No musician has sung, played, and written more different kinds of American music than Willie Nelson. And no musician was more important to Willie than his older sister Bobbie, who died March 10. She was 91. The two played together for an astonishing eighty-plus years, from the time they were children in tiny Abbott, Texas, to their last show at the Whitewater Amphitheater, in New Braunfels, on October 9. Through all those performances—in their humble living room growing up; at Austin’s scrappy, surreal Armadillo World Headquarters in the seventies; at the later, near-nightly triumphs in storied halls like London’s Royal Albert—Bobbie grounded Willie. She gave him security and direction. Sometimes she led him; other times he led her. They shared something sacred that everyone else could only admire. “When we get into music,” she once said, “something happens. There’s magic between me and Willie.”

But while fans have long appreciated the wonders the two created onstage and in studios, few outside Willie World know how pivotal Bobbie was to his life and career. At shows, she was the quiet one, sitting demurely at the piano bench, focused on the keys and interacting little with the crowd, her long brown hair spilling out from a wide-brimmed black hat. Each night Willie would draw attention her way, moving to the piano and watching intently while she played her showpiece, the instrumental “Down Yonder.” Casual fans likely thought he was being polite; Bobbie never made a big show out of what she was doing. But Willie would tell you she was the most important person onstage. The myth of Willie Nelson—the Austin renaissance after years of frustration in Nashville, the ensuing five decades of continued creative rebirth and international stardom—is a true story and one of the world’s favorites. But none of it would have happened without Sister Bobbie.

Bobbie Lee Nelson was born on New Year’s Day, 1931, in Abbott, 25 miles north of Waco. Her brother was born two years later, and their early life was impossibly hard. It was the depths of the Depression, and the packed dirt around Abbott was as unforgiving as any in the Dust Bowl. Their mother left six months after Willie was born and their father soon after. Fortunately, their paternal grandparents took over their care. But their grandfather died of pneumonia when Bobbie was eight. The family struggled to get by on their grandmother’s earnings as a music teacher, and the young siblings went to work picking cotton. Their life was precarious, and the story could easily have ended there.

But what Bobbie and Willie did have was each other. And music. Their grandmother had taught Bobbie to play pump organ at age five, then piano, and soon she was performing in the Abbott Methodist Church. “Willie and I were practically born in that church,” she told Texas Monthly in 2008. Willie learned to sing sitting next to Bobbie on the piano bench as she played hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Uncloudy Day.” He wanted to play too, and soon he was bringing his Stella into the living room, trying to follow along. Their grandmother taught them chords and songs, and their musical education took root. But an unconscious lesson ran deeper: when they played music together, the harsh, wider world went away. Then, and only then, they felt safe.

Bobbie began forging the playing style that would become so familiar. She studied classical composers, particularly the intricate movement of Bach’s fugues and études. She and Willie spent hours listening to Tin Pan Alley hits on the family’s Philco radio, drawn into the jazzy changes of George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael. But the biggest influence was the gospel songs, and that’s where Bobbie had the most impact, albeit subtly, on the music she and her brother would make as adults. There was always a hint of the small-town chapel in Bobbie’s playing, a quiet and a comfort. It may have been the primary reason that Willie’s later songs, no matter how complex and out-there they got, always sounded familiar, with a plain implication of spirituality.

bobbie nelson obituary
Willie and Bobbie during a recording session at Pedernales Studio in August 1997.Photograph by Scott Newton

Before either had reached age ten, Bobbie and Willie were playing at church services, picnics, gospel conventions, and school. “We were the sole entertainers in our town,” Bobbie said. Willie started playing guitar in a local polka group, then joined Bobbie in a band led by Bud Fletcher—who married Bobbie when she was sixteen. For five years, they toured the area as Bud Fletcher and the Texans, playing hits by Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell. During that time, Bobbie and Bud had three sons, Randy, Michael, and Freddy.

The marriage fell apart, and in 1954, after Bud’s parents took custody of her boys and brought them to their home in Vaughn, Bobbie moved to Fort Worth. She was still an hour’s drive away from her sons but managed to visit once a week, and fortunately for her, Willie moved to Fort Worth soon after. It was another difficult period, and in the joint memoir she and Willie published in 2020, Me and Sister Bobbie, she wrote that hearing Willie on the radio—he was deejaying at a local country station, KCNC—was one of her few sources of solace as she struggled to get her kids back. Eventually, she prevailed and lived with the boys in Fort Worth and, later, Austin, where she found work playing piano bars and supper clubs.

