Mickey Raphael - Sacred harp
Willie Nelson is known for his distinctive voice, the tone of his rugged Martin guitar named Trigger, and for the harmonica played by that tall lanky guy who imbues his sound with a timeless, rootsy quality.
The man playing that harmonica is Mickey Raphael, the Family Band stalwart who has stood to Willie's left for 35 years. He remains by his side even when Willie solos with orchestras or joins other musical ensembles, such as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' quartet.
If Mickey's not there, it's not Willie. While he has recorded outside the Willie Nelson orbit, including several albums with Emmylou Harris and most recently with Kenny Chesney, Mickey's harmonica is joined at the hip with his boss.
NO DEPRESSION: When did you start playing harmonica?
MICKEY RAPHAEL: My dad's lawyer played washtub bass in a little jug band and he gave me a harmonica when I was a kid. Every kid has a harmonica. I grew up in Dallas. I was a terrible guitar player, but I loved music. I played a little guitar in junior high. The folk scene was happening and the Beach Boys and the heavy stuff. I was really into Dylan, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, the acoustic blues guys, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
I wanted to be a guitar player but just was not any good. I heard a guy play harmonica named Donnie Brooks at a tiny little coffeehouse called the Rubaiyat where I used to hang out. Michael Murphey played there, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark. Donnie Brooks was playing with Johnny Vandiver [a Houston folkie later murdered in a drug deal gone bad].
When I heard Donnie Brooks, he just blew me away. I started to take this thing a little more seriously. I carried a harmonica with me wherever I went; I was always playing and listening to other harmonica players, blues records. And I had gone to a Canned Heat concert and was so inspired that I got home, was doodling around on my harmonica, and was able to reproduce a lick that I heard "Blind" Al Wilson play.
I thought, "Wait. There's a pattern here. There is a method to the madness. I'd played a blues lick that I had heard in my mind. This is starting to make sense." That night I had an epiphany.
ND: What were you listening to?
MR: Acoustic blues. Sonny Terry, John Hammond Jr., James Cotton, Musselwhite. I think the first album I bought was the Siegel-Schwall Band. That folk scene because it was obtainable at the Rubaiyat, the music I was able to see live. Jimmy Reed. [Paul] Butterfield. I was committed to the harmonica at this point.
I got with Donnie Brooks on the steps out in front of the Rubaiyat, and he showed me how to play the diatonic scale starting at the low end of the harmonica and how the pattern worked, how you play all the way to the top, how the notes work. It was just a little pattern, like Draw hole number one, Blow two and three, Draw three and four. It's just a pattern, how the notes worked. It was my job to put those notes together.
ND: Did you hear music on records or live?
MR: Mostly records. I was still in school at the time. I'd go down to the Rubaiyat when I first got my driver's license when I was junior in high school. By high school I was hanging around Sumet-Bernet Recording Studio and got some session work. There was an engineer there named Phil York and he'd let me know when there was work.
Ed Bernet, one of the owners of the studio, owned a club called the Levee and the music director at the club was Smokey Montgomery, the banjo player from the Light Crust Doughboys. Smokey and the Levee band would do these demos, these country packages. One of their clients was Boxcar Willie. He would come in there with 30 songs. They paid me five bucks a song. We'd do as many as we could. I learned my recording chops from doing demos there.
ND: Since Dallas was the world capital of radio jingles, did you do any jingle work in the studio?
MR: I'd get a call every once in awhile from Euell Box, who did commercials. The music would be written out. He would have a string section. His wife would take me into another room and play the part for me on the piano. Then we'd go and record.
ND: Were you playing with anyone live?
MR: When I went to El Centro Community College I played with a guy named Mike Ames. He played flatpick guitar in the style of Doc Watson; I played harmonica. We played the split shift at the Cellar [a notorious after-hours beatnik club where Stevie Vaughan and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top earned their spurs] from 8 to 8:30 and 4 to 4:30. He wrote some, he did a couple of originals, we did "Deep River Blues", Michael Murphey songs, Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker.
I'd go to the Rubaiyat and sit in with Michael Murphey, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard. My playing wasn't very refined. I was listening to Donnie Brooks, who was playing on Jerry Jeff's record, and to Charlie McCoy. Then Donnie went to New York and was playing with Judy Collins. Murphey would bring me up from out of the audience to play a song or two.
