Interviews

Longtime Willie Nelson bandmate talks about life on the road with Willie

By Ryan Gueningsman
Herald Journal

Even after traveling with the man for almost 40 years, Mickey Raphael is still a fan of Willie Nelson.

And, despite never being officially asked to join (or leave) Nelson’s band, Raphael has withstood the test of time and has been a fixture on the road and on Nelson’s music for 39 years.

Raphael was there for the “Outlaw Movement,” the Farm Aid concerts, and the “IRS Tapes,” and he helped produce “Naked Willie” in 2009, which was a 17-track collection that “un-produced” a series of songs that Nelson recorded between 1966-1970 to retrieve the original sound – to hear them “naked.”

Nowadays, the Dallas, TX native spends a lot of time on the road with Willie Nelson and Family, working out and riding his bike in any downtime that comes his way.

“I go to the gig around 3 and we do a little sound check and then we play the gig,” Raphael said. “It’s pretty boring, actually. Willie shows up at show time and we play the gig and we leave directly after the show.”

Last year, Willie Nelson and Family did about 130 cities. This year, the musicians and crew are doing two weeks on, then two weeks off.

Nelson’s newest offering, “Heroes,” the first of five new albums as part of a record deal with Legacy Records, was released in May and features new songs, as well as several classics. Guests on the project range from Merle Haggard (Winstock 2000), Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Crow, and Lucas and Micah Nelson.

Raphael said Willie Nelson and company are doing several new songs from the “Heroes” album in the current concert set list.

He said fans can expect to hear “A Horse Called Music,” and also a special ending to Nelson’s set with a song called “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me.”

“It’s incredible,” Raphael said of the closing number, adding that it is a very reflective song. Like many things over the past decades, it continually builds on Nelson’s ability to stay relevant in his own unique way.

Much like the continued progression of his sound and musical stylings over the years, Raphael said Nelson has always been one to push the envelope a bit.

“Very few people have just a harmonica player,” Raphael said. “A lot of bands have fiddle players and steel players, which is great, but Willie’s always been one to take a risk and, when he hired me in 1973, Waylon (Jennings) had a guy playing harmonica – Donny Brooks, who is just a brilliant player and actually my mentor. But, people just didn’t do that. It’s just a whole different sound.”

Raphael had the opportunity to not only hear Brooks, but meet and learn from the talented musician when he was just a teenager.

“I was aware of him when I got interested in the harmonica,” Raphael said. “I saw him play one night in a little club and he just blew me away.”

With that, Raphael knew he had to learn how to play.

“Then after I started playing for a little bit, and I met him, he sat down and showed me some stuff,” Raphael said.

Several years later, Raphael was part of BW Stevenson’s band, which had been touring for several years and had released several albums. The band had a fan in University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, who is responsible for introducing Raphael to Nelson

“Darrell was a close friend of Willie’s, and there was a ballgame in Dallas. After the game, he would have like a little party in his hotel suite with a bunch of different singers and they’d just pass the guitar around,” Raphael said. “Coach had about 30 of his friends in there, and Willie was one of the guys that would be there.”

The football coach had someone call Raphael and invite him (and his harmonicas) to the party and jam with the group. At the jam session, Nelson told Raphael that if he ever happened to be in the area where Nelson was performing to come sit in with him sometime.

“I wasn’t a fan of country, but I really liked Willie,” Raphael said. “I started checking it out where he was playing and would just show up and sit in the band, and it just kind of segued into full time.”

Even though he has been touring with Nelson and playing on his records for the last 30-plus years, Raphael said he was never formally asked to be part of the band.

“He never invited me,” Raphael said. “He just never asked me to leave.”

Raphael relocated from Dallas to Nelson’s homebase of Austin. In 1973, Nelson wasn’t touring a lot, but had just recorded his first Atlantic Records album, “Shotgun Willie”

Twelve years before Nelson and Raphael met, Nelson had his breakthrough as a songwriter in 1961 when “Hello Walls” became a hit for Faron Young, and Patsy Cline’s version of the Nelson-penned “Crazy” became an instant classic. However, Nelson struggled through the rest of the ‘60s to get that next big break. He moved back to Texas in 1972, and things began to change musically for him as he became enticed by the rock and folk music becoming popular in Austin, according to his official biography.

In the mid-70s, the breakthrough he had been seeking for the better part of the last two decades became imminent with 1973’s “Shotgun Willie” and 1974’s “Phases and Stages.”

“Red Headed Stranger” became a hit, and Nelson found himself suddenly at the top of the country music scene. Nelson’s style of music, plus the concurrent popularity of Waylon Jennings, prompted journalist Hazel Smith to call the trend the “Outlaw Movement,” and the rest is history.

Raphael has been with Nelson since for every step of the way. Nelson’s biography calls the harmonica player Nelson’s sidekick, and Raphael said playing with Nelson is all he really knows professionally.

“I don’t know, I don’t have anything else to compare it to,” Raphael said with a laugh when asked about playing with someone of Nelson’s mystique. “It’s great. He’s a great guy to work with. I’m a fan, so it’s always fun to play with him.”

Raphael has done some solo work over the years, including “Hand to Mouth,” which was released in 1988 and re-released in 2000. He is also working on a record with a group called Calexico, which is based in Tucson.

“I just really don’t have the time that I need to get another project,” Raphael said

“We have five songs written and recorded [for Calexico], but I’m so busy here when I get home, working with other people, that I really haven’t been able to concentrate on my own.”

In Nashville, Raphael does session work for a number of artists, including the Randy Rogers Band, Jamey Johnson, and Kenny Chesney. As a listener, Raphael said Jack White, The Civil Wars, Randy Rogers Band, Eric Church, and Chesney are all among his favorites.

“Of course I love George Jones and Merle Haggard and Waylon, but I try to keep current,” Raphael said.

When it comes to performing live, Raphael said he doesn’t prefer one venue type over another.

“I’d much rather not be playing when it’s 110 degrees and 100 percent humidity,” he said. “We’re right there, and so are the fans, and they have to put up with the elements like we do.”

Raphael said what’s good about touring with Nelson is that its different every day.

“I like the theatres; I like the outdoor venues,” he said, specifically noting there are other bands at festivals that he gets to see that he hasn’t seen in a while and hear new music he otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to go hear. He said he is friends with the band members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and was glad to hear they are also on the Winstock lineup.

One thing Raphael notices about the Midwest when he gets up this way is the friendliness of the people.

“When we’ve always played the fairs up there, people are always so nice,” Raphael said. While he is in Minnesota, he may look up his friend Greg LeMond, who is a Tour de France winner.

“I’m a cyclist, so I’m a big fan of his,” Raphael said of the Medina-area resident. “I’m going to try to see if he’s in town and maybe we can go ride.”

Much like the rides he takes on his bicycle, touring with Nelson has been one amazing ride for Raphael.

“I’m just very fortunate to be doing something that I love doing,” Raphael said. “I don’t take it for granted.”

Mickey Raphael will perform with Willie Nelson at the 19th annual Winstock Country Music Festival Friday, June 8 at 8:40 p.m.

For more information on Winstock, visit www.winstockfestival.com, or call 888-946-7865.

For more information on Willie Nelson visit www.willienelson.com

Ryan Gueningsman is at ryan@heraldjournal.com.