They also spent stretches of the sixties in Nashville, where, on the strength of tunes such as “Crazy” and “Hello Walls,” Willie had become one of country music’s most successful songwriters. But as the world well knows, Music Row was an ill fit for him, and the stardom he sought as a performer didn’t come. To cope with the frustration, he moved to a pig farm in nearby Ridgetop, housing his road band and friends on the property. Soon, Bobbie and her boys were living there too. Once again, life wasn’t easy, but Bobbie’s presence brought Willie some peace.

Then, two nights before Christmas 1970, Willie’s house burned down. No one was hurt, but the home was destroyed. That summer, Bobbie moved back to Austin as Willie shuttled between a Bandera dude ranch and Nashville, where his place was being rebuilt. Throughout those months he did a lot of soul-searching. He realized he was done with Nashville and needed to move back to Texas.

And here’s where the myth of Willie misses a big point. In the spring of 1972, he relocated to Austin. The conventional wisdom has always been that Austin was the catalyst for letting Willie be Willie, and, undoubtedly, he saw potential in the crowds at the Armadillo. But that thought leaves out the main reason he moved there: Austin is where Bobbie lived.

And here’s where the myth of Willie misses a big point. In the spring of 1972, he relocated to Austin. The conventional wisdom has always been that Austin was the catalyst for letting Willie be Willie, and, undoubtedly, he saw potential in the crowds at the Armadillo. But that thought leaves out the main reason he moved there: Austin is where Bobbie lived.

With Bobbie, back in Texas, Willie was finally, truly at home. Not long after the move, he pointed out to his sister that they hadn’t played together publicly since 1951. “Don’t you think twenty-one years is long enough?” She answered, “I do,” and that was that.

Soon he signed with Atlantic Records, and in February 1973 he went to New York for the recording sessions that would produce his first Atlantic release. Shotgun Willie had a loose, funky groove that sounded like no country album before it. History would come to regard the album as the moment Willie’s music pivoted, and credit usually goes to his finally being out of Nashville and recording with his own band. But Shotgun Willie was also his first release recorded with Bobbie. Her playing is immaculate and was regarded at the time as an integral element of his new sound.

She also played a huge part in giving him the confidence to take chances. When he’d arrived in New York, he was suffering from writer’s block. He had no new songs. So Willie, Bobbie, and the band spent the first couple of days recording old gospel tunes. That album, The Troublemaker, would not be released until 1976, and its lone single, “Uncloudy Day,” which Bobbie and Willie had learned from their grandmother, would become a top-five country hit.

It was the start of the most fruitful sibling relationship in music history. Willie Nelson and Family, as he renamed his band now that Bobbie was in it, hit the road and the studio. He loved having his big sister onstage, but just as importantly, he loved having her on the bus, where they’d pass the hours talking about books they were reading and songs they wanted to play. Willie would go through dark phases, but Bobbie never seemed to. She was always cheerful, kind, and open, the presence that kept him going.

With a new label, Columbia, and the release of 1975’s Red Headed Stranger—recorded in two days at a small studio in Garland, Texas, with just Bobbie and the band—Willie was finally a star. But his profile took a quantum leap forward in 1978 with Stardust, a collection of American Songbook standards. Columbia execs were openly hostile to the idea. Willie had found success with the outlaw sound; why switch now to pop oldies? It was a radical risk, but Willie believed in himself and those songs.

And that’s because Bobbie did too. Credit for the idea to make Stardust gets spread around, but in their memoir, Willie wrote that one night the two were up late, talking about old pop songs. Bobbie, of course, remembered the standards from when they were kids and had played many of them in her supper club act. She said “Stardust”—written by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish and performed by everyone from Nat King Cole to Frank Sinatra—was her favorite. Willie asked her about other songs that might work for an oldies album, and she mentioned “All of Me,” “Blue Skies,” and “Moonlight in Vermont.” It all made sense to Willie. Stardust would be the biggest album of his career, selling more than five million copies and staying on Billboard’s top 50 country albums chart for a decade.

