Photos by Danny Clinch and Jack Spencer
There is an alchemy in music. A special combination of the right people, at the right time, with the right goods. A little of this, a pinch of that- it’s like watching grandma cook. She never uses a recipe or measuring cups and yet the alchemy is always spot on. That’s the good stuff. The stuff people remember. The stuff that lasts.
When you stop and think about the alchemy of music, think about a song like God Only Knows by the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson used a bunch of unorthodox instruments like the french horn, accordions, sleigh bells, a harpsichord and a quartet of violas and cellos. The song has been critiqued for its harmonic complexity and in its closing Wilson saw fit to feature “perpetual rounds” which wasn’t normally heard in popular music at that time. This song, in my opinion, is a demonstration of pure genius. Every instrument lends itself perfectly and if only missing one of them, the song wouldn’t have been as spectacular.
So in the opus of music, ingredients are important. Sure you’ll always have your staples- guitar, bass, drums. But every now and then you need some spice- accordions, fiddles, harmonicas. And a special ingredient for musical soul food is the incomparable harmonica player, Mickey Rafael.
Mickey’s talent has crossed genres and he has played with a variety of artists like Elton John, U2, Motley Crue, Vince Gill, Emmy Lou Harris, Neil Young, Tom Morello, Paul Simon, Zac Brown Band, Leon Bridges, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings just to name a few. But his loyalty remains to his compadre- Willie Nelson.
Mickey and Willie have been touring together since the early 70’s and are at it again this year, so I was honored when Mickey carved out some time in-between shows to talk music with me.
What made you gravitate towards the harmonica?
You know I was a terrible guitar player and I loved music. I had a harmonica like everybody else on the planet when they’re kids, but I heard a guy named Don Brooks play. I heard him play in a little club and he just blew me away. He ended up going on to play with Waylon Jennings. So that was kinda my intro into country music, following Don’s career. I had no country music interests or background and I just fell in love with Waylon and his music. Then I accidentally met Willie and I started touring with Willie about… 1973.
How’d you meet Willie?
I met Willie through coach Darrell Royal, who was the coach of the University of Texas football team. He was a patron of the arts and a close friend of Willie’s and he would have these little “pickin’ parties” at his house or if he was on the road after a ball game. So he’d have all his friends over and whatever musicians were around, that were attending the games and they’d pass the guitar around and sing songs. There’d probably be 30 or 40 people in the room and the coach would make everybody be quiet, if anybody was talking when the singer was singing he’d throw them out of the room. So there was a ball game in Dallas, he called me up and said, “You know, I want to meet you. Why don’t you come over to the hotel after the game? Bring your harmonicas and meet some of my friends.” And Willie was there.
So you’d just been playing with a local band when he heard about you?
While I’d been playing with B.W. Stevenson, he was a local folk hero at the time. He had records out and we toured all over the country. When we’d play Austin the coach would come into the clubs we were playing and so he’d heard me play. I was playing with Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. So I was in that Texas folk music scene.
So your music resume is super impressive, you’ve played with a lot of different kinds of people, who would you say were some of the most memorable for you?
Memorable… U2 probably. Willie and I were in Ireland on tour and we were invited over to their studio for dinner one night and it was just the four of them and Willie’s manager and Lian Lunson who is a filmmaker who was directing a video of Willie at the time. She was close friends with Bono and the guys and she said, “You know the guys want to
have you over for dinner.” They were working on their record Pop and they were taking a break. We had a great spread upstairs for dinner and then Bono was telling Willie, “Hey I wrote this song and I’ve always wanted to hear you sing it.” And Willie goes, “Well let’s go!” So we went down to the studio and cut this track called Slow Dancing. There’s actually a video of it. Lian actually had a film crew circling the studio and didn’t know if anything was going to happen but if something did go down she wanted to film it. That was cool.
Winton Marsalis, all the stuff Willie and I did with Winton and Winton’s band was great. It was a lot of fun.
On record- Motley Crew, I did Smoking in the Boys Room with them.
The last two records with Chris Stapleton I played on and toured with him off and on the year before last. Willie slowed down a bit so between Willie dates I went out with Stapleton but I really don’t want to tour with anybody, Willie’s got me spoiled.
Just on record, I live in Nashville so I get a lot of chances to record with other people. Kenny Chesney uses me on his records and I just played with this new group called Lanco. Their record just came out, it’s doing great and I’m on one of their tracks. Middle of the Night is the name of the song, you should check it out, it’s pretty cool.
But you know, Elton John was great. Live I’ve been fortunate enough to play with everyone from Dylan to Neil Young to Johnny Cash and Waylon.
Do you play any other instruments?
