She died peacefully and surrounded by family, according to post Thursday night on Willie Nelson’s Instagram that announced her death.
“Her elegance, grace, beauty and talent made this world a better place,” the post said. “She was the first member of Willie’s band, as his pianist and singer. Our hearts are broken and she will be deeply missed.”
The cause of death was not provided.
Willie Nelson fans rarely got a good look at Bobbie Nelson’s face on stage, but her voluminously long hair provided assurance that family was present and that, whatever other changes the band might go through, there was no separating the siblings.
“There’s just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family,” Willie Nelson told the Austin American-Statesman in 2007. “Whenever I’ve needed a piano player, I’ve had Sister Bobbie right there. … Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
The brother and sister released albums and books as a duo. A year and a half ago, the Nelsons released a memoir about their relationship, “Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band” (co-written by David Ritz), and promoted it in interviews.
“My little sister was always on the piano doing great music,” Nelson recalled on the “TODAY” show in November 2020. “I would sit there on the piano stool beside her and try to figure out what the hell she was doing. … Sister Bobbie is 10 times a better musician than I am,” he said. When she demurred, he added, “I’m a little better con man, I think.”
The country superstar often referred to Bobbie as his “little sister,” although she was a couple of years older.
When she was 6 and he was 4, their grandparents taught them “The Great Speckled Bird,” and their musical relationship was forged, although it would be decades before it occurred to him that it was possible to bring Bobbie into his professional life.
In the joint memoir, Willie Nelson recalled how his creative renaissance in the early 1970s coincided with his bringing Bobbie into his band.
Legendary producer Jerry Wexler had brought him over from an unsatisfying stint at another label to Atlantic Records, where he was about to begin recording the series of classic “outlaw”-era albums that defined him. When Wexler told him he could use whoever he wanted as studio musicians, “I immediately thought of Bobbie. She was the main spark I’d been missing.”
At 42, Bobbie had never been in a record studio before or been on a plane, but both those things changed in a hurry when he convinced her in 1973 to come work on the first album he was cutting for Atlantic, a gospel album called “The Troublemaker,” then “Shotgun Willie.”
“The Atlantic Records experience put me on a new course. Most important, it brought me back together with Bobbie,” he said. “When the sessions in New York were over I made it plain. ‘Sister,’ I said, ‘you’re now a member of the band.’”
In 2017, Bobbie Nelson released her first and only solo album, “Audiobiography,” an album of piano instrumentals. But even without going out on her own, she was familiar to her brother’s fans from getting a showcase number of her own on tour each night, and from duo projects they did, along with just piano playing that was nearly as recognizable as her brother’s licks with his signature guitar.