I'll Fly Away: “Sister” Bobbie Nelson Passes on at Age 91

Soul of Willie Nelson & Family called the piano her "truest friend"

Bobbie Nelson in 2007 (photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

Bobbie Nelson, the everpresent pianist and vocalist in the Willie Nelson & Family band passed away today – Thursday, March 10 – at age 91. Two years older than her brother Willie, she was known to the world as “Sister Bobbie.”

According to a press release from the Nelson family, Bobbie left the world this morning “peacefully and surrounded by family.” A cause of death was not disclosed, but it was known in close circles that she’d been in the hospital earlier this year and that she wasn’t expected to return to the stage for next week’s Family band appearance at Luck Reunion.

Bobbie, whose relationship to the 88 keys exuded a connection more beautiful and deep than that of human and instrument, was the cornerstone of Family band for 50 years and the first of the siblings to settle in Austin.

Born on New Year’s Day in 1931, Bobbie grew up – musically and otherwise – in the United Methodist Church in the small central Texas town of Abbott. She and her brother Willie sang gospel songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “When the Roll is called Up Yonder” from the hymnal to the congregation as youths. They continued to incorporate such spiritual material, including “I’ll Fly Away,” into their shows throughout the following century.

“I was just so in love with the piano at church,” Bobbie recalled to interviewer Doug Freeman in a 2008 Chronicle feature. “My grandfather loved the gospel singing, and my grandmother was really active in the church and was a Sunday-school teacher there. This church I just grew up in.”

In the same interview she ruminated:

“My experience at church taught me that talent given by God isn't your talent. It's something you were given, and you have to give it back. That's the way I feel when I play the piano. That's the way I recovered from my nervous breakdown, too, playing the organ. It's my medication. My piano is always there. As long as I'm healthy enough and can play, the piano will be there, like my truest friend.”

Bobbie began playing keys at age five on a pump organ before graduating to a $35 piano purchased by her paternal grandparents, William and Nancy, who raised her and Willie. By the time Bobbie was eight or nine, the two siblings were playing songs together. After she married Arlyn “Bud” Fletcher at age 16, Bobbie and Willie performed in honky-tonks as Bud Fletcher & the Texans – a band that lasted until 1955.

She overcame great adversity, losing custody of her three children Michael, Randy, and Freddy Fletcher (co-owner of Arlyn Studios and partner in the Moody Theater) due to her performing in honky-tonks – even though she abstained from alcohol throughout her life. After separating from Bud, who died in 1961, Bobbie lived in Fort Worth, where she built a new life working in a TV repair shop and later as a sales representative for the Hammond Organ Company.

“I was the only piano player that was also a stenographer on record at the employment office in Fort Worth, and Hammond was looking for just that person to learn to play the Hammond organ, to demonstrate it, teach it, and to sell it,” she told the Chronicle. “I learned to play the Hammond and was right there with the sheet-music department, so I had access to all the sheet music and could order anything. That's how I learned so much music.”

The Nelson siblings co-authored two books together – the 2020 memoir Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of The Family Band, as well as the 2021 children's book Sister, Brother, Family: An American Childhood in Music.

In the former, Willie writes that Bobbie summoned him to Austin, where she’d moved at the beginning of the Seventies and had been playing at places like the Stephen F. Austin Hotel and Polonaise Restaurant.

I didn't tell Bobbie to move back to Austin. That was something she did on her own. I was happy being tucked away in Bandera. But once Bobbie settled in Austin, she kept saying how things were changing. She kept describing Austin as something altogether different from anywhere in Texas.

After Dripping Springs, I saw how Austin was a haven for the hippies, and how the hippies were open-minded 'bout all sorts of music. Also saw that Austin had its own version of San Francisco's Fillmore West called the Armadillo World Headquarters. It was one of those giant venues where folks came out to see Frank Zappa on a Friday and Ravi Shankar on a Saturday. When I booked in the 'Dillo, I wondered how my band would be received. Didn't have to wonder long. Austin welcomed us with open arms.

In that same book, Bobbie described how famed producer Jerry Wexler, then at Atlantic Records, facilitated the enduring musical relationship between her and Willie, which rekindled on sessions in 1972 that yielded Shotgun Willie and The Troublemaker.

One of the reasons I'd never recorded with Willie before had to do with Nashville's proclivity to use a stable of studio musicians the producers felt were the best around. Willie never had any argument with the musicianship on the Nashville recording scene. But because his music is so peculiar to his own sensibility, Willie knows best who fits in most naturally with whatever he's creating.

Wexler had advised Willie to choose whichever musicians he wanted for those sessions, to which Willie recalled: “I immediately thought of Bobbie. She was the main spark I'd been missing.”

They continued playing together until the present day, Bobbie outfitting the Family band’s sound with graceful gospel piano and a warm presence. The section of every Willie & the Family set in which Willie deferred to a Bobbie instrumental section were priceless.

Bobbie Nelson being inducted into the Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame by nephew Lukas Nelson in 2017 (photo by David Brendan Hall)

At age 77, Bobbie released her debut album Audiobiography, which spanned classics like “Stardust” to boogie-woogie songs like “12th Street Rag.” In a 2008 review of the record, which featured Willie on two songs, Chronicle writer Margaret Moser wrote:

“In reading between the notes of Bobbie Nelson's first solo album, three things become clear. 1) Audiobiography is a wonderful, gentle, unassuming recording that resonates with tenderness. 2) It's hard not to absolutely love Bobbie Nelson simply for who she is. 3) Bobbie and Willie have one of those remarkably symbiotic sibling relationships, and their lifelong devotion is evident in every one of the album's dozen tracks.”

In 2014, the brother-sister team released the duo album December Day, inspired by their legendary jamming on the Honeysuckle Rose bus between tour dates. She was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2017, and also recognized by the Texas House of Representatives for her statewide musical contributions – including recording impactful piano and keys on albums by artists like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and the Supersuckers, as well as on the 1994 Daniel Johnston song “Love Will See You Through.”

Bobbie most recently played on her brother’s collaborative November 2021 album, entitled The Willie Nelson Family, which also featured Willie’s children Amy, Paula, Lucas, and Micah.

Bobbie was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame at the 2017 Austin Music Awards. She took the stage with her nephew Lukas Nelson to accept the honor.

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