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October 20, 2014

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Music:

Raphael keeps pace on Willie Nelson tour

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Harmonica player Mickey Raphael got a crash course on country music in 1973 when he was hired by Willie Nelson.

If You Go

  • Who: Willie Nelson & Family with special guest Asleep at the Wheel
  • When: 9 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Planet Hollywood’s Theatre for the Performing Arts
  • Tickets: $50; 785-5555

Harmonica player Mickey Raphael was performing with a folk singer when he was introduced to his current employer, Willie Nelson, by the legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal in 1973.

“When I first got with Willie I had no country background at all,” Raphael, 58, says. “I had one Willie Nelson record … Of course I did this amazing crash course in country music, especially Willie’s catalog. The more I heard, the more I fell in love with his music and his style.”

Thirty-six years later that musical love affair continues, and includes a Willie & Family date Saturday at Planet Hollywood with Asleep at the Wheel opening.

Nelson is on a perpetual tour and the 76-year-old legend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He released a slew of albums this year, including “Willie and the Wheel,” “American Classic” and “Naked Willie.”

Raphael produced “Naked Willie,” reaching back 40 years and remixing some of Nelson’s recordings for RCA, stripping away the orchestrations to reveal the music’s plaintive core.

How did Willie get “Naked”?

It was my idea. I was always a fan of those songs during that era of Willie. I thought it would be cool to go back and record them again, and I know Willie’s style now is “less is more.” He wants to keep things really simple … I wondered what it would be like to take the strings off, the way the Beatles did with “Let It Be ... Naked.” They took out all the strings that Phil Spector had put in, and it was just the Beatles without the orchestration.

How did you create the new album?

I was allowed to go into the vaults to get the multitracks of Willie’s records. I dumped everything from the tapes and put it into a digital mode and then put it on a hard drive … I just took it down to the bare bones, just the players really … which is kind of what it would have sounded like if we had just recorded it this week.

The style in the ’60s was called “the Nashville sound,” with heavy strings and background vocals. Everything was being recorded with that formula, and some people had big hits with it, but it didn’t fly with Willie … It really wasn’t his style, but being a new artist, he didn’t have the input into the production. But the core players, the original band, were the crème de la crème of Nashville studios during that era.

Are you promoting “Naked” during this tour?

We don’t really promote anything. We just tour all the time, pulling from the classic songbook of Willie. There’s no set list. He just makes it up as he goes. I know we’re going to start each concert with “Whiskey River” and then we’ll do the medley — “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Nightlife” — but after that it’s kind of whatever comes to his mind. A lot of times it’s the same at the very beginning but then he’ll throw in some new songs. We don’t know what’s coming but he starts all the songs off anyway, so once we hear the intro we know what’s coming up.

Willie’s underrated as a guitarist, isn’t he?

People don’t know what a great guitar player he is. Since (the band’s longtime guitarist) Jody Payne retired almost two years ago Willie’s the only guitar player in the band, and he really gets to stretch out.

Do you think Willie will ever retire?

Years ago when we were playing a lot of scary redneck joints I asked Willie, “How long do we have to play these places?” He said, “If we’re lucky, a long, long time.” He’ll play till he drops. Me, I’m just lucky to be making a living playing harmonica.

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