Country music pioneer Bobbie Lee Nelson — the sister of Willie Nelson, and a vaunted pianist in her own right — died Thursday at age 91. Her death was announced by her family via social media. They did not reveal the cause of her death, but said that she had died “peacefully and surrounded by family.”
Nelson was the first member of her younger brother’s band, performing as a pianist and singer. Like her brother, she grew up in Abbott, Texas, where they were raised by their gospel music-loving grandparents. Their parents, Myrle and Ira, divorced early; Myrle left when Willie was six months old, and Ira departed soon after, handing the children to the care of their paternal grandparents.
Born Jan. 1, 1931, Bobbie Nelson learned to play the piano by reading four-part shape-note harmonies in hymn books. And she fell in love with boogie-woogie, which she played for her school classmates.
In his 2015 autobiography, It’s a Long Story: My Life, Willie Nelson wrote: “Bobbie became accomplished at an early age. I lagged behind — and remain so to this day. Bobbie is a musician in the true sense of being able to play with great facility in any style. She learned to read beautifully and was known far and around Hill County as a genuine piano prodigy.”
By age 16, Nelson had fallen in love with and quickly married a man named Bud Fletcher, who recognized the siblings’ talent. Despite having no musical skills himself, Fletcher built a band called Bud Fletcher and The Texans featuring the siblings, with the Nelsons’ father playing rhythm guitar. And because she was with her family, Bobbie Nelson was able to slip into bars to play — a scandalous situation for a young woman.
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SOURCE: NPR, Anastasia Tsioulcas