 2020 with biographer David Ritz.
Raised by their grandparents, the siblings began playing in honky-tonks when they were teenagers, as part of a band that included their father, Ira Nelson, and Bobbie’s first husband, Arlyn “Bud” Fletcher, whom she married at age 16.
The couple had three children between 1950 and 1953 but divorced a few years later. Nelson enrolled at Brantley-Draughon Business College in Fort Worth; married a man named Paul Tracy; and took a job at a department store that sold Hammond pianos and organs.
Her first husband died in a car crash in 1961, and her second marriage didn’t last. After visiting Willie in Nashville in the mid-’60s, Nelson moved to Austin. El Chico, a Mexican restaurant chain where she’d been playing piano in Fort Worth, offered her a job at a new restaurant they’d opened here.
Soon, she also was playing regularly at hotels such as the Stephen F. Austin and the Chariot Inn. In 1967, she married Bud Smith, whom she had met at a convenience store where he worked. Shortly thereafter, they moved with Nelson’s three sons to Tennessee to live on a plot of land near Nashville that Willie had bought with proceeds from his burgeoning career as a songwriter.
Nelson moved back to Austin for good in the early 1970s, playing piano at dinner clubs in Lakeway and at a Howard Johnson’s on Interstate 35. Her brother then moved to Austin as well, and soon they were playing music together for the first time since their teenage days.
Bobbie Nelson joined Willie Nelson band in early 1970s
When legendary producer Jerry Wexler signed Willie to Atlantic Records in 1972 and told him to hire whatever musicians he wanted for the recording sessions, his first call was to Bobbie, who joined him in New York. That became the start of the Family band, Willie’s backing crew ever since on tour and for many of his recording sessions.
Bobbie played on iconic Willie Nelson albums such as “Phases and Stages,” “Red Headed Stranger,” “Stardust,” “Spirit” and “Teatro.” She had a featured role on last year’s “Willie Nelson Family,” joining a cast that included Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah Nelson and daughters Paula and Amy Nelson.
In concert, she was the ideal accompanist for Willie’s blend of country traditionalism and jazz innovation. He always ceded the spotlight a few songs into the set so that she could play the century-old instrumental tune “Down Yonder.”
Nelson released one solo album, “Audiobiography,” in 2007 on Justice Records, supporting it with a performance on “The Tonight Show.”
For Nelson’s 90th birthday last year, family and friends (including Beatles drummer Ringo Starr) created a half-hour video of photos, music and personalized greetings that was posted to Willie’s social media pages.
Nelson’s sons Randy and Michael died within six months of each other in 1989 —Michael from leukemia and Randy in a car crash. Her youngest son, Freddy, lives in Austin and operates Arlyn Studios, a recording facility in South Austin named after his father.
Bobbie Nelson addressed life’s ups and downs in ‘Me and Sister Bobbie’
In “Me and Sister Bobbie,” Nelson was unflinchingly open about the ups and downs of her nine decades. She often acknowledged the role that her faith played in her life. In the book’s final chapter, she wrote: “As a child, playing revivals with Brother Dunson in small villages spread over Hill County, I remember playing ‘Let Go and Let God Have His Wonderful Way.’ His wonderful way. Those words stuck.
“I believe God’s wonderful way is to forgive. I can say today that I hold no ill toward anyone. I can also say that I feel forgiveness is almost a selfish act because it does so much good for those willing to forgive.”