Lana Nelson shared this photo of Willie Nelson and Family at the Aalborg Kongress & Kulturcenter, in Aalborg, Denmark on April 25, 2008.
Lana Nelson shared this photo of Willie Nelson and Family at the Aalborg Kongress & Kulturcenter, in Aalborg, Denmark on April 25, 2008.
Thanks to Jenny Begley Bransford for sharing her photos from the Willie Nelson & Family show at the Granada Theater in Dallas.
“The great and talented Mickey Raphael. I had the honor of seeing him with Willie Nelson & Family at Granada Theater in Dallas a couple of weeks ago. Front row captures…so blessed.”
Red Rocks 2010
Mickey Raphael #1 Harmonica Player shirt, sold exclusiviely at
I believe Mickey is donating portion of sales to a good cause.
photo: Ebet Roberts
by: Robert Crawford
A member of Willie Nelson’s band since 1973, Mickey Raphael has become one of the most celebrated harmonica players in country music, bending notes for everyone from Chris Stapleton to Jason Isbell along the way. Talking with podcast host Chris Shiflett during this week’s episode of Walking the Floor, he shares highlights from more than four decades of countrified close encounters, from the Texas picking party where he first met Shotgun Willie to the California tour stop that found him sitting in the backseat of Neil Young’s Cadillac, chauffeured around San Jose by the Crazy Horse front man himself.
Theatre, hours before a Willie Nelson performance this past October. Stream the entire conversation below. We’ve also rounded up several highlights, from the name of Willie Nelson’s next record – an album that has yet to be officially announced – to unknown guests on the country legend’s tour bus.
Mickey Raphael was introduced to Willie Nelson not by a fellow musician, but by Coach Darrell Royal, who led the Texas Longhorns to nearly a dozen Southwest conference titles between 1957 and 1976.
The year was 1972. At the time, Raphael was gigging with B.W. Stevenson, whose “My Maria” would eventually become a Grammy-winning hit for Brooks & Dunn. Stevenson’s tour schedule often took the band through Austin, where Coach Royal – a genuine music fan, apparently – caught wind of Raphael’s talent. One day, the coach reached out, inviting Raphael to a picking party that he was throwing in his hotel room after a weekend game.
“I was 20 years old,” remembers Raphael, who brought along his harmonicas. When he arrived, Nelson was already at the party. The two played several songs together that afternoon, with Raphael earning a crucial invitation – “Willie said, ‘Hey, if you ever hear we’re playing somewhere, come sit in,'” he remembers – before the picking party was over.
Nelson never officially hired Raphael to play in his band. He just never asked him to stop showing up.
As early as 1973, Raphael was traveling in his own car to Nelson’s gigs, sitting in with the band whenever he could. He was just a guest at first, although he quickly became an indispensable part of the band’s sound. Even so, the harmonica wiz never received any sort of grand introduction into the inner circle of Nelson’s touring lineup.
“One day,” he remembers, “Willie says to Paul [English, the singer’s longtime drummer], ‘What are we paying Mickey?’ And Paul goes, ‘Nothing. He’s just coming to sit in.’ And Willie goes, ‘Double his salary.’ I tell people I wasn’t officially hired; I was just never asked to leave.”
Raphael first joined Nelson in the studio for 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, an album that was so sparse, the executive at Columbia Records thought it was a demo.
“[Nelson] basically had these songs written on a napkin,” says Raphael, who took the band to the same Dallas studio where he’d been doing regular work as a session musician, “and we just set up in a circle in the studio, and he’d be playing them, and that record is so sparse because we’re really just hearing them for the first time. There’s barely anything. . . The label said it was a good demo, and they wanted to put strings on it, and Willie said, ‘No, this is the record.'”
Producer Dave Cobb deserves credit for first introducing Raphael to Chris Stapleton, whose live shows often feature the harmonica wiz.
Raphael had already played harmonica on several of Cobb’s projects when the producer asked him to join a relatively unknown songwriter named Chris Stapleton in the studio. Those sessions spawned Traveller, Stapleton’s blockbuster solo debut. They also landed Raphael one of his most high-profile touring gigs. Now, whenever holes arise in Willie Nelson’s touring schedule, Raphael generally hits the road with Stapleton, although he readily admits the band sounds just fine without him.
That said, don’t expect Willie Nelson’s touring schedule to slow down anytime soon.
“He loves it,” says Raphael, who still plays more than 100 shows a year with Nelson. “He likes the connection with the audience. Somebody asked him one time, ‘When are you gonna retire?’ And he said, ‘All I do is play golf and play music. Which one am I supposed to quit?’
