Mickey Raphael has been Willie Nelson's right-hand man of sorts for more than 30 years. If you see Willie strumming his guitar on stage, Raphael is usually close by playing his harmonica.
It was an unlikely pairing when they first met in 1973. Raphael really didn't know too much about his future boss, but "he sure didn't fit that mold of a country western singer," Raphael says, chuckling at the recollection.
"Darrell Royal, who was the coach of the University of Texas football team, was a big music fan, so he invited me over to hang out and play music with his friends," says Raphael, who at the time was playing in the folk music scene in the Dallas area. "He had a little party after the ball game, and Willie was there. I met him and sat and listened to him play and jammed with him. I was so taken by him and was so impressed by his musical ability."
The feeling was mutual, and it wasn't long before Raphael got a call to join Willie on the road. Turns out that was the beginning of the Outlaw movement, when Nelson's career was about to explode.
Willie Nelson and his band will appear Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Stranahan Theater.
Raphael played with Nelson on the "Red Headed Stranger" in 1975. That just wasn't done in those days. Studio musicians played on albums, and they were brought in by a producer who told the artist what songs to sing. Nelson and Waylon Jennings destroyed that model by picking and writing their own songs and bringing their bands into the recording sessions. It wasn't long before they were tagged with the moniker "The Outlaws."
Jennings and Nelson in 1976 recorded "Wanted! The Outlaws," which became a platinum album for sales of more than 1 million copies.
"I was just this wide-eyed kid back then. I was such a big fan of Waylon. He had Donnie Brooks, who was my mentor, playing harmonica. I was just a fan of these guys. I was a kid in a candy store really," Raphael says.
He wasn't the only fan. The audiences for Nelson in those days were unlike the traditional country music crowds.
"Back then the country fans didn't like the rock fans. There was a distance between all genres of music. Willie was one of those guys who got all those barriers dropped," Raphael says. "That's what I saw at his concerts. You had the hippies and the rednecks. Whatever animosity there might have been went away because of the music. Willie was an ambassador to that type of change."
Nelson embraced the rock fans, often collaborating and appearing in Austin with rocker Leon Russell.
"Willie makes a connection with everyone," Raphael says of how Nelson was able to win over Russell's fans. "Everyone has had their heart broken. You can connect with his songs. Everyone can identify with the stories he tells and what he's been through and he expresses in his songs."
Since meeting Nelson, Raphael has become a historian of his music. He started digging into his pre-Outlaw songs, back in the days of the Nashville sound, when producers would add lush strings and heavy background vocals to give the songs a fuller sound.
"In the '60s you were competing with Sinatra, Perry Como, and country music was known for fiddles and banjos. And I think they wanted to make it a little more sophisticated to compete with popular music. They sweetened the songs with strings and background voices to make the songs more relevant and commercial."
When he started looking at some of those songs, Raphael wondered what they would sound like if they had been recorded in Nelson's typical low-key piano, acoustic, drums style. He converted dozens of songs, including "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Ghost," to a digital format and stripped out the heavy strings, putting the focus on Willie's voice. The result is one of Nelson's recent albums, "Naked Willie."
When he played it for Willie, Nelson "just nodded his head and said, ‘This is what it might have sounded like if I were producing it.' "
It wouldn't be a stretch to say Nelson has one of the broadest fan bases in the world today. That's partly because of hit singles "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," "Georgia on My Mind," "Blue Skies," "Always on My Mind," and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," but also because of all the acts he's collaborated with over the years.
Along with Jennings, he was part of the Highwaymen, which also consisted of Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. That group toured the world and recorded three albums. But over the years, Nelson has also worked with Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Faron Young, George Jones, Toby Keith, Wynton Marsalis, and many others.
Willie is now 76 and more often than not stays on his bus until it's show time, but he still hasn't lost his thirst for getting on stage. He played about 130 dates last year. This year, he'll probably end up with around 120, including Wednesday night at the Stranahan.
There is nothing traditional about Nelson, and his concerts are no different. Most acts will print out a set list before the show and tape it to a wall backstage so the band knows what's going on. Not Nelson.
"There is no set list," Raphael says. "He'll start off with ‘Whiskey River,' then we have no idea where he is going after that. He'll start off, and we'll just follow him.
"We don't know from one night to the next what to expect. That's what keeps it interesting and fresh. He is playing more guitar than ever before. If you're at all a fan of guitar playing, it's worth it if he never sang a note. His guitar playing is outstanding."
After all these years, there are still hippies and rednecks at Nelson's shows, but they come in all different ages. His music transcends musical boundaries, but it also generation gaps. He's still that artist who knows how to connect with his fans.
"He's real, honest," Raphael says. "When you're in the audience and he looks at you, he's actually looking at you. He makes eye contact, and he makes everyone in the audience feel like he's singing to them, and he really is."
Willie Nelson will appear at the Stranahan Theater on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39.50, $49.50, or $59.50 and can be purchased at the theater box office, all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-745-3000, or online at ticketmaster.com.
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