Making music with my friends

By Eric Gallippo

How Mickey Rapheal won a glob-trotting gig with Willie Nelson

So you’ve booked a blockbuster tour featuring three of the biggest living artists in country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll, playing Triple A baseball stadiums across the United States of America.

Now how are you going to decide who goes on first? If you’re lucky, at least one of the acts will be as humble as country legend Willie Nelson. Nelson spent much of the summer touring with Bob Dylan and John Cougar Mellencamp, playing the first slot after opening band The Wyos, most every night. “Willie likes that slot,” said Mickey Rapheal, Nelson’s longtime harmonica player, during a recent phone interview. “There are no egos involved, and nobody cares.”

Rapheal said the approachable, laid-back persona Nelson presents to the public is authentic. “He is just the boy next door,” Rapheal said. “He’s the regular guy, just, you know — what you see is what you get.”

If anyone should know, it’s Rapheal. The Texas-born harp-man has been touring and recording with Nelson for the last 35 years. And as anyone familiar with the country music legend’s itinerary knows, that’s a lot of time spent together.

Nelson had already had a nice long career in music by most people’s standards by the time he met the Rapheal back in the early ‘70s. He had written and recorded some of his most enduring hits, including “Crazy,” “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” when Rapheal was still making a name for himself as a young harmonica player.

In his teens, Rapheal was drawn to the folk-blues scene in and around Dallas. After trying the guitar, he turned his focus to harmonica. “[Growing up] everybody has a harmonica, but everybody wants to play guitar. I felt more comfortable on the harmonica,” Raphael said, adding, “I was a terrible guitar player.”

As he started getting some attention in the Dallas music scene playing at local coffee houses, Rapheal made the acquaintance of Darrell Royal, head coach of the University of Texas football team and an avid country music fan. In 1973, Royal invited Rapheal to a post-game get-together in his hotel room. “He was having a little pick-up session after one of the ballgames, and Willie was there,” Rapheal said. “I really didn’t know that much about Willie; I wasn’t really a country fan.”

But he learned quickly, and soon Nelson asked him to join the band. After just a few months in the group, Rapheal was working with Nelson on recording the “Red Headed Stranger.” The album went on to great commercial success and critical acclaim.

Since then, Rapheal, 57, has appeared on numerous recordings and toured the world several times with Nelson, meeting many of his idols along the way, including Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young and Paul Simon. On Thursday, he’ll take the stage with Willie Nelson and Family at the Wharton Center.

At 76, Nelson still records at a prolific pace. Working by himself or with other musicians from the world of country, jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, he seems to release at least one new album for every reshuffling of his back catalogue the music industry can muster. With a handful of new studio albums already out this year, Rapheal said there are a few more yet to come, including a tribute to Ray Charles with superstar jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, due next week.

Although he didn’t come to the band as a fan, one of Rapheal’s latest projects was a labor of love to help Nelson fans discover and rediscover some of his classic tunes. Removing string arrangements and other gloss from some of Nelson’s 1960s RCA recordings, Rapheal produced a strippeddown collection of tunes for the album “Naked Willie.”

While some have disparaged the records revisionist history, many responded positively. Either way, the it got people talking about Nelson’s earlier work, which Rapheal said stands the test of time and new arrangements. “People who knew the originals loved what I did, and the people who didn’t know them went back,” Rapheal said. “It brought some new people who weren’t familiar with his classic recordings.”

Willie Nelson & Family

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24 $35-$55 1 (800) WHARTON