After that, in 1971 I got with B.W. Stevenson [a larger-than-life figure with a larger-than-life voice]. We played the same circuit, restaurant bars around Dallas, sports bars, and were loud. I remember playing these ballads and B.W. would get mad at the audience and tell them to "Shut up." They were not wanting to listen. We learned the hard way you can't argue with the audience.
ND: Were you playing the same stylistically as you are now?
MR: Yeah, except I didn't know how to listen and I was playing all the time. Now it's OK not to play all the time. My playing wasn't as refined. I didn't know much about country music. The only country I'd heard growing up was 'Blood On The Saddle' by Tex Ritter. I was listening to Charlie McCoy a lot.
B.W. got a record deal with RCA and we went on the road. I went to New York for the first time. We played Gerde's Folk City, opened up for NRBQ. We went all across the country in a van. I recorded with him too, did three albums.
ND: When did Willie Nelson come into your life?
MR: I was touring with B.W. but we didn't work all the time. When we were in Dallas, I hung around with Ronnie Dawson. He had been a rockabilly as a teenager known as the Blonde Bomber and was in a band called Steelrail with Bobby Rambo [an all-star player who'd recorded with the rock band the Five Americans and Ray Sharpe of "Linda Lu" fame]. They played the Silver Helmet [where Dallas Cowboys football players hung out]. Sitting in with them, I really honed my skills.
I played with him [Willie] when they taped a special for the local Public Broadcasting television station at McFarland Auditorium and Willie was on the show. He was two hours late and rolled up in an Open Road camper. It was just Willie and Paul [English, Willie's drummer and best friend]. Paul was wearing his cape. I didn't know much about Willie. I had gotten one record, Willie Nelson And Family, raiding the RCA storehouse with B.W., so I wanted to check him out. They did their show, the two of them, and just took off. I was going, "What was that?" They made a strong impression.
I got a call a couple months later from Darrell Royal [then coach of the University of Texas Longhorns football team]. He said, "I've seen you play and I want to meet you. We're having a little picking session in my hotel room after the ball game. Come on over and meet some of my friends." Willie was there. Charley Pride was there, [storied Houston attorney] Joe Jamail, Finley Ewing who has the Mercedes dealership in Dallas.
They're passing around the guitar and singing songs. I didn't know any of the tunes. A lot of the songs Willie had written. I think I'd learned "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" off the Charlie McCoy album. I was this hippie kid with an Afro. I was into the Stones, the Band. But it was fun playing with them. Afterward, Willie said, "If you're ever around, come play with us."
A couple weeks later I saw they were playing a benefit for the volunteer fire department in the high school gymnasium in Lancaster, just south of Dallas. I sat in with them even though I was totally lost. I didn't know these songs. But I fit in because there was a big hole. Jimmy Day [the pedal steel guitarist] had just left. There was room. There wasn't a fiddle. Willie was the only guitar player.
Willie would give me a solo now and then. I was just hanging on for dear life because I didn't know the songs and even if I did know, it wouldn't have made any difference because Willie was playing the songs like Willie, not like anybody else. All the rules were broken. Anything I had built up in my arsenal about how to follow a song, those skills were out the window because Willie made up his own rules. B.W. and Murphey were in time. Willie was jazz, like playing with Miles Davis.
Willie wasn't that successful yet. He was still playing beer joints. B.W. and Murphey were bigger draws. Jerry Jeff was probably the biggest draw. Willie was a little left-of-center. He was an old guy, 39.
We went to a truck stop after the Lancaster gig [in the spring of 1973] for breakfast. I stayed for one more cup of coffee and that's when Willie said, "Hey, we're going to New York next month. Why don't you come with us?" [for the release of Willie's new album Shotgun Willie]. I was still playing with B.W. but he was drinking pretty heavily at that time. I wasn't digging that. So I'd see where Willie was playing and I'd go sit in with him.
I realized when he played the Western Place in Dallas he had this incredible fan base I knew nothing about. We played Big G's in Round Rock, a cowboy joint north of Austin, and they didn't like long hair. So I kept close to the bandstand and close to Paul because these were the kind of places where I'm thinking, "Gee, I hope I don't get my ass whupped when I get out of here," because I was a hippie.
