Willie Nelson's harmonica player adds to his signature sound

May 6, 2013

Mickey Raphael (right) with Willie Nelson (left)
Credit stillisstillmoving.com

Willie Nelson and Family are in concert May 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the State Theater in Kalamazoo. Even if the name Mickey Raphael isn’t familiar to you, you have most likely heard his music. Raphael is the harmonica player in country music legend Willie Nelson’s band.

Nelson just celebrated his 80th birthday. When they first met up and Nelson invited him to join the band decades ago, Raphael was just 20 years old.

“When I went to work for him he was 39 years old and I tell people when I met him he was an old 39 and now I think he’s a young 80," Raphael says. "His guitar playing is getting better, he’s so prolific on the guitar and I really think it’s just getting better.”

OK, so Willie Nelson keeps getting better as a musician, but what is he like to have as a boss?

“He’s a benevolent dictator,” Raphael says. “That’s the way I look at it. And he gives you enough rope to hang yourself. I mean, there’s been very little turnover in the band, except for people retiring or passing. And he’s great to work with and he gives you enough space to do what you do. He assumes that we will police ourselves.” 

“Willie is just very personable, and he just loves his fans and he loves to play music…that’s the deal.”

  Raphael started playing harmonica as a teenager, after hearing a live performance from Donnie Brook, who went on to play with folk musician Judy Collins and country music’s Waylon Jennings. He says playing harmonica suits him for several reasons.

“First off, the sound of it and the fact that you control it with your breath," he says. "It really becomes a part of you, because it is so personal. You can’t look down at the thing and see where you are, like with the guitar, you can look down at your fingers and look at the strings. With the harmonica it’s all happening in your head and your ear. It’s very cerebral and it takes a lot of training your ear.”

Raphael says his music career is still a work in progress and he’s always learning something new. Willie Nelson hasn’t slowed down a bit. He released a recording last year and another new one last month. Raphael says Nelson’s fans seem to grow more devoted all the time.

“Well, I think music is the common denominator and everybody loves music," he says. "And, even if you don’t particularly like his song or the way he sings, I mean there’s a message there that everyone can relate to.”

Raphael says Nelson almost always stays after a show to sign autographs for fans.

“Willie is just very personable, and he just loves his fans and he loves to play music…that’s the deal.”