“Bobbie and Willie Nelson are an entity unto themselves,” — Mickey Raphael

photo:  Taylor Hill/Getty Images

by Jim Beal, Jr.

If you’re looking for a word to describe the Willie Nelson sound, you can’t go wrong with “distinctive.”

There’s the Willie Nelson voice, often imitated, never duplicated; the guitar tone, pulled from a battered Martin guitar named Trigger; the songs, among the best in country music; and his Family band, a loose/tight unit that has backed him for decades. All are distinctive. And, where other country bands have a fiddle or a pedal steel guitar, the Family band has a harmonica player. Also distinctive.

“Willie has always been different,” said that harp player, Mickey Raphael, a band member for more than 35 years, from a Virginia tour stop. “He had one of the great steel guitar players, Jimmy Day, and he couldn’t replace him with another steel guitar player, so he started using harmonica. The main thing, though, is Willie’s voice and guitar.”

That distinctive sound will be on display Sunday when Nelson and his band play the Majestic Theatre.

Raphael came out of the Dallas folk scene where he learned from Donnie Brooks, worked places such as the notorious Cellar Club with Mike Ames and then joined B.W. Stevenson’s band. In 1973, UT football coach Darrell Royal invited Raphael to a hotel-room jam that included Charley Pride and Willie Nelson.

“Willie was kind of knocking around Texas then, he wasn’t doing a lot,” Raphael said. “He was playing dance halls, chilling out, working at Floore’s, that was when John T. Floore was still alive. He asked me to join him.”

Raphael has been with Willie since. He’s also played and recorded with Emmylou Harris, Toby Keith, Bobby Charles, Blue Oyster Cult, Elton John, The Chieftains, U2, Mötley Crüe and Neil Young.

“You can’t seek out the work,” Raphael said, “but you have to let people know you’re available. Elton John heard Willie’s ‘Stardust’ album and wanted some harmonica on a song, so he called me. I’m not strictly a country harmonica player, so I’m able to play with Blue Oyster Cult and Mötley Crüe if they call.”

Like Nelson, Raphael has a distinctive style.

“I’m kind of a melodic player,” he said. “I’m more known for my distinctive tone than for being a fast player. I play with a lot of songwriters and, to do that, you have to complement the lyrics. I’ve had some good teachers. Years ago, Grady Martin, who played guitar with Willie, told me: ‘Take that thing out of your mouth once in a while. You play too much. Smoke a cigarette or something.’ I wish he’d told me that 20 years earlier.”

For years, when Willie plays, be it a Family band gig or album, a solo album or a guest shot, the constants have been Raphael and Willie’s piano-playing sister, Bobbie Nelson.

“Bobbie and Willie are an entity unto themselves,” Raphael said.

The band that will take the Majestic stage on Sunday will feature Willie (guitar), Bobbie (piano), Raphael (harmonica), Bee Spears (bass), and the English brothers, Paul and Billy (percussion). That band has to be on its toes because Willie also has a distinctive idea of time and tempo.

“The analogy I use is a snake wagging its tail,” Raphael said, laughing. “We have a saying, ‘Donde esta el uno?,’ ‘Where is the one?’ The one is where Willie says it is. If you’re a human metronome and just lock in and play in time, you’re not going to be where you need to be when Willie gets to where he wants to be.”

The Nelson/Family repertoire is wide and deep. Nelson releases albums at a steady clip. His latest is “American Classic” (Blue Note Records), Great American Songbook selections. “Country Music” (Rounder), a collection of country standards produced with T Bone Burnett, is set for release April 20. And there are a lot of Nelson-penned hits to choose from.

“There’s no set list,” Raphael said. “Willie starts with ‘Whiskey River’ and then usually ‘Still Is Still Moving.’ He’s been doing a couple from the ‘Country’ album, ‘Man With the Blues’ and ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine,’ and the medley is in there. I couldn’t recite the order. I listen and usually I come in on the second verse. When I’m not playing I listen to his guitar work.”

Raphael has a solo album, “Hand to Mouth,” and another in the works with members of the band Calexico. He also produced, or “unproduced,” the Nelson album “Naked Willie,” for which he stripped strings and other embellishments off ’60s-era Willie songs.

“We kept everything in its original form,” Raphael said. “Those songs were some of the first songs that Willie played guitar on in the studio and you can hear his guitar along with great guitar work by Chet Atkins and Grady Martin. And you can actually hear Willie.”

You want to hear distinctive.

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