Interview with harp player Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s band)

mickey raphael
Mickey Raphael

Interview by Scott Preston
Photo by Frank Stewart

Born and raised in the Lone Star State of Dallas Texas, Mickey Raphael’s career as Willie Nelson’s Harmonica player has spanned almost three decades. His intelligent playing style has become a hallmark of Nelson’s crossover sound, earning him a large audience worldwide.

As a teenager, Raphael gravitated toward the Dallas folk music scene and fell under the spell of legendary harmonica great Don Brooks. “I went to this little coffee house one night and saw him playing and it just impressed me so much,” Raphael recalls. “He had moved to New York and was kind of a legend around Dallas. He sat me down one night after a show and showed me this little lick that went all the way up and down the harmonica, just a little pattern. Right away I just jumped about twenty steps from the little I already knew about the harp.”

Cincy Groove: When did you first meet Willie Nelson?

Mickey Raphael: It was 1973 and I was playing gigs around Texas and I got a call from Coach Royal who was head coach of the University of Texas football team. He was a big music fan and a close friend of Willie’s. He said they were having a pickin party in his box suite at the stadium after the football game and that I should come by, bring my harp and meet some of his friends. Willie was there, I knew who Willie was, I had one of his records, but I hadn’t grown up on country music. They were just passing around the guitar and singing, Willie was there, Charlie Pride and several other songwriters. After the pickin session, Willie said if I ever wanted to come and sit in with him to come on by, and I did. I did some shows around Texas and eventually Willie asked if I wanted to go on the road.

Cincy Groove: What first drew you to the harmonica?

Mickey Raphael: Well I was in high school and I wanted to be a guitar player but I wasn’t very good. I heard this harp player Donny Brooks play in a club in Dallas and he just blew me away. I had a harmonica, but I started to pay much closer attention to it. I would carry it around with me everywhere I went. Then there were guys like Paul Butterfield and Jimmie Fadden from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who were also big influences on me at the time. I was into the folk scene in the late 60’s , early 70’s so I was listening to Dylan, Neil Young, Canned Heat.

Cincy Groove: Are you working on a new solo record?

Mickey Raphael: I have about 5 songs done that I have been writing with Joey Burns from Calexico. Its taking a while to get it done since we are both so busy. Also a sax player, Bill Evans who used to play with Miles Davis, played on one of the songs. But right now its mostly Joey, myself, and John Convertino, the drummer from Calexico.

Cincy Groove: Is Willie working on any new material?

Mickey Raphael: He just finished working on a record with one of his sons, Lukas. We did songs by Hank Williams, Tom Waits, some traditional country stuff. Then there was some songs that Lukas brought to the plate. We just finished that, but really Willie always has something going on. He just released a new record with Wynton Marsalis that was a live show that they played together. It was with Wynton’s band, Willie and Norah Jones. It was a tribute to Ray Charles.

Cincy Groove: Does Willie write out any kind of setlist anymore or does he just wing it?

Mickey Raphael: Willie just wings it, all the time. Willie plays the intro to each song, so we have a few moments to get everything straight in our head about what song it is.

Cincy Groove: What have been some of the more unique or unusual experiences you have had with Willie onstage?

Mickey Raphael: One time we played at this drive-in movie theater in Houston. It was absolutely packed, I think it was the first time they had a concert at this venue. Somebody from the audience starts crawling onstage and it ended up being Paul Simon. That was rather unique.

Cincy Groove: Has Willie ever played with Snoop Dogg?

Mickey Raphael: Yeah, we were actually over in Amsterdamn and Snoop came by Willie’s room and they ended up playing dominos for hours and hours. After that they went to a coffee shop for some “coffee”, and then they went into the studio. Snoop has a song that he wanted Willie to sing on called “My Medicine”. Willie played a show in Amsterdamn that night and Snoop came out did the song Superman that Willie does live. Then the next night Snoop was playing the same club Willie played and Willie went out on stage and played with him. We also played the Glastonbury festival this year, I believe they had about 200,000 people there. We played then Snoop came on after us and just did an amazing job.

Cincy Groove: What do you think about how the internet has changed the music business?

Mickey Raphael: There really aren’t albums anymore, people now are buying or downloading individual songs. Before when someone wanted a song they had to buy the whole album. Now they can just buy the single song. Record sales are down, but people just have to find alternative ways to get their music out to the people. Bands that couldn’t signed to a major label are now getting some great exposure because of the internet. We just have to re-invent ourselves and make use of this new media form.

Cincy Groove: Are there any new bands or harp players that you are impressed by?

Mickey Raphael: Someone I like a lot is Jason Ricci, he is a really great player. I also saw The Punch Brothers recently, they were amazing. People really need to go out and get their new record “Anti Fog Matic”, it is brilliant.

Willie Nelson tour dates
Mar 22 2011 Louisville, KY Louisville Palace Theatre
Mar 24 2011 Muncie, IN Emens Auditorium
Mar 25 2011 Cleveland, OH House of Blues
Mar 26 2011 Indianapolis, IN Murat Theatre
Apr 15 2011 Bismarck, ND Bismarck Civic Center
Apr 16 2011 Rochester, MN Mayo Civic Center
Apr 17 2011 Brookings, SD Swiftel Center
Apr 19 2011 Rapid City, SD Rushmore Theater
Apr 20 2011 Gillette, WY Heritage Center Theater
Apr 21 2011 Cheyenne, WY Cheyenne Civic Center
Apr 22 2011 Grand Junction, CO Two Rivers Convention Center
Apr 23 2011 Dodge City, KS United Wireless Arena
Apr 26 2011 Dallas, TX Morton H Myerson Symphony Center
Apr 28 2011 Houston , TX Verizon Wireless Theater – Houston
Apr 29 2011 Bossier City, LA Riverdome at Horseshoe Casino
Apr 30 2011 Austin, TX The Backyard at Bee Cave
May 1 2011 Midland, TX Midland County Horseshoe Arena
May 4 2011 Beaumont, TX Julie Rogers Theatre
May 6 2011 New Orleans, LA New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
May 7 2011 New Braunfels, TX Whitewater Horseshoe Amphitheatre
May 27 2011 Philadelphia, PA Mann Center for the Performing Arts
May 28 2011 Gilford, NH Meadowbrook US Cellular Pavilion
May 29 2011 Essex Junction, VT Champlain Valley Exposition
May 30 2011 York, PA Sovereign Bank Stadium
June 3 2011 Nashville, TN The Woods of Fontanel
June 4 2011 North Little Rock, AR North Shore Park at Arkansas River
June 5 2011 Orange Beach, AL The Wharf Amphitheatre
June 9 2011 Southaven, MS Snowden Grove Amphitheater
June 10 2011 Columbia, MO Midway Exposition Center
June 11 2011 Sparta, IL World Shooting & Recreation Complex
June 12 2011 Lawrenceville, GA Coolray Field
June 16 2011 Roanoke Rapids, NC Rapids Jam Music Festival
June 17 2011 Simpsonville, SC Heritage Park Amphiteater
June 18 2011 Waldorf, MD Regency Furniture Stadium
June 19 2011 Knoxville, TN World’s Fair Park Lawn
June 21 2011 Denver, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre
June 23 2011 Del Mar, CA Grandstand
June 24 2011 Ontario, CA Citizens Bank Arena
June 25 2011 Pozo, CA Pozo Saloon