by Dan Craft
Anyone who’s followed Willie Nelson’s career for a few minutes knows one thing for sure: where Willie goes, so goes his core group of musical camp followers, aka The Family.
Their tents will be pitched Saturday night on the stage of Bloomington’s U.S. Cellular Coliseum for the clan’s first pass though town in at least a decade.
None has been pitching her tent longer than Willie’s big sis Bobbie, the one true-blue family member of The Family.
Not only that — she’s two years Willie’s senior (a spry 81), with longer tresses to boot … now more than ever.
Big bro famously sheared his trademark braids two years ago, all the better, we’re told, to appease the climate of Hawaii’s Maui, where Nelson lives when he’s not on the road again, and again.
Compared to Bobbie’s bloodline, Mickey Raphael has a long way to go — even though he’s gone a long, long way: nearly 40 years’ worth, and counting.
A youthful-looking 60, Raphael is the designated surrogate interview for papa Willie, whose aversion to media queries is almost as legendary as his receptiveness to a certain illegal species of flora.
Raphael, whose harmonica has sweetened the recordings and live performances of everyone from U2 to Neil Young to Snoop Dogg, says the perks of Family life boils to a few simple, but key, pleasures.
“Well, it’s the consistency, for one thing,” he notes. “And it really is like a family, only lasted longer than any of our personal families.” (Two of Nelson’s four marriages have occurred during Raphael’s membership.)
Since Raphael became a part of the clan in 1973, he’s come to view “Dad” as “a benevolent dictator.”
As loyal subjects, “what we all have in common is that everybody is a fan and everybody wants their little interplay with him,” says Raphael.
“He’s very generous, musically, and he’s an easy guy to work with and to live with. What you see with Willie is what you get. He hides nothing. The public persona you see is exactly who he is.”
Though Raphael may not have the sibling insight or connection of a Bobbie Nelson, he’s still learned plenty.
Barely 20 when they crossed paths, “I was this hippie kid who was more into folk and that. I loved the Stones and the Beatles and acoustic blues. I was really heavily into the neo-folk scene of Dylan.”
Country? Not so much, even if he did come from Dallas and should have known better.
The crossing of paths occurred at the University of Texas, where football coach Darrell Royal, a big country music fan, was throwing a little post-game wing-ding. Among the invitees: Raphael, and a couple dudes named Willie and Charley (as in Pride).
An ensuing informal jam session pretty much altered the musical course of the would-be folkie’s life: Willie liked what the kid did on a harp, and invited him to sit in at some upcoming gigs.
Not long after, it was all in the Family.
“I say Willie is a benevolent dictator, in that, yes, it always all comes back to him … he is square one … but he also gives each of us enough rope that we hopefully don’t hang ourselves but lets everyone police himself.”
That extra rope has definitely worked to Raphael’s advantage, both on stage and off.
One glance at his discography reveals 40 years of staggering diversity and freedom, with a hundred-odd album credits.
Raphael says that, yes, he’s seen a YouTube video making the rounds, depicting a Willie he never knew: circa-1965, a mere 32 years old, clean-cut, wearing in a nice dark suit and tie, and singing at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I heard there was a closet in his house with all these different-colored, brocaded gold, white, blue and red tuxes, but the house burned down before I saw any of it myself,” laughs Rafael. “I hear about things like that, and that’s another person, one I never knew. I’ve asked him, ‘Willie, when were you taken over by the Martians?’”
Disruptions to the Family have taken place in recent years, beginning with the retirement in 2008 of longtime guitarist Jody Payne, followed by a 2010 stroke suffered by drummer Paul English, who recovered and still performs.
The biggest blow came last December with the unexpected death of bass player Bee Spears, who fell outside his home and died of exposure before he was discovered.
Kevin Smith, from Asleep at the Wheel, is the first major addition to the Family since the ’70s.
“We’re not replacing Bee, who couldn’t be replaced; we’re adding to the group, with Kevin bringing his own unique style on upright bass.”
Still, Raphael knows the day will come when their mileage may vary back on the road again.
“This would be a good way to end it,” he admits, with everyone still firing on all pistons. “We all know we can’t go on forever.”
Its always on their minds, in fact.
“The underlying theme these days is,” he adds, “don’t buy any green bananas.”