I'd been playing three months with him when Willie asked Paul, "What are we paying him?" Paul said, "Nothing." Willie said, "Fine. Then double his salary." I came aboard and was paid $50 a gig. We drove to gigs in our own cars. I carried Willie's guitar. Paul carried Willie's amp. I remember asking Paul how old he was. He said, "Forty." I was 21. He said, "If you're lucky, you'll make it to 40." Bee [Spears, the bassist] had left to go play with Waylon. I wanted to go play with Waylon. Donnie Brooks was playing harmonica with Waylon. I think because Waylon had a harmonica player, that opened up the door [with Willie].
ND: Your first Willie album was a live recording at the Texas Opry House in 1974 for Atlantic Records, but Atlantic's Nashville division folded before the album could be released. Released in Atlantic's Willie box set, it reveals a hard-charging, rocking band. But wasn't it the second album you did with Willie that changed everything?
MR: We were playing in Dallas. We were doing these four-hour sets because the crowds were getting so crazy, it was safer to stay onstage. When we were properly fueled, it just didn't end. Willie said, "I've written this album called The Red Headed Stranger." I told him, "I know this studio in Dallas."
I called Phil York [the engineer Mickey had worked with at Sumet-Bernet studios]. He set us up. It only took a day or two. He would play a song, we'd listen to it, then play along with it. There wasn't a lot of preparation. He had it written out on a piece of paper.
The record company thought it was a demo, it was so simple. That's the way Willie heard the songs. It was a concept record. I hadn't heard that before, where all the songs tied together and told a story. This went against all the rules. Willie didn't care. I thought it was pretty cool because it was so sparse. I thought there's something here.
At that point, I felt like a contributing member -- Jody [Payne] was in the band, Bobbie [Nelson, Willie's sister] was playing piano, Bee came back from Waylon, and Paul. The album gave me some validity as a band member. Willie never said anything to me except when not to play.
Charlie McCoy was working a lot then, but mainly playing on record. I went back and listened to what he did with Tom T. Hall, Tammy Wynette, Roy Orbison, the old Willie stuff he did for RCA. I thought Charlie blazed the trail on record and I'd play it live.
ND: Does the description "sideman" sing to you or not?
MR: I like being a sideman. Jokingly, I asked Willie, "When do I get to stand in the middle?"
He said, "Any time you want."
ND: Where's the Mickey Rayfield album? (Back when they first met, Coach Royal bubbafied Raphael into Rayfield.)
MR: I did a little instrumental record in 1988 with Ben Keith [the pedal steel guitarist best known for his work with Neil Young]. We turned on the tape machine and just played -- myself and this keyboard player and Ben. It was kind of a light-jazz ethereal deal. I got tons of airplay in L.A. on The Wave [a New Age radio station] and was on one of their compilation CDs.
I've been in the studio with Tony Scher, who's this wonderful guitar player in New York. He plays with Bill Frisell, he plays guitar on Norah Jones' record. We cut "Spanish Harlem" just messing around, and also I'm doing some rock stuff here [in Nashville] with Jay Joyce, who co-produced and played on Patty Griffin's Flaming Red.
ND: When did you start doing outside projects on your own?
MR: Rodney Crowell got me out to L.A. when he was playing with Emmylou [Harris]. I ended up playing on four of her albums. I moved to L.A. because I was getting [outside] work and I wanted a change from Austin. We'd get back to Austin from touring and it was like the tour never ended. It was so wild and I needed a break. I wanted to know the difference between touring and home. I liked playing live but I enjoyed working in the studio with other people.
I loved doing "Here, There And Everywhere" with Emmylou. I did some soundtracks with Ry Cooder and Jack Nietzsche including Blue Collar, a Hal Needham movie where he used the harmonica and saxophone as the main instruments for the whole film. Ry played guitar and John Hiatt was the rhythm guitar player and sat in the corner and never talked to anybody. The producers didn't like the soundtrack so they scrapped the whole thing and used fiddles and banjos.
