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Willie Nelson’s ‘Little Sister’ Bobbie dead at 91

"Little Sister" Bobbie Nelson at the piano.
Wikimedia Commons
"Little Sister" Bobbie Nelson at the piano.

“She wasn't second fiddle to anyone,” says a longtime friend of the pianist and vocalist who performed with her brother for decades.

From Texas Standard:

Bobbie Nelson began playing the piano at age 5 and never stopped. The Texas musician spent decades performing alongside her brother Willie in the Willie Nelson Family band.

Nelson was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, collaborated and toured with her brother and released solo music, including her album, “Audiobiography.” Nelson was reportedly surrounded by family at the time of her death.

KUTX host Jody Denberg, who was a friend of Bobbie’s, spoke with Texas Standard about her legacy and impact on Texas music.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How are you? I know you and Bobbie were friends. You spent time with her just this last December. 

Jody Denberg: I'm sad, like so many others. Knowing that she had been in ill health for a while, it didn't come as a total surprise that she left us yesterday. But I'm sad, and at the same time grateful for her great career and grateful for her as a human being. She was really grounded in a spirituality that came out of her life. She lost two of her three sons in the late ‘80s. I think it really gave her a spirituality, a grounding that came out through her music, even though her music was great before that as well.

Bobbie Nelson was playing gigs across Central Texas before Willie had even moved back. She was quite the accomplished pianist, wasn’t she?

As you know, even though Willie called her “Little Sister,” she was two years older than Willie Nelson. I asked him once why he called her “Little Sister,” and he said, “Because I'm bigger than she is.”

But when she was 6 years old, he sat next to her on the piano bench at age 4 and that was the genesis of their musical relationship. They were raised, in part, by their grandparents, and although the church played into their musical knowledge, it was their grandparents who took them to church. So both of those things fed into their musical relationship.

Is there any truth to the story that in the ‘60s or ‘70s, when Willie Nelson hit a really rough patch in life, that Bobbie actually convinced him to move back to Texas?

That's factual; it's not apocryphal. Bobbie was in Central Texas, she was doing various things – demonstrating Hammond organs and selling keyboards and also playing music at restaurants. And Willie was actually in New York around 1973, recording with Jerry Wexler, and he phoned Bobbie in Texas and asked her to come up to New York City to do the sessions for the “Troublemaker” album, for “Phases and Stages.” And then Bobbie invited Willie to come back to Texas from New York, and he did it after careful consideration.

I've heard that Bobbie didn't release her own solo album until she was in her 70s. Is that right? 

She put out the album called “Audiobiography,” and it was a solo record and it was essentially a piano record. She did a lot of standards: “Stardust,” “The House of Blue Lights,” “Down Yonder”, which was her concert set piece for so many years. She bookended the record with two vocal songs that Willie lent his voice to. But that was the first time that she stepped out into the limelight by herself.

That was really a time when many of us got to know Bobbie personally and know the woman behind the hat, behind the piano on stage, in the corner, for so many years – where I think she was very happy. She wasn't second fiddle to anyone. When Bobbie stepped out, either for “Down Yonder” or just for a solo or to support what the band was doing, she was integral to Willie Nelson and the Family band.

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Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
Leah Scarpelli joined Texas Standard in September 2015 from NPR’s Morning Edition, where she spent seven years as a producer, director and occasional reporter of music and arts pieces. As Texas Standard director, Leah is responsible for the overall practical and creative interpretation of each day’s program: choosing segue music, managing the prep of show content, and providing explicit directions for the host and technical director during the live broadcast. She graduated from Ithaca College in New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Television and Radio. She enjoys riding her Triumph motorcycle and getting out for hikes in the Texas countryside. Her late grandfather was from Yoakum.
David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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