Forty years is a long commitment. Especially for a musician.
But even after decades of playing harmonica in Willie Nelson’s band, Mickey Raphael has never left the country music legend to play full-time with someone else.
“Being with somebody as cool as Willie, I get to watch him play and listen to him play every night,” Raphael said in a phone interview. “And then I have the freedom to do other projects when I have the time. I’ve met a lot of people through him ... who like what I do and have asked me to play.”
The “freedom” is what Raphael jokingly refers to as an “open marriage” with Nelson, which allows him to play with other artists — just so long as he’s available whenever a Nelson tour or recording session beckons. Raphael is on the road again with Nelson and his backing band for a summer tour, which brings them to Centennial Terrace in Sylvania on Thursday.
It’s an arrangement that’s worked to Raphael’s advantage, financially and otherwise, affording him opportunities to record and play with a disparate group of artists, including Kenny Chesney, Elton John, Lionel Richie, Emmy Lou Harris, U2, Motley Crue, Wynton Marsalis, Neil Young, Vince Gill, Blue Oyster Cult, and the Mavericks.
It all started by happenstance in 1973, at a Dallas hotel room party thrown by Darrell Royal, the legendary University of Texas head football coach and a country music fan. A Dallas native who played harmonica in Texas folk artist B.W. Stevenson’s band, Raphael was invited to the party by Royal, and found himself playing alongside Nelson and Charley Pride in an informal jam session.
Raphael knew nothing about country music, but Nelson was impressed enough to invite him to sit in with him and his band at other gigs when schedules aligned.
Raphael didn’t miss the opportunity.
“I saw Willie was playing around Dallas and I just drove down there to sit in with him,” he said. “I was totally lost on the songs but it was fun. He is such a great musician, it was really exciting to play with him. And he said, ‘You know, we’re going to New York in a couple of months, why don’t you go with us.’ So that kind of started it. In that couple of months’ time I started showing up at other gigs and kind of segueing into the band, really. Jimmy Day, his steel [guitar] player, was leaving the band and there was a hole there and [Nelson] wasn’t going to replace him with another steel player. So my timing was good.”
Jumping from occasional guest artist to permanent fixture in Nelson’s band required that Raphael learn the material and, equally important for a sideman, how to listen.
“Which is probably the hardest part about playing, figuring out when to play,” he said. “What to play is kind of a no-brainer. You can get by and play one note or whatever. It’s just knowing when to play, when to stay out of the singer’s way and the other guitar players and the other musicians, and to make it count. It’s like you’re having a conversation and a bunch of people are talking. Not everybody talks at the same time.
“We worked with Grady Martin, who’s probably one of the greatest studio guitar players on the planet. He played on more hit records than anybody. And he was in our band for about 10 years and finally one day he looked at me and said, ‘Man, smoke a cigarette. Take that damn thing out of your mouth, you play too much.’ And that was the best advice I ever got. I wish he’d told me 10 years earlier.”
Like many players, the harmonica wasn’t Raphael’s first choice — “I was a terrible guitar player” first, he said — but after a friend of his dad’s gave him the instrument as a teenager he gravitated toward it. A concert by blues-rock outfit Canned Heat a few years later proved to be the inspiration he needed: “I was able to play a lick, play something a little bluesy that made sense, something I probably heard that night, and it just clicked.”
His early harmonica influences were legends Paul Butterfield, Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Slim Harpo, and James Cotton, and later famed country music harmonicists, Nashville studio musician Charlie McCoy and Dallas-born Don Brooks of Waylon Jennings’ band who became a mentor to Raphael.
“These were guys who set the bar and set it pretty damn high,” he said.
Of course, he learned from Nelson. “He taught me one thing, that less is more in music,” he said. “Don’t overdo it. Say what you can with the least amount of effort and notes.”
After four decades of shared experiences on the road, Raphael said he has a book of Nelson stories he’d like to write one day. Not that the 80-year-old singer-songwriter is even close to slowing down, much less stopping.
“He’ll retire when he dies,” Raphael said. “There’ll be a funeral when he retires.”
But when the end comes for Nelson, Raphael said he will remember his longtime friend through the words of an equally famous singer.
“That he did it his way.”
Willie Nelson will play Thursday at Centennial Terrace 5773 Centennial Rd. in Sylvania. Gates open at 6:30 p.m and tickets are $34.50, $61.50, and $71.50. Information: 419-381-8851 or etix.com.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.