Mickey Raphael


by Kasey Steinbrinck

Mickey Raphael spent most of the last four decades playing harmonica with a music icon. As part of what’s often called The Willie Nelson Family, Raphael and the Red Headed Stranger have created music both on and off the road.

That road, which Willie Nelson famously can’t wait to get back on, will bring him to the Fox Valley this weekend. Nelson and his band will take the stage at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in downtown Appleton on Saturday.

In a phone interview, Raphael admitted he feels fortunate to have spent his life doing something he loves. He said he was “just a kid” when he first met Nelson in 1973. At the time, Raphael was playing harmonica on tour with a musician named B.W. Stephenson, who was most famous for co-writing the song “My Maria.”

One night in Dallas, Raphael found himself playing harp in a jam session that included Willie Nelson and Charlie Pride. Nelson invited then-21-year-old Raphael to sit in during a performance in New York City, and he’s been part of the band ever since.

“I never was really hired. I was just never asked to leave,” Raphael said with a laugh.

While Willie Nelson is a living legend, he worked hard to earn his place in the music world. Early in his career, Nelson struggled to find a record label willing to sign him. He made a living in Nashville by writing songs for other artists such as Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and Ray Price. Then Nelson made a number of country albums with Nashville record producer Chet Atkins. However, most people are unfamiliar with those recordings.

Raphael joined forces with Nelson just about the time the outlaw country musician was gaining recognition from critics with the album “Shotgun Willie.”

But Raphael also has been able to breathe life into those early Willie Nelson recordings.

Released just last year, “Naked Willie” is one of Nelson’s most recent CDs. Raphael said he had an idea when the Beatles came out with “Let it Be … Naked” in 2003. Producer Phil Spector’s orchestrations were removed from the original Beatles’ album, leaving a version closer to what Paul McCartney had first intended. Raphael thought he could do the same with Nelson’s music from the ’60s.

“Chet Atkins produced this record and made a great record, but at the time everything in Nashville was recorded with background vocals and heavy strings,” said Raphael, who took on the task of essentially un-producing or de-producing the original recordings.

Raphael asked himself a question as he got to work.

“What if Willie had been the producer instead of Chet Atkins? Willie’s mantra is ‘less is more,’ and that’s kind of how I approached it.”

There is a noticeable difference in the effect of “Naked Willie” and “Let it Be … Naked.” Raphael points out that the Beatles’ songs on “Let it Be” had become ingrained in pop culture, and the new versions were hard for some fans to accept. In the case of “Naked Willie,” most fans were hearing the music with fresh ears.

When Raphael began playing with Nelson, he was partial to performing blues music as opposed to country. But Nelson’s music doesn’t fit into a specific box.

“Willie transcends all labels. You can’t say he’s a country artist,” Raphael said. “One minute he’ll be playing bluegrass the next jazz. It’s just good music. You can’t put a label on it.”

Some things on the road have changed since the ’70s, and some remain the same. These days Nelson travels in a bus fueled by bio-diesel from a company started by and named after the singer/songwriter. But Nelson still plays the same worn-out acoustic guitar affectionately named Trigger after Roy Rogers’ horse. As for Raphael, he’s blown through countless harmonicas over the years and hasn’t bothered to name them all.

Nelson’s longtime harp player describes his frontman as “an American classic,” pointing out how so many of the songs they’ve performed over the years have become part of the classic American songbook. Whether it’s “Crazy,” “Always on My Mind” or “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” Nelson’s songs leave lasting impressions.

Raphael said fans should expect to hear more than a few of those memorable tunes when the band hits the stage Saturday at the PAC. However, there’s never a clear-cut set list.

“We just play what we play,” he said. “You never know what we’re going to play.”

In addition to Nelson, Raphael has made music with artists including Elton John, Motley Crue and country stars Kenney Chesney and Vince Gill. He released a solo album in 1988 called “Hand to Mouth” and has been working on a project with the band Calixeco.


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