YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLICAs the saying goes, don’t mess with Texas.And, jokes Mickey Raphael, when the Willie Nelson tour winds its way back to the Lone Star State, it’ll be a bit sheepishly.“We’ll come back to Texas and beg for forgiveness,” says a laughing Raphael, the longtime harmonica player in Nelson’s band.That’s because for the first time since its inception more than 30 years ago, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic won’t be held in Nelson’s native Texas, but at the Gorge Amphitheatre.
And that’s fine by Raphael.
“Everybody’s looking forward to it. We’ve never played there and I’m so glad it won’t be 120 degrees,” says Raphael during a phone interview from Prince George, British Columbia, one of the stops on Nelson’s current tour.
Raphael has heard of the Gorge’s natural beauty and is looking forward to Washington’s weather instead of the stifling heat and what he calls the “Texas brain fry,” which usually accompanies the picnics. (According to AccuWeather, it’ll be in the mid- to upper 90s Wednesday in Fort Worth, Texas, which has hosted the picnic the past three years. The Gorge should hit the low 90s, but there’s usually a breeze.)
“This will be nice,” says Raphael, 55. “We’re on tour up here anyway. It made sense to do it there, which is fine with me.”
On this year’s picnic bill are alt-country veterans Son Volt, the recently reunited Old 97′s, southern rockers Drive By Truckers and singer-songwriter Amos Lee.
Past picnics have included Bob Dylan, Ray Price, Shooter Jennings, Leon Russell, David Allan Coe, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of smaller bands.
Over the years, the on-again, off-again picnics have ebbed and flowed in attendance. And in the past couple of years, numbers have dipped because the Fourth of July fell on a weekday, several Texas newspapers reported.
Still, having the picnic anywhere else does sound a bit sacrilegious, admits Raphael.
Not that Nelson has no ties to Washington state.
He’s played several shows in Yakima, and in 1991, the Gleed-area home he built for his late mother, Myrle Harvey, was reportedly the first piece of Nelson’s personal property to be auctioned off to pay his $17 million tax debt. (Raphael fondly recalls pulling up with six tour buses in front of that house — sometime in the 1980s — to stop in for Thanksgiving dinner.)
In 2004, Nelson played back-to-back sell-out shows in Washington, first at the intimate Maryhill Winery Amphitheatre in Goldendale, then at the Farm Aid festival at the White River Amphitheatre in Auburn. It was the first time Farm Aid had ventured west of the Rocky Mountains.
Raphael was there, too. In fact, he’s been playing with the country music icon for the past 30 years.
A harmonica legend, Raphael has played with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Randy Travis, Rosanne Cash, The Chieftains, U2, MÃ¶tley CrÃ¼e and Seattle punk band The Supersuckers, among many others.
But it was back in 1973 when the self-described “hippy kid” from Dallas first met the red-headed stranger. Although a fan of folk and rock, Raphael, then 21, quickly fell in love with Nelson’s music and unconventional country look.
“I grew into his band,” he says. “Because no one’s ever really hired.”
It was unusual for a country band to take on a harmonica player, says Raphael, but Nelson took that risk. And Raphael still speaks about Nelson with a mix of awe and reverence.
“It’s like a family. He’s such a great musician. I’m such a fan,” he says. “Every night I get to sit through a Willie show.”
If you go
WHAT: Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic.
WHO: Willie Nelson & Family, Son Volt, Old 97′s, Drive By Truckers and Amos Lee.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Wednesday.
WHERE: The Gorge Amphitheatre.
HOW MUCH: Tickets cost $35 to $79 and are available through all Ticketmaster outlets or by calling 453-7139.