One might assume that Mickey Raphael would grow bored playing his harmonica alongside Willie Nelson for almost four decades. But Raphael says he still enjoys a musical rapport with his boss, and as much as he might like to slow down the near-constant touring — the band plays 130 shows a year — he finds inspiration nearly each time he takes the stage.

“It’s fun. It really is still a lot of fun,” says Raphael, who joined Nelson’s Family Band 37 years ago and still ranks as the junior member of the touring group.

“I am such a big fan of his, first off. I am a fan of his writing and a fan of his guitar playing. It is fun to play with him every night. There’s no question that it’s tough to be on the road — traveling is the only thing I am getting tired of. If he wasn’t such a great guitar player and I wasn’t so enthralled by his writing, I surely couldn’t do it for this long.”

Raphael is 58. He joined the group when he was 21.

The version of Nelson’s band that performs Wednesday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is trimmed down. In addition to Nelson and Raphael, the lineup includes Willie’s sister Bobbie on piano; Bee Spears on bass; and Paul English on drums.

English, about whom Nelson wrote the song “Me and Paul,” has been drumming with Nelson since 1955. He has suffered ill health of late, and generally does not play more than a few songs in a row. When Paul English is not drumming, Billy English, his brother, sits in.

Raphael believes the longevity of the band, as well as the loyalty of its members, speaks to Nelson’s iconic stature in American music and his kindness as a boss. Nelson has won numerous awards and honors, and has written some of the most enduring songs in country music.

Raphael respects that Nelson has resisted falling into the habit of reproducing the same riffs night after night. Playing in the band, he said, is an exercise in staying fresh and keeping up the chops.

“The challenge is that he plays things differently every night,” he said. “He still amazes me with his playing. I stand four feet from him every night, and I get to watch him. It inspires me. We are not playing the same thing every night, even though the setlist is pretty much the same.”

Nelson opens almost every concert with “Whiskey River” — Raphael could not recall a show when that was not the opener — “but after that, it’s up to him. He has the intro to all the songs, and he doesn’t say anything. There is no verbal communication. It’s all eye contact. It’s all body language.”

The changes that occur nightly usually involve the solos. With the trimmed-down band, the only players who take solos anymore are Nelson, his sister and Raphael. Everybody watches Nelson for a nod of his head for a visual cue about who’s next.

Raphael began playing with Nelson in 1973. They met at a party after a University of Texas football game. A jam began, and Raphael took out his harmonicas to join in. Nelson liked what he heard, and invited him to sit in on more formal sessions.

They’ve been playing together ever since.

Over the years, Raphael has earned a reputation as an inventive and creative harmonica player. He has turned the instrument into an integral part of the band instead of a complementary piece. He has played with some of the biggest names in music, from Elton John and Bob Dylan to Neil Young and U2, and has influenced two generations of players.

He cites Don Brooks, who played harmonica with Waylon Jennings, as his first mentor. Others include Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Fadden and Charlie McCoy.

Raphael says he continues to learn new techniques, and names Jason Ricci as an influential younger player. “I’m always finding stuff on YouTube and sharing ideas. I look at that all the time,” he said. “Hopefully, I am always learning.”

Raphael said the band is looking forward to the Portland show. It’s been a long time since Nelson has played up here, and the band happens to have two days off in town before the gig. That’s a rare and welcome respite, he said. An avid bicyclist, Raphael has researched the area and plans to spend as time as he can on his bike.

“I still enjoy what I do, and I still enjoy playing with Willie,” he said. “But having two days off in a place like Portland really makes being out on tour livable. We’re really looking forward to getting up there.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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