Nelson continues releasing new albums at a rapid rate, too, with a new record – the unannounced, unconfirmed God’s Problem Child – apparently in the can. That said, with all the commotion generated by a consistent touring schedule and, presumably, a healthy cannabis intake, there’s still plenty of room for the unexpected.
“There was a guy that rode our bus years ago that nobody even knew,” Raphael remembers with a laugh. “It was like, ‘I thought he was with you.’ ‘No, I thought he was your friend!'”
HUNTSVILLE, AL. – Darrell Royal, the Texas Longhorns’ winningest football coach, is surely proud.
He’s got to be proud about this year’s football team even though the ‘Horns finished second to Alabama in the BCS title game.
But he must also feel good about another special recruit – actually, the only guy he recruited in the 1960s and ’70s who’s still playing.
His name? Mickey Raphael.
His position? Harmonica in the Willie Nelson Band.
Royal, one of legendary Alabama Coach Bear Bryant’s biggest rivals back in the ’70s, recruited a lot of great football players, but he also found a great harmonica player for Nelson’s band 36 years ago. Raphael will be performing Tuesday night when Willie Nelson and his band play at the Von Braun Center.
“I’m not an athlete and not really a sports fan, but Darrell was such a patron of the arts and loved music and musicians,” Raphael said during a phone interview from Baton Rouge, where he was performing with Nelson. “In fact, he recruited me for Willie’s band.
“He (Royal) had a great ear for music and musicians. If somebody was singing, he would say, ‘Shush.’ He’d make you be quiet or leave the room.”
Raphael was born and raised in Texas and fell in love with the harmonica after seeing harmonica great Don Brooks at a Dallas coffeehouse. Brooks even gave him some pointers, and soon Raphael was playing with B.W. Stevenson (who sang “My Maria”).
Royal was a fan of Raphael’s harp, and when he found out the musician was going to be in Dallas, asked him to a post-game party in a Dallas hotel in 1973. Royal told him there would be about 30 people there, including Nelson and country legend Charlie Pride.
“I had met Charlie before,” Raphael said. “I had only heard one of Willie’s albums, but it piqued my interest.”
Nelson and Pride took turns passing the guitar around and singing in an informal jam, and Raphael jumped in from time to time with his harmonica. He was amazed when he heard Nelson in person.
“Willie’s music isn’t just simple country songs; there’s more substance,” Raphael said. “I was in awe the whole time. Willie told me afterward to come sit in with the band anytime.”
Raphael watched where Nelson was playing, and a few months later joined him for a firemen’s benefit at a local gym near Dallas. That night, he had a late breakfast at a truck stop with Nelson and was just about ready to leave when he decided to have one more cup of coffee.
That’s when Raphael got his big break.
“Willie said, ‘Why don’t you come to New York with me in a couple of months? We’re going to play Max’s Kansas City,'” Raphael remembered. “So I went up there and played with Willie.
“Of course, you have to be a good musician to get in the door, but there are lot of great musicians out there. You have to be at the right place at the right time.”
Raphael said he’s enjoyed his career with Nelson. He released a solo project in 1988, “Hand to Mouth,” that was re-released in 2000. Last year, he and Nelson released “Naked Willie,” a collection of songs Nelson recorded between 1966 and ’70 that Raphael helped “un-produce” and give a new sound. He’s also the only member of the band who plays on Nelson’s upcoming release, an old-country style album.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Raphael said of his career with Nelson. “I take none of it for granted. Willie is a great musician, and it’s different every night.”
photo: Danny Clinch
by: Frank Stewart
INTERVIEW: Willie Nelson Family Band Harmonica Player, Mickey Raphael
Just a few weeks ago, the TMO caught up with Texan harmonica player, Mickey Raphael via phone from Raphael’s current home in Nashville. Although Raphael is well known for being a 40-plus year member of Willie Nelson’s Family band, his virtuoso harp playing can also be heard on projects as disparate as recordings from Chris Stapleton, Elton John, U2, and Motley Crew. Please enjoy part 1 of an enlightening conversation where Raphael recalls his early inspirations, Coach Darrell Royal’s introduction to Willie, and how he came so very close to being the Rolling Stones’ opening act in 1973.
TMO: Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Last month, we kicked off the newsletter with an interview with audio engineering legend Rupert Neve, right before his 80th birthday.
Raphael: “Yeah I read that. That was pretty cool. I even use one of his pieces of gear that I take (on the road) with me…I’ve got one of his mic pre’s (pre-amps) that I use.”
TMO: I coincidentally saw one of those online yesterday, and immediately wanted to get one.
Raphael: “Are you a musician?”
TMO: I play bass…and a little drums.
Raphael: “I don’t know how you’d use a pre on bass, but it’s a half-rack space, about 2 inches high, and it’s got 1 channel out, with an A and a B side. So you can mix the 2 signals.
