Our Unsung Heroes of Americana series is all about championing the people, places and things that help to bring this great music to the listening public without ever really coming into the spotlight themselves. In this article, I’m really shining something of a light on two unsung heroes; a great sideman and an instrument often taken for granted.
The lowly harmonica is a popular instrument in roots music. Long associated with folk and blues, it’s an instrument that’s popular because it’s an easy one for a novice to play and get a reasonable sound from, without ever really being a great player. In the hands of a real master, however, it becomes a fascinatingly versatile instrument that can bring light and shade to a wide range of musical genres. Mickey Raphael is one such master and he has helped to define the sound of Willie Nelson since he first started playing with Willie’s band in the early 1970s, barely out of his teens.
Michael Siegfried Raphael, known to one and all as “Mickey”, was born in Dallas Texas in November 1951. In his teens, he gravitated towards the city’s folk music scene, where he first heard the great harmonica player, Don Brooks, who would give him some early pointers on playing his instrument but his main influences, at this time, were Paul Butterfield and R&B sax player King Curtis. Raphael was very much a folk-blues player in his youth and it wasn’t until he heard Country harmonica player Charlie McCoy that he realised the instrument could be used outside of the folk and blues clubs. He joined the band of progressive country singer B.W. Stephenson and it was this that brought him into contact with passionate country fan, Darrell Royal, the then coach of the University of Texas American Football team. Royal invited Mickey to a post-game party, one night in 1973, asking him to bring along his harmonicas, and an informal jam session started up, including Willie Nelson and Charlie Pride, who had also been invited along to the get-together. Nelson was so impressed he invited the young Mickey Raphael to come along to one of his gigs and sit in with the band sometime. Shortly after that, Nelson was playing a Firemen’s Benefit event on the outskirts of Dallas and Raphael duly turned up and sat in. This marked the beginning of his 48-year association with Willie Nelson – though he wasn’t in the band just yet! The story runs that, after Raphael had been sitting in with the band for a few weeks and at a number of gigs, Willie asked his road manager/drummer, Paul English, how much they were paying the young harp player – to be told they weren’t paying him anything, he’d just been turning up and playing. Willie’s response? “Great, then double his salary”! That’s when Mickey Raphael officially joined the Willie Nelson band, The Family, though Raphael maintains Willie never actually hired him; he just never asked him to leave. The first Nelson album he played on was the iconic ‘Red Headed Stranger’ and he’s been there ever since.
Raphael has always owned up to enjoying touring; he’s one of those musicians who likes to be out on the road, moving from gig to gig and that was one of the great attractions of working with The Family and it’s one of the things that has kept him with Willie Nelson over the years – even now, outside of the current pandemic, they still do over 100 gigs a year. Despite his love of life on the road, Mickey Raphael is no stranger to the studio. As well as working with Willie Nelson and appearing on the vast majority of recordings he has made over the years they’ve been together, Raphael has still found time to guest on other people’s records, as well as produce recordings and write scores for film and TV. As you might imagine, the man who plays the harp for Willie Nelson occupies an exalted position in the music business and his harmonica playing has been requested by a vast number of individuals and bands; and it’s not just country and Americana bands that come knocking at Mickey Raphael’s door. Alongside working with country and Americana artists such as Emmylou Harris, Jason Isbell, The Highwaymen, Townes van Zandt and many, many more, Raphael has also recorded with the likes of Motley Crue, Blue Oyster Cult, Lionel Ritchie, Snoop Dogg and Wynton Marsalis! The list of collaborations is a long and diverse one and it really is impressive to see just how versatile this musician is. His own website lists over 500 recording collaborations with different artists!
Surprisingly, for all the records he has played on, Raphael has just two solo recordings to his name, ‘Hand to Mouth’, an album of original tunes released in 1987 and 1999’s ‘Red River Valley’, an album of Cowboy related songs, such as the title track and tunes like ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Streets of Laredo’. Raphael has always said that he’s an accompanying musician and that the harmonica doesn’t lend itself to solo performance or fronting a band. There would be plenty who disagree but this is a man who seems very comfortable in his own skin.
More recently he has been working regularly with Chris Stapleton, both on recordings and live gigs and recognises that he currently splits his time between his long time employer and relatively new kid on the block, Stapleton; though, as long as Willie Nelson is still doing live shows, Mickey Raphael will be his harmonica player first and foremost. These days, the world’s most diverse cross-genre harmonica player calls Nashville home and continues to tour, record, and produce projects in Nashville, New York, and Los Angeles.
I’ve picked out three examples of Mickey Raphael’s work which I think exemplify why this man is such an Unsung Hero of Americana. First up is a track, ‘The Search’ from his solo album ‘Hand to Mouth’. It shows just how beautiful a harmonica can sound but is also a great demonstration of how much control Raphael is capable of when he plays.
You can’t have an article on Mickey Raphael without including a clip of him playing with Willie Nelson. This is Willie singing ‘City of New Orleans’ and is actually from The Highwaymen tour of 1990 but it’s a great example of how Willie and Mickey work together. Willie sings around a song; he has great phrasing that really makes him stand out as a singer but he doesn’t sing the main melody so he never really drives the song. That’s where Mickey comes in. Harmonicas have often been used to signify a train but it’s usually in the hissing of steam and the train’s horn being sounded. Here, he comes up with a great riff that is reminiscent of the rhythm of the train’s wheels on the tracks and drives the song along beautifully.
Finally, here’s Rodney Crowell’s single from 2017, ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’. This is a beautiful example of Raphael’s “less is more” philosophy. He has always maintained that the hardest thing for a supporting musician to learn is when not to play. He never solos over the singer and he’s always looking to enhance the song, not own it. Here, he judges his contribution perfectly, coming in right at the end of the song but putting a real stamp on it, emphasising the pathos in the song and driving home the underlying sense of loneliness, despite the positivity of the lyric. What a player.