The world has many star piano, guitar and saxophone players, but Texan Mickey Raphael has built his career as a sought-after player of a much more uncommon instrument: the harmonica.
Raphael — who plays the harmonica in the band of country/pop legend Willie Nelson — says he is mostly self-taught. Nelson and the band perform Saturday at the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, North Strabane.
Very few music instructors give harmonica lessons, says Raphael, who says he learned a lot from listening to other harmonica players. The instrument makes a fun, catchy sound, and its compact size comes in handy, he says.
“It’s just very expressive,” says Raphael, a Dallas native. “When I first heard it, it was one of those things that just really hit a chord with me.”
Raphael also has played his harmonica with other artists besides Nelson, including Vince Gill, Elton John, U2, Emmy Lou Harris, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and more. The famous harmonica solo in the Motley Crue song “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” also is Raphael’s.
He alternates his time between Nelson’s 130-city tour, and doing solo work. Raphael’s first solo album, “Hand to Mouth,” came out in 1988, and the record was so popular that it was re-released in 2000. Now, he is working on a new record, with the Tucson, Ariz.-based band Calexio backing him. The songs sound very “rhythmical and melodic,” Raphael says.
“Willie gives us the freedom to do whatever we want,” he says. “When I’m not playing with Willie, I’ve got a lot of different projects going. It just keeps us fresh when we do get back to playing with the band.
“I’m always constantly trying to learn new stuff and expose myself to new projects,” Raphael says.
He has been working with Nelson, who was unavailable for interviews, for 27 years.
“He’s an easy guy to get along with; he’s just a great guy to work for,” he says. “What you see is what you get. … He’s quirky, and very personable. Anything you see in his interviews, that’s the way he is. He’s very down-to-earth.”
People who come to Saturday’s concert can expect plenty of good music, with little dialogue in between songs, Raphael says. Nelson’s shows are spontaneous, and don’t follow any set list.
“He just plays whatever comes to the top of his head,” Raphael says. “He doesn’t sit there and talk to the audience, really; he just plays. It’s all about music. … You won’t hear any stories; it’s just one song after the next.”
Raphael says he loves seeing the enthusiastic, multi-generational crowd of fans at Nelson concerts.
“I’m just looking forward to coming there and playing to good crowds, and a good audience,” he says. “Looking out in the audience, you see kids and their grandparents out there. We’ve been very fortunate and very lucky.”