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Harmonica player logs 40 years on the road with Willie Nelson

Courtesy photo
Willie Nelson's longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, credits Don Brooks, Charlie McCoy and others with inspiring him to stop being a bad guitar player and pick up the harmonica. (Brenda Price photo)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Willie Nelson doesn't do a lot of interviews these days, if he ever did. At 79, the country music legend and American icon, who performs Friday night at Huntington's Big Sandy Superstore Arena, prefers to leave that to other people, like his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael.

"I'm fortunate to be here," Raphael said. "I work with a great guitar player and a great songwriter. Willie is just a great boss."

He laughed, and then added, "That ought to be enough for me to get a raise."

Raphael has been with Nelson's road band for right at 40 years, which is an incredibly long time in a business where loyalty is sometimes a one-way street and even longtime sidemen can be as disposable as guitar picks.

Stories of big name country performers firing their bands or abruptly dropping band members with little or no reason are legion, but Raphael said he doesn't worry about it. Nelson is particular. He likes what he likes, and they've been friends for decades.

"And I don't think he has the balls to do that to me," he laughed, kind of tempting fate.

While 40 years in the same band is unusual for the music business in general, it's not unusual for Willie Nelson. His band includes his sister, Bobbie, and his drummer, Paul English, who started playing with the singer almost from the very beginning.

"Back when the earth cooled," the harmonica player joked.

Raphael joined the band in 1973, though he'd known Nelson for a short while before they ever hit the road. They met at a party in Dallas, where an informal jam struck up between Nelson and county singer Charlie Pride.

Raphael impressed Nelson, who invited him to come sit in with him some time. Raphael sat in with him at a fireman's benefit show and shortly thereafter joined Nelson's band, the Family.

Playing with Nelson takes up a lot of Raphael's time, but it's not all he does. He is a sought-after session player and has worked with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Kenny Chesney to U2.

"I even did a harmonica part for Motley Crue once," he said.

The song was the group's 1985 cover of Brownsville Station's "Smoking in the Boys Room," one of the glam metal band's biggest hits.

Lately, Raphael said, he's been recording with country star Jamey Johnston. He also mentioned that Willie Nelson and The Family have a record coming out in April called "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

"There are some Irving Berlin songs on it, some country songs and really just a list of Willie's favorite songs," he said.

Most of them weren't really conceived as needing harmonica, but Raphael said that's part of the fun -- finding something to add to it.

"But sometimes I just don't hear anything for me on a song," he added.  

Raphael still enjoys touring, though after 40 years, it's changed a lot from those early years. Gone are the 10-week national tours where everybody practically lived on the bus. These days, the trips are more like two or three weeks.

"And we stay in hotels now," he said.

The little creature comforts help, plus he said they try to eat right and get some exercise.

"A couple of us try to stay active," Raphael said. "I ski, and the bass player and I will ride bicycles when we can, check out the city. Willie has a bicycle, too."

Though it didn't sound like Nelson rode it much.

"Nobody wants to see Willie Nelson in spandex," Raphael joked. 

 

WANT TO GO?

Willie Nelson and the Family

WHERE: Big Sandy Superstore Arena, Huntington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

TICKETS: $37.75 and $47.75

INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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