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.