Willie Nelson joined Merle Haggard and the Strangers and rehearsed some new songs in the afternoon before the show last night.
The band’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, joined up while still in his early 20s. Now he’s 63, and still on tour with Willie Nelson and Family, which returns Feb. 2 to play the Wells Fargo Center for the 10th time since 1989.
A Texas native who now lives in Nashville and works steadily as a recording session musician when not touring with Nelson, Raphael is a harmonica master with a long list of credits. Raphael took a few minutes recently to talk by phone about Willie, the road, harmonicas and music.
Q: Exactly how long have you been with the Willie Nelson band?
A: I started in ’73, so I’ve been with ’em more than 41 years.
Q: But you’ve done a lot of other work, too?
A: Well, I do recording sessions, so I play on other people’s records. When you play an instrument, you have to play in all genres. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be limited to where I would just play with Willie. My vocabulary is a lot wider, but Willie is my first love, so to speak.
Q: How hard is it to shift gears and play with somebody else who’s very different from Willie?
A: Well, that’s kinda what I do. I try to be good at fitting in with other genres and working with other kinds of music. I played with Motley Crue, and that’s not something I do every day. They wanted a particular sound that I did and they used it on “Smokin’ in the Boys Room.”
Q: How did your collaboration with Elton John come about?
A: I think he had heard me play on “Stardust,” and he wanted that particular sound. People hear me play with Willie, and they want to adapt that sound to their music.
Q: Harmonica is often stereotyped as a blues instrument, but obviously you’re doing a lot more than that.
A: I never was a blues player. That’s the least amount of work that I get. There are some great players out there, like Charlie Musselwhite.
Q: Charlie lives in Sonoma County.
A: Yeah, I see him when I come out there.
Q: When you play harmonica, how do you balance blending in as accompaniment and then taking your solo moments?
A: A lot of it’s spontaneous. It depends on who you’re playing with. The deal is, you don’t play all the time with the harmonica. It’s another voice, so you wouldn’t be talking all the time, when somebody else is talking. You have to pick and choose your spots to play, and that’s 60 percent of it, right there – knowing when to play and when not to play, which is just as important as knowing what notes to play.
Q: You make that sound simple and logical, but it probably takes a lifetime of experience.
A: It really does. It takes a lifetime time of playing too much — well, hopefully not a lifetime. Once you get that level of confidence, you don’t need to show off. Very early on, people hipped me to the fact that less is more.
Q: Who were those people?
A: Well, Willie always said less is more. I spent a little time with Miles Davis, and he would say the same thing. He said, “What’s important is the space between the notes.”
Q: Are there other people who influenced you along the way?
A: I’ve been able to play a little bit with Paul Simon, and he’s been very influential. Wynton Marsalis was one of the biggest influences. I didn’t have a jazz background, but we did a couple of projects with him and Willie that were Ray Charles songs and some blues numbers. Playing with Marsalis’ band was exciting.
Q: Are there songs you look forward to playing at every show? You mentioned “Stardust.”
A: I do a solo on “Georgia” with Willie. That’s fun.
Q: Are there new things you want to try that you haven’t done so far?
A: I’m producing a boxed set of Highwaymen songs for Sony. It’s the audio for a live show that was filmed in 1990. The Highwaymen are Willie, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. I remixed the music for the DVD and three CDs. It sounds so good with today’s technology.
Q: Anything else?
A: I’ve been writing and recording with (early rock and roll guitarist) Duane Eddy. We’re working on a soundtrack sort of feel. We don’t have a movie for it yet. It comes from our imaginations.
Q: How much time do you spend on the road with Willie and his band?
A: We did 99 cities last year, which is pretty light for us. We used to average about 130. We’re slowing down a little bit. This is only a 10-day trip this time around.
Q: What’s your outlook for the future?
A: We just wish Willie the best of health. He’s pretty healthy. He’s 81 and still going strong. He is very mellow. I wish I could have that kind of attitude about life.