by: Michael Franklin
Harmonica legend Mickey Raphael has been with Willie Nelson and Family for over 39 years. If you’ve seen Willie perform either live or on television in that time (and you have), chances are Mickey was standing right next to him. That iconic harmonica solo on “Georgia On My Mind”? That’s Mickey Raphael. The harmonica work on “Red Headed Stranger”? That’s Mickey, too. The earbusting harp solo on Motley Crue’s “Smokin’ In The Boys Room”? That’s Mickey. He’s worked with everyone from Elton John to Neil Young to U2.
On May 9, I had the opportunity to speak with him on his way to a Willie Nelson gig in West Virginia.
Michael: So how’s the tour going?
Mickey: It’s going good.
Michael: Leon Russell was here at our new venue (Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center) two weeks ago and I tried to get an interview but couldn’t get it done.
Mickey: Oh yeah, I love Leon. I don’t know how to track him down, though.
Michael: I was just watching a YouTube video of you playing with Leon … “Heartbreak Hotel,” I believe it was, in the late ‘70s…
Mickey: A long time ago…
Michael: I was looking at some old pictures of you in the 1970s and then some recent ones and I have to tell you that you look younger now than you did then. What’s the secret?
Mickey: Oh, well, no drugs, I think. I just try to take good care of myself, you know?
Michael: So you don’t have a painting getting old in the attic?
Mickey: It’s not in the attic, yeah.
Michael: I hear you have a Nashville gig coming up in June with an orchestra. Is that an orchestra-only gig or is it also with the band?
Mickey: That’ll be with Willie and the orchestra the first half and the second half will be the regular Willie and Family show.
Michael: Hey, do me a favor. Can you get Willie to do “I Am The Forest”? Do you remember that one?
Mickey: Yeah, he doesn’t remember those things after he does them. He really doesn’t. … You know, I can’t get him to do anything, man. At 79 years old, if I told him to do “On The Road Again,” he wouldn’t. He’s earned the spot where he does exactly what he wants.
Michael: He’s earned it.
Mickey: Yeah. But that is a great song, I forgot about that. I’ll just have to kind of … plant that.
Michael: Do you have a particular favorite Willie tune?
Mickey: I like that song “I Never Cared For You.” I like the rhythm to that … and I like the old stuff from the ’60s. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this record I did called “Naked Willie.” I just love the songs from that era, you know? The songs are so good, if we could just strip it down to just the basic band … and it sounds like he recorded it last week. That was my goal.
Michael: Any plans for a Volume 2?
Mickey: Well … not yet. It’s just really hard to take those strings off because a lot of times they were recorded in the same room. They were only using two tracks or something like that, so the strings are in everything, in the vocals … and those were most of the songs we could find that we were able to take apart.
Michael: My favorite track on that is “The Ghost.” What is that, a minute and a half long? Who else can pull off something that poetic in less than two minutes?
Mickey: Yeah, it’s amazing. A lot of people don’t really know about that record, but if you’re a diehard Willie fan … that, and “Teatro” is also one of my favorite records.
Michael: Tell me a little about your solo recording. Are you working on something now?
Mickey: I’ve been working on four or five songs with this band called Calexico. They’re from Tucson, I’m a big fan of them. And Joey Burns, he’s the main writer and singer, he and I wrote the songs and we went into their studio when I was in Tucson. They would just kick off some interesting rhythms and melodies and we put some tracks down. So we’ve got four or five songs cut. I’ve just been so busy with Willie that I haven’t done any more.
Michael: Linda at stillisstillmoving.com told me about a track with Bill Evans? Is that right?
Mickey: Oh yeah, Bill played on one of the tracks. I take the hard drives with me ’cause they’re so small, and I was in Connecticut and Bill, who played sax with Miles Davis in the ’80s, I asked him to play on one of the songs. And I played on his last record.
Michael: I’m a big Miles Davis fan. My thesis was on “Bitches Brew.”
Mickey: No kidding. That’s a great one. … How do you know about Miles?
Michael: I went to WKU and I guess that’s when I was introduced to Miles Davis.
Mickey: How old are you? You’re younger than me, aren’t you?
Michael: I’m almost 45.
Mickey: Oh, you’re just a baby.
Michael: I look older than you do. So would you consider Willie the Miles Davis of country?
Mickey: Yes, what I’ve learned and gleaned from him musically is that less is more, and what’s important is the space between the notes is as important as what you play. What you don’t play is as important as what you do. … I spent a little time with Miles. Miles was a fan of Willie’s and he spent a whole week with us in Vegas, sitting on the side of the stage every night. I had him to my house for dinner when I lived in California and without picking him apart too much, I got tips from him. And basically, it’s what you don’t play that’s as important as what you do.
Michael: His reputation was somewhat … prickly.
Mickey: Yes, even so with me, too. He’d be my best friend one minute and my worst enemy the next. (laughs)
Michael: Genius works that way. How long have you been with Willie now?
Mickey: 39 years.
Michael: Shouldn’t you be getting your own “Me and Paul” song by now?
Mickey: Or at least a watch or something.
Michael: I have a couple more questions. … What’s it like in the studio with Snoop Dogg?
Mickey: We were in the studio with him in Amsterdam. You know, he was a sweetheart. While we were recording, he was watching the ballgame, watching the Lakers play on his computer. And we’d go into the studio and he had something he wanted Willie to sing on and we just cut that song “I Ain’t Superman” just with Willie and the guitar and Snoop singing along with him. And it was cool, you know. He’s just very down-to-earth and …very sweet and very respectful of Willie. He was charming. I was really impressed. And then we saw him play at Glastonbury, we went on before him at the Glastonbury Festival, and he was amazing. Then we played with him on “Letterman.” Did you ever see that?
Michael: I did see that, yeah.
Mickey: It’s on my website. It’s like “Letterman After Hours” or something. I think it was just a webcast.
Michael: So is there somebody you’d like to work with that you never have before?
Mickey: You know, I’d love to work with Aretha Franklin. I love working with Paul Simon. I played with him last summer. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. He’s really interested in the harmonica and I’ve been kind of coaching him on his own playing. But if he can’t get it, I’m always available.
Michael: You know this as well as anybody – Willie does not play the same song the same way twice in a row. Does he encourage that in the rest of you?
Mickey: No, it’s that none of us can pay attention. That’s why. We have no memory.
Michael: Has he ever started a song onstage and just completely befuddled the band as to what he’s playing?
Mickey: Yeah, he’s started a song and he’s been befuddled. It’s like, “Wait a minute … that’s not how the song goes.” But the way it’s set up is that he always starts the song and we come in when we want. So sometimes if we don’t know what he’s doing, we just lay out and let him … chase his tail.
Michael: So how is he as a boss?
Mickey: He’s great. I call him “the benevolent dictator.”
Michael: You were here at WKU about five years ago and played Diddle Arena. So come on back to Kentucky. Come to Bowling Green – we have a new place called SKyPAC that you should play.
Mickey: That’s great. We’re game if they book us.
Michael: We’d love to have you. Any by the way, thank you so much for speaking with me. A lot of times it’s very difficult to get through to people because of publicists, etc., etc., but you guys are the greatest, you really are. Thank you very much.
Mickey: Good talking to you.