“I use a really nice ribbon mic that I play directly into the PA. I’ll go into the pre, so I have a little more control of the gain, and we just take a direct out of it, and we can actually go out of the pre into an amp, that I may or may not mic on stage. It works well for me. I do a lot of one-offs…like my recent one-offs with Chris Stapleton. So I’ll just fly to the gig with harmonicas and a mic, and a pre, and they just punch me into the PA, and we’re done.”
TMO: That’s nice. That’s convenient. All of Neve’s stuff sounds amazing too.
Raphael: “Yeah…I think so.” (Then jokingly) “Oh…I thought it was me who sounded amazing. OK.”
TMO: (laughs) Well, you know…it’s likely the combination.
Let’s start off by going backwards. I tried to do some research, and saw that you came up in the Dallas area. And I thought it was fascinating that in your bio, you mention that one of your initial inspirations was harmonica player Don Brooks. And so we were just curious how you met him? And was harmonica your first instrument?
Raphael: “As a teenager, I loved music, and I wanted to play guitar, but I wasn’t any good. And I would go to this little folk club called the Rybaiyat on the weekends when I was barely old enough to drive.
“And hanging out there on weekends, and going to see the different players there, I was going there as much as I could. I met Donny. And he kinda sat down with me. He was the first real harmonica player I’d ever met. And he showed me how to play a diatonic scale, just the pattern that denotes the fifth…and how to work my way around the harmonica to makes some sense out of the thing.
“And then I would just play by myself all the time. But he was the first guy that sat me down and showed me the little combinations. You know, it’s like playing a lick. If you had this lick, and you could play it in every key just by sliding up the neck. The lick is the same in the key of C or the key of G…you just switch harps…”
TMO: Kinda like an open tuning, playing with a slide.
TMO: Was the Rubyiat in Dallas proper?
Raphael: “Yes. It was in Dallas. The first (location) was on McKinney. It was just a tiny little club. It has a little stage, and about 2 rows of chairs. And I don’t know how many people it sat. That’s where I met Guy Clark. I was probably 19.”
TMO: Wow. That’s crazy. It sounds like it wasn’t long after that you met Willie Nelson, introduced by University of Texas at Austin football coach Darrell Royal. And you do talk a little bit about it in your website’s bio, and I’m sure you’ve talked about it in previous interviews, but for our audience, could you talk about this almost mythic story of how you met Willie? And how you were introduced by Coach Royal at a party?
Raphael: “At that time, I don’t think I was 21 yet, but I was playing withBW Stephenson, who was from Dallas. So that was my gig. He had a record deal on RCA, we were traveling, going down and playing the folk music clubs in Austin: Soap Creek. Saxon Pub. We had a presence in Austin, even though we traveled all over the country. So we played in Austin and the Coach was such a fan of music and a patron of the arts, I imagine that’s where he (first) heard me play.
“So I get a call. I was trying to think of this yesterday. I don’t remember if it was from Darrell or Edith Royal. Or Merlin Littlefield, who was a friend of theirs who worked at RCA at the time. And they said, ‘Coach Royal is in town for a ball game. And he’s having a pickin’ party after the game. He’d like for you to come over. Bring some harmonicas; he’d like to meet you…you know, hang out, and just jam with his friends.’
“And so I said, ‘Cool.’ I wasn’t a big football fan. Being a musician, I was a terrible athlete. Of course I knew who he was, but I wasn’t such a big football fan. I wasn’t planning on going to the game, in other words. But I had the utmost respect for him.
“So I went over there (to the Royal’s party). Willie was there. I knew very little about country music. I did actually have one Willie record, because we were on RCA, with BW. And I’d gone through their vault, with all their records, and I found this album of Willie’s called ‘Willie and Family.’ And the cover was just so unique that I thought, ‘I gotta take this,’ and find out who this guy was. It was just Willie and the band, and all their families, standing around a bonfire at Willie’s farm in Ridgetop. And it was just such a weird album cover. So I kinda knew a little bit who he was.”
TMO: By the way, TMO Director Brendon Anthony just pulled up the album cover and it’s almost mystical looking. I can see how that piqued your interest.
Raphael: “Yeah, you can even see Bee Spears, our bass player. And if you look at the guy, he’s wearing black socks and what looks like a fuzzy jockstrap. I mean, I don’t know what it is. It’s a collar wrapped around him and he’s not wearing any pants. And then there’s one guy that just walked in out of the woods! They didn’t even know who he was! Just probably showed up there. Really go through that album cover and look at it. It’s like, ‘who are all these people? We never could figure out who this one guy was.’ It’s like, ‘What the Hell?’