No. I’ve tried to teach myself and am now taking lessons on the accordion. You know, the Tex-Mex type of accordion. I’m taking lessons from Joel Guzman who plays with Paul Simon.
I read online that you wanted to work with Ryan Bingham, I love Ryan, did you ever get to do that?
Yeah, I’ve played with him a lot. I haven’t got to record with him, actually they just called me about recording with him and I told the producer, “Ryan’s a great harmonica player himself, you don’t need me.” Ryan’s a great guy and really, REALLY talented. Great singer/songwriter and great harmonica player to boot.
You’ve been with Willie for a long time, what’s kept you coming back?
I guess I was un-hire-able. Nobody called. Na, he’s great to work with. It’s really a family and at this point I’m pretty embedded in the system. And I’ve got everything exactly like I like it. I’ve got a bike on the road, I’ve got a whole bay under the bus with my toys- you know which I couldn’t do with another band. I get treated pretty well on tour. I could want for nothing else.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Well, I was just on my stationary bike so I was just listening to Queens of the Stoneage. But I listen to everything. Anything that’s good. I was listening to Winton Marsalis the other night. I have a record player so sometimes I’ll put on Miles (Davis) Kind of Blue if I’m trying to relax. Sometimes streaming I’ll have classical music throughout the day and then I’ll check out what new country acts are around. I gotta keep current, see what’s going on in the business but when I’m on my bike if I’m in my little workout room I like to pick up the tempo a little bit. I love Queens of the Stoneage and Led Zeppelin.
If I gave you a ticket to go see anyone in concert right now, who would you go see?
Aretha Franklin. She’s actually playing the Jazzfest. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make it down there though.
You get challenged to a lip-synch battle, what song do you choose?
Oh, I did my first karaoke the other day. My girlfriend Michelle who lives in New York, took me to karaoke bar with like private rooms. So you can order drinks and you know I’m not a drinker but I guess I was that night. And my song was Gin and Juice! And let me tell ya, we also did some Chili Pepper stuff but man do I have a new appreciation for urban music, for rap because it’s so poetic and it was so hard to do. Gin and Juice wasn’t too hard, I was just stupid but the Red Hot Chili Peppers song Give It Away.
In doing some research I found an article that talked about how you helped create the December Day album with Willie and Bobbie Nelson and in that article you said, “It isn’t rocket science, it’s alchemy”- I think that is my new favorite line EVER!
Yeah creating gold out of magical ingredients, which were Willie and Bobbie. I mean they’re both magical on their own but the sum of those two parts and myself included.
I’ve read that you do a lot of writing.
Writing is hard. I just contributed to ananthology that one of my favorite authors John Dufresne, who’s a short story writer and a novelist and he lives in Florida. The book, I don’t know the title but essays “The first time I saw…” it could be Paris, New York, whatever. I took forever and waited right up to the deadline to do it. I don’t know the craft but he would also edit my pieces too, actually on my website there’s one, an article I wrote, about Willie and I riding to a gig with the Hell’s Angles.
Yeah, I read that one and you’re a pretty good writer.
Oh thank you. It’s hard though. That was several re-writes and an editor making his hieroglyphics in the margins and it’s hard. I really respect the craft. People ask me, are you ever going to do a book? And I would never do it myself, I’m just not that disciplined enough but I’d love to do a book and have it just be an elongated interview. But it’s hard and I respect the craft… It is a skill.
What’s some of the unique experiences you’ve had working with other artists?
I think when we recorded with U2. We went downstairs to their studio in Dublin and I was pretty excited because I’m a big fan of those guys.
Willie and I played Ray Charles’s funeral which was pretty amazing, and that’s where I met Winton Marsalis- he also played. We were just on the pulpit playing, Wille, Jim Cox (he’s a keyboard player ) and I. We played Georgia over the casket… open casket… but in the audience was Stevie Wonder, Little Richard, Quincy Jones. Anyways, it was an audience that was pretty scary to play in front of. I mean, I did realize I wasn’t the center of attention, I was kind of anonymous but I don’t think I could have played with Stevie Wonder looking at me but to be in his presences was awe-inspiring.
Mickey’s soul is in every note he plays and you can attribute his amazing resume to that fact. He was such a fun fella to connect with and I look forward to seeing him and Willie on the road later in the year. You can see their full tour schedule on Willie’s website, willienelson.com. If you want to see some of the amazing performances Mickey’s been a part of, go to his website www.mickeyraphael.com and check out his videos. On his website you can also read his story about riding to a show with the Hell’s Angles.
Talking to Mickey was the excuse I needed to dig through my musical library and pay special reverence to the alchemy that goes into music. Listening to those who brought in all right stuff to create something magical is nothing less than soul food. So carve some time out of your day to bust out the vinyl and crank it up to 11.