I'll get a call every now and then to play a session and think, "I don't hear any harmonica on this." I'll ask what they want me to do and the producer will say, "Just do whatever you want to do."
ND: And wherever you want evidently. I hear you record on your laptop in your hotel room.
MR: Somebody will send me a file and I'll play it on the computer. I did that on Kenny Chesney's record. I recorded on five tracks; I think they used one. With the computer and Pro Tools, I can do an overdub easy.
ND: What kind of microphone do you use?
MR: I use a Beyer M160 ribbon microphone.
ND: Your tools of the trade?
MR: I use Hohner Marine Band. There's twelve keys so I have harmonicas for all the keys and with different tunings. I have an Echo Harp which is a double reed harmonica that sounds like an accordion. They're made in six keys. I have those. Then I have to have backups of everything because they go out of tune all the time.
And I have some harps that are customized. Joe Filisko from Joliet, Illinois, and Jimmy Gordon out of Vermont both customize Marine Bands for me. The body of the harp is like a composite material. The reeds are hand-tuned and set by hand. It's like having a master craftsman take apart a stock harmonica and put it back together. It sounds better and plays better. They're a lot more responsive.
ND: What about the frontman -- does he keep you on your toes? Do you know what to expect when you're playing with him?
MR: I never know what to expect. There's no set list. I don't start any of the songs. He'll start the song. That's my tip-off.
ND: What happens when he pulls out something from 1964 that you've never heard (as he did last year at the Fillmore)?
MR: It's unsaid, but if you don't know what to play, don't play. It's OK to lay out. If you listen to it, you have time to figure it out. If there's a question, don't do anything.
ND: Are there songs he'll pull out that are technically hard to play?
MR: We do some jazz standards that we play in soundcheck that I still struggle with or have to have written out in front of me, like "All The Things You Are".
ND: Any favorites?
MR: I like to play "Still Is Still Moving". That's always a fun song to play. That really moves.
ND: You involved in any other projects?
MR: I helped edit the four-CD box set [of Nelson's work] Sony Legacy just put out. They gave me a list of 200 songs and I picked 60 out of the 100 they used. I know what Willie likes. I wanted to stay away from the same choices that are on other box sets. I also wrote liners about what it is like to play in the band with Willie.
ND: So what is it like to play with Willie Nelson?
MR: It doesn't feel like a job. The guy's crazy but it doesn't feel like you're working for a lunatic. All you need up there is Willie and his guitar. All the rest is icing on the cake. The way it's always worked is, we listen to Willie, and we just play accordingly. You never want to cover him up, and you always want to give him room to do what he does so well, which is play and sing.
Grady Martin told me and he told Charlie McCoy in the studio: "Do not play when the singer is singing. Make sure you don't cover up the words." He gave me the best advice, although he wasn't very tactful in saying it. One night after a show he goes, "Man, smoke a cigarette. Take that damn thing out of your mouth. You play too much."
ND: What's the Naked Willie project?
MR: I love the music from the '60s that Willie did [for RCA], the tracks that are heavily covered with strings and voices. One day, Willie was saying, 'We went in and recorded and I really thought we had a hit. I really liked what we played. Then we'd come back a few days later and they had done the Nashville Sound [over the recordings].' The tracks had been heavily orchestrated and (they) put backing vocals on it, which is what Nashville did at the time. They did it to everybody. RCA didn't know what to do with Willie.
So I thought it would be great to go back and see what these tracks sounded like without the heavy strings and backing vocals. Strip it down like they did with Beatles' Let It Be when they took Phil Spector's string parts off. I'm hearing some great stuff. Willie's playing some great guitar. Chet Atkins and Grady Martin are playing great guitar that was covered up on a lot of the tracks. With Willie's singing, you don't really need a great big choir echoing what he's doing. Those strings were so overpowering.
We took the strings off of "Bring Me Sunshine" [a Bobby Darin-esque swing tune that was Willie's first top-10 country single for RCA]. On some tracks, we couldn't take the strings out completely because there was leakage -- the recordings were done on two or three tracks -- so what strings you do hear are subtle. It might not be totally naked, but it's really quiet and it fits.
ND: Are you tempted to add some harmonica?
MR: No. If I did that, I'd use Charlie McCoy.