http://mankatofreepress.com by: Drew Lyon
— Mickey Raphael was never formally hired to join Willie Nelson’s band; he was just never asked to leave.
“Willie can’t get it together enough to fire anybody,” Raphael said. He is joking, of course; Nelson has fired members of his band during his more than half-century in the music business, and Raphael knows which side his bread is buttered on.
Raphael was only 21 when he met Nelson in 1972 in a late night, motel room jam session in their native Texas. Though not initially a country music fan — his tastes leaned more toward folk blues and rock ‘n’ roll — Raphael did own one Willie Nelson record and began appearing at Nelson’s regular jaunts around the Texas roadhouse circuit, playing harmonica when called upon.
“He told me to come and jam with them if they were playing around, and that’s exactly what I did,” he said. “Willie just piqued my interest. I loved his guitar playing; it’s so unique.”
Raphael wasn’t aware at the time, but he was gradually replacing Nelson’s steel guitarist, Jimmy Day. According to Raphael, it was several months into his probationary period before Nelson finally got around to inquiring how much money he was paying the new guy.
“Nothing,” replied longtime drummer Paul English.
“Fine, then double his salary,” Nelson quipped.
Raphael was soon drawing $50 a gig and has been toting his Hohner Marine Band harmonicas by Nelson’s side ever since, becoming a signature component of Nelson’s oeuvre. It’s difficult to hear one without thinking of the other.
“It’s never felt like a job playing with Willie,” Raphael said of his friend and the American icon he affectionately calls a “benevolent dictator.”
On Wednesday, Nelson and Family make their first Mankato appearance since the late 1990s in a headlining performance at Vetter Stone Amphitheater.
“I don’t mind being a sideman,” Raphael said from a recent tour stop in Kearney, Neb. “Willie gives you enough rope to hang yourself. I used to joke with him, ‘When do I get to stand in the middle?’ And he’d say, ‘Anytime you want.’”
Raphael, however, is quick to downplay his role. There are no showoffs in this band, he says; everyone subscribes to Nelson’s ‘less is more’ mantra.
“People come to see Willie, and we all know that,” he said. “He’s the only one you need up there — the rest of us are pretty much dispensable. Everything else is there to complement his voice and guitar.”
Nelson, 79, doesn’t pen a setlist before the show, Raphael says, but the audience can expect a bevy of timeless classics that have become a part of the American music canon: “Whiskey River,” “On the Road Again,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Funny How Time Slips Away, “Crazy” and “Nightlife,” respectively.
Some nights there’s a Hank Williams or Ray Charles tribute, others might showcase a coupling of Kris Kristofferson’s compositions. This year, Nelson has closed his 30-song set (he still plays about 130 nights a year) with his latest anthem, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a track from this year’s “Heroes” album.
“Willie’s always changing things up and keeping it fresh. We don’t know what he’s playing next, really,” said Raphael, who’s based in Nashville, Tenn. “He starts up the intro and we follow him. That’s what makes it fun.”
Raphael’s tenure with Nelson has opened many creative doors. He’s become an in-demand session player (he sometimes records his parts on a laptop in hotel rooms), collaborating with a diverse array of artists — Elton John, U2, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Motley Crue and … Snoop Dogg?
“Yeah, he was a real sweetheart, a very charming guy,” Raphael said of the hip-hop legend. “We hung out with him in Amsterdam a few years ago, and we cut a song in the studio — just Willie, me and Snoop — called ‘Superman.’”
But the road always leads back to Willie, who keeps Raphael busy with a steady touring and recording schedule. Raphael, in his words, “unproduced” a compilation of Nelson’s 1960s RCA recordings — ”Naked Willie,” recorded years before he grew out his hair and proclaimed his unbridled devotion to marijuana — stripping away the lush, string-laden overdubs to reveal Willie’s distinct vocals and guitar tone.
“I love what I do and I love playing with Willie,” Raphael said. “I never wanted a day job anyway.”
Near the end of the phone interview, Raphael, a cycling fanatic who’s friends with Minnesotan and former Tour de France winner Greg Lemond, posed his own question.
“Do you have any good bike trails there in Mankato?” he asked.
Yes, Mickey, we have plenty; in fact, there’s one next to the venue.
“Well, that’s a good sign,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”