Mickey Raphael: Thirty Years on the Road with Willie Nelson

Dec 26, 2007
by Terry Mathews

After spending 30 years on the road with country music star  Willie Nelson, you might think harmonica player Mickey Raphael would be ready to hang up his harps and stay home. 

Well, you’d be wrong.

I love my job, Raphael, 56, said recently in a cell phone interview from Nashville.  What a concept to get paid for something you like doing.

In the spring, Raphael went on the road with Willie, Merle Haggard and Ray Price in the “Best of the Breed Tour,” playing some 18 cities in 17 days and enjoyed being on stage with “real legends.” 

In October, Raphael pulled double duty at the Big State Festival in College Station, playing for reclusive musician Willis Alan Ramsey on Sunday afternoon and then closing the festival with Nelson that evening.

On Jan. 2, Raphael and Nelson will kick off the 2008 tour. 

We did 132 cities last year, Raphael explained. We’re out for two weeks and then home for two weeks. When I’m home, I work on other projects, including some song writing.

Raphael doesn’t put much stock in his writing skills.

I’m not good enough to write by myself, he said, so he schedules time with the pros when he’s home in Nashville.  When you book a writing session, you do it weeks in advance, especially with these guys.

For the past three decades, Raphael’s playing talents have been in constant demand. He’s recorded with Vince Gill, Emmy Lou Harris, Neil Young, Leon Russell, Elton John and U2 – the band fronted by political activist Bono.

Bono sent me a song many years ago to get to Willie. The timing just wasn’t right, Raphael said.  When Willie and I were in Ireland for a video, the video director was a friend of Bono’s. We ended up being invited to his studio for dinner.

As they were sitting at dinner, Bono asked Nelson why he had never cut the song.

Nelson told Bono he was waiting on him to produce the tune.

It was just Willie and me and the four guys from U2, Raphael said.  We went down to the studio and cut it. It was great playing with them. They’re just wonderful guys.

The song, “Slow Dance,” was released in Europe and can be heard on iTunes.

Raphael recently laid tracks down for Ramsey’s first CD in 35 years. 

I went to Nashville with Willis Alan when he cut the first album in 1972, Raphael explained. Neil Young was laying down ‘Harvest’ in the studio next to us. I really wasn’t good, but I was efficient. We ran out of time, so I never got to play on that record.

When Ramsey called Raphael to play on the new CD, he said, “Yeah. I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to play on this one.”

Raphael, a Dallas native, did not start out to be a country musician. In fact, he didn’t really plan on music. He just knew he wanted to be in the arts.

I played tuba in the high school marching band, the 1969 Hillcrest High School graduate explained.  It got me out of P.E.

In the early part of his career, he favored blues.

I learned from Paul Butterfield, who was this wonderful blues harmonica player, Raphael said. I actually got to spend time with him before he passed away.

He hooked up with B.W. Stevenson in the early 1970s. In 1973, former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal invited him to a post-game party at a Dallas hotel.

It was there that Raphael first met Nelson. They shared a few musical licks, and Nelson invited the youngster to sit in with him again sometime. 

As part of his country schooling, Raphael spent a lot of time listening to the legendary Charlie McCoy.

Charlie McCoy’s worked with everyone in Nashville, Raphael said. He was the guy. McCoy has played with Elvis, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. There aren’t that many harmonica players. He set the bar. There’s really no one more talented than this guy. He’s one of the reasons I’m playing.

On his website, Raphael says, “When I joined Willie’s band, I really didn’t know anything about country music. I was a folk blues player. I just wanted to play in a country band and ride around in a bus.”

After riding all over the country on that bus for over 30 years, Raphael has some good stories.

He did share one story about his travels with Willie.

We were headlining a large outdoor festival outside San Jos [California]. A bunch of Hell’s Angels who were at the pre-show party offered us a ride to the venue, Raphael said. Willie got on the back of one bike. I got on the back of another. When we got to the gate, the security guy stops us and tells us we can’t go in. The front bike pulls up and says, Well, this is Willie Nelson. The security guy says, ‘Yeah, sure it is.’ Willie had to pull out his American Express card to prove it. The moment would have made a great commercial.

Married for 10 years, Raphael also shared his secret to maintaining a personal relationship while on the road with the band.

We leave after every show, he explained. We don’t spend the night. We do the gig and go on to the next one. That way, there’s no temptation. That’s the deal.

Raphael released one solo CD, “Hand to Mouth,” in 1988.

It was fun, Raphael said of the experience. Ben Keith, who played steel guitar for Neil Young and Patsy Cline, was on the CD with me.

Raphael plays German-made Hohner harps, although he is open to trying new stuff. 

What makes Raphael’s work so special is that he never overpowers the vocalists or other musicians. If his tracks were taken off, however, the songs would lose their emotional impact. He’s got just the right touch.

Hand to Mouth is available on www.cdbaby.com or from iTunes. For a complete discography and more information on Raphael, see his website:


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