Willie would go through dark phases, but Bobbie never seemed to. She was always cheerful, kind, and open, the presence that kept him going.

With Bobbie reliably beside him, Willie went on to a level of success no country artist had ever reached—but not one that shielded either sibling from hardship. In the mid-eighties, the IRS came after Willie for a claimed $32 million owed in back taxes, culminating in the 1990 seizure of his studio and a highly public, two-and-a-half-year battle with the feds. Much worse, in the summer of 1989, Bobbie’s middle son, Michael, died of AIDS. Six months later, on New Year’s Day, 1990—Bobbie’s fifty-ninth birthday—her eldest son, Randy, died in a car accident. Then, on Christmas Day 1991, at the height of the IRS mess, Willie’s son Billy died suddenly. The next year was the only one since 1958 in which Willie didn’t release any new music.

That December, with Columbia execs considering shifting Willie to the “legacy artists” category—essentially putting him out to pasture—he and Bobbie went into the studio with producer Don Was to record what would become 1993’s Across the Borderline. Critically lauded, the album launched a third act for Willie that he’s been starring in ever since.

Still, the better look into Bobbie and Willie’s lives in those years was recorded later in 1993, after Willie got his studio back from the IRS. With Bobbie’s surviving son Freddy producing, they recorded nine gospel songs, eight from their childhood and one, “Kneel at the Feet of Jesus,” that Willie had written. It wasn’t their first such collection of songs of faith, nor their last; in 1980, they’d recorded a similar effort, Family Bible. In 1996 Willie released a meditative, all-acoustic album of original songs, Spirit. And just last year, he, Bobbie, and four of his kids released The Willie Nelson Family.

The 1993’s gospel album was something more. How Great Thou Art was wasn’t released until 1996, on a small Denver label, receiving little notice and selling few copies. But making money was never the point. The record was nominally dedicated to Bobbie’s son Michael, but she and Willie were working through three unimaginably heavy losses. They turned to those songs for strength and peace. When you put it on now, you can hear them find it.

One Friday night last July, during the pre–delta variant lull in the pandemic, Willie, Bobbie, and the band played a show at Luck, the Old West movie set he built in the eighties, about thirty miles west of Austin. They set up on the outdoor stage, with tables spaced six feet apart for the relatively sparse crowd. The band was different from the old, familiar Family. Since the seventies, Willie has usually been surrounded by a large group of musicians, which in recent years has often included sons Lukas and Micah, and occasionally, daughters Paula and Amy. It’s a large, noisy carnival of chaos, and Willie takes pleasure in being the ringleader.

This night was a little different. Willie took the stage backed by only four players: drummer Billy English, bassist Kevin Smith, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, and, to his right, Bobbie. Her presence mattered even more than usual. They hadn’t played for a live audience since March 2020. And without Lukas on hand, there was no second guitarist to share the picker’s load, to play the solos, to take the spotlight for a couple numbers and rest the old man.

Bobbie stepped up. She dropped long piano runs into songs that
haven’t historically included them. She played solo tunes such as “Pine-top’s Boogie Woogie” that even hard-core Willie fans had seldom heard from the stage. Her playing was spirited and elegant, always hanging around the melody, hugging it, keeping it familiar. Willie, of course, was the opposite, going to places unknown. But he couldn’t have done that without her: without the loping chords she played on “Rainy Day Blues” that provided a tether for his supersonic guitar lines; without her open jazz chords that gave his vocals room to wander. He played “Still Is Still Moving to Me” the way he always has, ninety miles an hour, his voice racing ahead of the melody, his guitar kranging riffs he seemed to make up on the spot. But he always came back to where Bobbie was. And she was always there.

Willie’s daughter Paula was at the show that night. “It had been such a long time that they weren’t playing,” Paula said last fall, in a conversation for Texas Monthly’s podcast One by Willie. “And that was so hard on both of them. They’re used to seeing each other almost every day.

“So, it was a beautiful thing to see Aunt Bobbie, almost ninety-one, up there playing in these high, high heels, quick as a whip and not missing a beat. I asked my dad about it later, and about the way she played ‘Down Yonder’ that night. And he said, ‘Paula, she’s leading the band all over again.’ ”

This article first published online on March 10. It has since been updated and appeared in the May 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Willie’s Sister Was His Guiding Light.” Subscribe today.