Four decades by Willie’s side
Mickey Raphael has played harmonica with some of the biggest names in music, including Willie Nelson, whom he has spent 44 years with. Supplied
Mickey Raphael has spent 44 years in the shadow of Willie Nelson, but he cannot imagine a better place to be.
The Dallas native joined the country music legend when he was 20 years old after a chance meeting set up by former University of Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal for a jam session, which included Charley Pride and Nelson. Not long later Nelson talked him into joining him for a New York show and he has not looked back.
Despite playing with Nelson for four-and-a-half decades, Raphael still calls himself a fan of the singer who has always done things his way. Nelson’s impact was hammered home while out on a recent tour with Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Margo Price and Jason Isbell.
“All of them are out watching Willie play, out watching his shows,” said Raphael, 65. “That’s a good sign when you’ve got other musicians sticking around and watching the show.”
Raphael will be performing at Big Valley Jamboree on Friday in the 7:30 p.m. time slot as part of Willie Nelson and Family.
One of the things that has kept Raphael by Nelson’s side is the freedom he has been given to play his part. Nelson has encouraged a musical collaborative effort, especially on the road.
“The only input that Willie might put in is he might tell me to take a solo when he wants it,” said Raphael. “But he’ll play a song for us and we all decide what we’re going to do ourselves, it kind of self produces.”
Raphael has carved out his own niche as one of the top harmonica players in the music world, a landscape dominated by guitars, bass, drums and pianos.
Truth be told, his first love was the rhythm guitar, but he found he was not great at. When it came to playing a harp, however, he was a natural. His dad played the instrument, as did his dad’s friend who gave him his first harmonica.
He spent his early years listening closely to masters of the time like Paul Butterfield, Sonny Terry and Canadian Brent Titcomb and was groomed by legendary Dallas harmonica player Don Brooks.
The end result has been a long career touring and recording. He is in demand with many of today’s top performers from across many different genres, and has performed with the likes of U2, Motley Crue, Vince Gill, Emmy Lou Harris, The Mavericks, Snoop Dog, Kenny Wayne Sheperd and Neil Young.
“If you know how to play your instrument, it really doesn’t matter what type of music it is,” said Raphael. “If you know music and your instrument, you can play anything.”
While he does have a broad spectrum of musical tastes, he has always been drawn to conjunto music and Mexican folk songs, which has stoked his love for the rhythm guitar and the diatonic button accordion. He picks away at those when he can, but at no time is he planning a full-time switch from the harmonica.
The harmonica is a humble instrument that doesn’t quite get the respect that it may deserve.
“It’s sort of overlooked and it’s very much a niche instrument, not everyone plays it and you can kind of get by being pretty mediocre on the thing too,” said Raphael. “If a guitar player picks up the harmonica and blows a big, fat note in the right key, sometimes the crowd will go nuts. Whereas if I got up there and picked up a guitar and strummed a cord in the right key, I’d be chased off the stage.”
He has no desire to leave the stage for good, though touring has been cut back from 10 weeks at a time to much more manageable two-week stints. When they’re not on the road, Raphael is generally found in a studio somewhere in Nashville, laying down tracks for a wide assortment of artists.
It is still his passion.
“What am I going to do if I quit playing music, rob banks? It’s fun, it’s still fun,” said Raphael, though reconsidering, “if I went to jail, then I’d have enough time to learn that damn accordion.”