A Family Affair: Willie Nelson at IU Auditorum 

click to enlarge Legend Willie Nelson will play IU Auditorium April 6th.
  • Legend Willie Nelson will play IU Auditorium April 6th.
The first half of 2013 is shaping up to be busy for the legendary Texas troubadour. Willie Nelson turns 80 on April 30th, but that won't slow him down, according to Nelson's longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael.

"You know, it's really business as usual. We're not doing anything different from what we'd normally do. Just be thankful he's healthy. He is and he's still very mobile and I can't see age having too much effect on him," said Raphael.

Nelson is releasing a collection of jazz, pop, rock and country standards titled Let's Face The Music and Dance. The album, the second Nelson release on Legacy Recordings also features a new take on "Is The Better Part Over," a cut from Nelson's 1989 album, A Horse Called Music.

The genre excursions are typical of Nelson's career, which has featured albums seeing him dabble in jazz, pop standards - - and, in the case of his 2005 album, Countryman, reggae. Whatever the genre, Raphael has been beside Nelson throughout.

Raphael got his start playing with singer B.W. Stevenson, best known for his 1973 hit, "My Maria." Raphael joined up with Nelson in 1973, the year Nelson found critical success with Shotgun Willie, an album that was Nelson's first foray into outlaw country.

"His steel player Jimmy Day left the band; Jimmy is an iconic musician and one of the top, top steel players in history. Willie knew he couldn't replace him with another steel player. So my timing was perfect, I showed up about that time. And he took a chance to let me play with him. Because nobody had harmonica players. I mean Waylon did, Donnie [Brooks] played with Waylon for a while. But nobody had harmonica as a lead instrument. They would always have fiddle players or steel. There was nobody touring with a harmonica as a soloist. So that's pretty unique," said Raphael.

Raphael started out playing folk-blues style harmonica. "The first harmonica player I ever really listened to was from Dallas. His name was Don Brooks and he ended up playing with Waylon on a lot of the early Waylon records. Not real early, but I mean the late '60s and early '70s. So he was kind of my mentor, he really taught me more about the harmonica than anybody. He was very influential and so were Willie and Waylon," said Raphael.

Raphael credits the music of Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds for his interest in country music.

"Charlie McCoy was a great harmonica player playing on all the country records and the style was kind of similar to what I was doing, I just didn't know the songs," says Raphael. "That's what I had to learn when I got with Willie. I had to learn; besides his songs he just had a vast knowledge of country classics. He started doing Hank Williams; you know I didn't really grow up on that. Musically, it was easy, I just had to learn the songs," said Raphael.

Raphael's favorite albums he's performed on were mostly from Nelson's recent past rather from the era of Nelson's greatest commercial and critical impact. "Teatro, that Daniel Lanois produced. And then there was a record called The Great Divide that Mark Serletic produced and Mark produced Matchbox Twenty. So that's one of my favorites. And of course Stardust, going back to the '70s. Booker T. Jones produced that, from Booker T. & The MGs. Willie's musical taste and styling are really diverse and cover a wide swatch of the musical landscape," said Raphael. In a funny bit of coincidence, Hoagy Carmichael wrote "Stardust" in Bloomington and Booker T. Jones earned a degree in music from Indiana University during the 1960s. (Raphael said he'd tell Nelson to play "Stardust" during the performance in Bloomington on April 6.)

For those on the fence about attending the concert, Raphael had this to say, "He's just one of the things you gotta see. If you didn't get a chance to see Ray Charles or Waylon or Johnny Cash. You gotta see Willie while he's still doing it and going strong. He's not slowing down his guitar playing, everything seems like it's getting stronger and stronger. And he's a great guitar player. He's just a great musician."

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