Nice photo bomb by bassist Kevin Smith, at the Houston Rodeo.
Nice photo bomb by bassist Kevin Smith, at the Houston Rodeo.
Thanks, Willie Nelson & Family fan and music lover and friend Andy Bush for sharing this photo of himself with Mickey Raphael, taken today before tonight’s show.
The term sideman should not be considered as derogatory — it literally refers to the person to the side of the band’s front man. And when there’s chemistry between the two, the results can be magical.
There’s also Willie Nelson and Mickey Raphael, his harmonica player for more than 40 years.
Raphael started playing with Nelson in the early 1970s and he, along with drummer Paul English, have been touring with Nelson for more than four decades.
Nelson will be releasing his latest album, “God’s Problem Child,” in April. It features Raphael as well as one of the last performances of Nelson’s longtime collaborator, the late Leon Russell. The album’s first single, “A Woman’s Love,” can be purchased on iTunes.
Nelson over the years has honed his craft to create a sound that is distinct and instantly recognizable, from his weathered voice to his guitar tone, and Raphael’s playing has become a major component in Nelson’s signature sound.
When he’s not touring or recording with Nelson, Raphael is an in-demand studio musician. He’s recorded with everyone from Chris Stapleton to Blue Oyster Cult, Snoop Dogg and Emmylou Harris.
Raphael will be performing with Nelson and the rest of the “Family” at 8 p.m. Friday at the IP Casino Resort.
Q: You started playing with Willie when you were a young harmonica player. This is a guy who sings behind the beat and phrases his lyrics like a jazz musician. Did it take you a while to gel with him musically?
A: Man, I’m still trying to gel with him. It’s a challenge because it kind of goes against everything you know. His style is so unique to him so you have to really pay attention. I’ve had to learn to listen, what to listen for and to really pay attention. It’s better that you don’t play if you’re not sure than to fill in a hole and play something that might not be appropriate. His whole theory is “less is more,” so we just try to keep it really simple. There’s no set list. It’s all just his memory and whatever he feels like doing.
Q: Looking back, the “Family” really seemed to be killing it in the late 1970s — it was very loose and yet tight, almost like the Grateful Dead …
A: I need to go back and listen to some of that because I haven’t listened to it in a while. We had two drummers then. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for us to have a 10-piece band back then. There were times when Leon Russell was out with us playing piano. We even had two bass players for a minute there.
Q: The core of the “Family” was Bobbie (Nelson) on piano, Paul English on drums, Bee Spears on bass and Jody Payne on guitar. Bee died in 2011 and Jody died in 2013. Was it tough going on without them?
A: It was tough, but you just do it because we all realize that all you need up there is Willie and Trigger. Everything else is just kind of secondary. It was a lot easier with Jody and Bee there and I miss them, but the show is definitely going to go on. We’ve all kind of joked about it — we can all die off, but as long as Willie is up there with Trigger, you’re going to get a show.
Q: You’ve recorded and toured with Chris Stapleton. How’s that chemistry?
A: He’s got a great rhythm section and Mogane (Stapleton) is a great singer — their voices blend well together. It’s a real treat to play with them because it’s like playing with a blues band. Chris is such a rocking guitar player. It’s been a lot of fun to go out with him when Willie’s not on tour. One of the cool things is we would do these sound checks and rehearsals where we would just go in and jam for an hour or so. That’s one of the most fun parts of our day.
Q: I saw Chris last year and I saw Guns N Roses, both of which were amazing shows. You played with Chris when he opened for Guns N Roses in Nashville, which by default would have to be the rock show of the year. What was that experience like for you?
A: It was cool. It was a big stadium gig and Guns N Roses couldn’t have been nicer and more accommodating. It was a hometown crowd and I think we were well received. It was fun. It’s one of the highlights of my career.
Q: You’ve recorded with so many people over the years, from Motley Crue to Snoop Dogg. Anyone you want to work with that you haven’t?
A: I would love to work with Keith Richards — I’ve played with him but not on a record. I would love to work with Aretha Franklin and Drake Kendrick Lamar — anything out of the ordinary.
We did a gig with Common one time in Washington where it was upright bass, Common and me. It was for a TV show and I kind of got mixed from it. I would love to get more involved with the urban music scene because the rhythm is so great and the lyrics are great. I think harmonica could add to it.
Q: Some of my favorite performances of yours are “If I Only Had a Brain/Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from “Hand to Mouth” and your iconic solo on “Georgia,” which was produced by the great Booker T. Jones. What are some of your favorite cuts?
A: I really love the record “Teatro.” There aren’t really any iconic solos on it — no hot licks at all, really. I loved making that record with Daniel Lanois. It was cool.
“Across the Borderline” is another of my favorites and “Stardust,” of course. These were songs from the Great American Songbook and working with Booker T. was phenomenal.
The stuff we did with Wynton Marsalis was great, too — getting to play with him was really exciting.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great producers. There’s not a clunker in the bunch.
Q: Tell me about the “Mickey Raphael No. 1 Harmonica Player” T-shirt. I’ve been trying to order one online but they are always sold out of my size.
A: My girlfriend was digging through my closet and found like a 30-year-old T-shirt, a black T-shirt, that said “Mickey Raphael No. 1 Harmonica Player” and she pulled it out and said, “What is this?” We were going to play with Stapleton that night at the Ryman. I told her it was just some shirt a fan threw (onto the stage). She said she was going to wear it and I told her, “Well, that’s kind of embarrassing.”
She said, “No, people will like it.”
We got to the Ryman and everybody wanted one. Morgane (Stapleton) said if I would print them up, she would sell them on the road. There was an overwhelming response, but I didn’t want to get in the T-shirt business.
But if I did it, the shirt had to be 100 percent cotton and it had to be made in America.
I had bought a T-shirt that said “Listen to Townes Van Zandt” from a company called Midnight Rider — they do all of Waylon’s reissues.
So, I talked to them about it. I know it’s pricey, but the cost on that thing. I don’t think they’re making but like $10 a shirt. People have asked me to do a cheaper shirt, but I’m not in the T-shirt business. The company prints the shirts by hand — they are all made by hand.
Bono got one and told me it’s the most comfortable shirt he’s ever worn.
They send me 10 bucks a shirt and I send that money to charities like the Southern Poverty Law Center or Planned Parenthood.
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