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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Music

Harmonicist Mickey Raphael on the road again with Willie Nelson

On his day off in Airway Heights, harmonica player Mickey Raphael won’t be checking out the casino or any other local sites for that matter.

Equipped with his newly updated portable recording rig (engineer Brando Marios was installing ProTools onto Raphael’s new laptop when he spoke with The Spokesman-Review), Raphael will instead be holed up in his hotel room, “or a shower stall at the venue,” to work on other musicians’ projects.

In his four-decade-long career, Raphael has worked with everyone who’s anyone: Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Rosanne Cash, Elton John, Townes Van Zandt, Aaron Neville, the Beach Boys, U2, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, Norah Jones, Lionel Richie, Alison Krauss, the list goes on and on.

But Raphael is perhaps best known for his work with Willie Nelson, with whom he will be performing when Willie Nelson and Family plays Northern Quest Resort and Casino on Tuesday.

Raphael picked up the harmonica when he was young, after he had a rough time with the guitar.

“I was a mediocre, if not terrible, guitar player, and the harmonica just spoke to me,” he said. “I had a certain affinity for it. This was something I was really drawn to and was able to learn to play it and I’m still learning.”

The self-taught Raphael got his start playing folk music. After meeting Nelson in the early ’70s though, he had to switch gears to country music, a transition hindered only by the fact that Raphael didn’t have the country music repertoire of the other musicians.

“I did a crash course: Hank Williams and Willie and Waylon and Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard,” he said. “Once I got the songs in my head, it was easy to play them.”

During his first few gigs with Nelson, Raphael, in his words, winged it until he got a feel for each song.

Eventually, Raphael became more and more comfortable performing, so much so that he kept showing up to rehearsals without actually having been asked to join the band.

“Willie asked (drummer Paul English) ‘What are we paying Mickey?’ ” Raphael said. “Paul said ‘Nothing. He’s just showing up.’ And Willie said ‘Double his salary.’ ”

He’s been with Nelson ever since, including for “God’s Problem Child,” Nelson’s 61st studio album, which was released in April.

After so many years and albums together, working with Nelson in the studio has become like second nature to Raphael.

“When I go into a session, nobody tells me what to play,” Raphael said. “We know our instrument. We know how to read the song. It’s pretty much magical what happened.”

A solo artist in his own right, Raphael released an album called “Hand to Mouth” in 1988. The album was re-released in 2000.

He’s considered releasing another, but between his work with Nelson and projects for other musicians, Raphael simply hasn’t found the time.

For now he’s content with those other projects, and hopes to someday take his harmonica expertise in a new direction: rap music.

He cites Aretha Franklin and Common as artists he’d like to work with and said he enjoyed working with Snoop Dogg on 2011’s “Doggumentary” and appreciated Pitbull and Kesha’s use of harmonica on “Timber.”

“The music is so rhythmic and lyrical,” he said. “The lyrics speak so much. I think the harmonica is just another voice that would compliment and it really hasn’t been used.”

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