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“Cowboy Calling” by Michael Harrington

Issue 104, Spring 2019

Willie's Other Voice


 play the harmonica.”

That’s how Mickey Raphael responds when a stranger in a hotel lobby or roadside truck stop—places you frequent when you’ve been touring with Willie Nelson for forty-five years—asks him what he does for a living. 

“Oh, nice. My uncle plays harmonica.”

That’s what Raphael, arguably the most highly esteemed cross-genre harmonica player of the past half century, typically hears in return.

This idea of the harmonica’s universality has been both a blessing and a burden for Mickey Raphael, who, in addition to helping shape the sound of 1970s outlaw country in his work with Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Guy Clark, has also played on records by everyone from Wynton Marsalis and Mötley Crüe to U2 and Snoop Dogg. Raphael’s All-Music page puts the number of albums he’s contributed to at five hundred fifty-one. If you’re wondering how a new artist, say Chris Stapleton, can instantaneously communicate a certain rootsy intimacy, the answer is probably: he hired Mickey Raphael. 

Buddy Cannon, the producer who has become best known for his work with Nelson, finds Raphael’s work distinctive, if uncategorizable. “Most harmonica players, there’s usually three styles,” he says. “One is the real Charlie McCoy country kind of thing, and then there’s blues, r&b stuff, then there’s the chromatic jazz sound. Mickey has another sound. I don’t know how to put my finger on it. All I know is if I hear a record on the radio and Mickey’s on it, I can pick him out as well as I can pick out the singer.”

Compared to more technically proficient harpists like Sonny Terry or Paul Butterfield, Raphael has a fundamentally responsive style, as if he were reacting to whatever song he is playing as a mere listener or fan. Listen to how he interacts with Stapleton’s voice on a rendition of Nelson’s “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” how he fills in the space between the vocals, anticipating the emotional fallout of a lyric. Listen to the way his harmonica trails off in defeat after Stapleton sings about an alarm clock that rang two hours late, the way he stays quiet in the second verse until he begins to dance around the narrator’s excuse for their partner’s drunkenness. In that moment, Raphael’s harmonica vocalizes the song’s unspoken subtext, exposing the narrator’s excuses as heartbroken delusions. 

Perhaps it’s the acute sense of identification with the song’s listener that I hear in Raphael’s playing that made me fall into the very same trap as the hotel-lobby stranger, that compelled me, in the second of our series of phone conversations last year, to tell one of the world’s greatest living harmonica players that I, too, can play.

Raphael reacts with less than enthusiasm when I bring up my own meager history of dabbling in the instrument, which I offer just moments after Raphael has finished explaining that he’s spent much of his life listening to people like me telling him exactly that. 

“Uh-huh,” he says. A few minutes later, he asks if he can call me back. 

I was about thirteen when I received my first harmonica. My dad brought it home from a road trip, a Hohner Blues Band (still the best-selling model in the world) that he had absentmindedly purchased at a Cracker Barrel. I had just enough intuition from several years of indifferent clarinet lessons to toy around with a few melodies, and, eventually, copy my favorite folk-rock harmonica solos, at least the ones in the key of C. 

A dozen years later, I still play—with the bedroom door closed, when no one else is home—in much the same way. I’ve added a few more keys to my collection—a G, B flat, F (for “Thunder Road”), and E (for “Just Like a Woman”), and if I get lucky, I may accidentally improvise along to an instrumental jam if it’s blaring loudly enough to obscure what I’m playing. 

For a nonmusician like me who spends the majority of his time listening to and writing about music, the harmonica can feel like my only bridge, a most fragile crossing, into the world of performance and music-making to which I am otherwise merely reacting. Playing the harmonica—the only Western instrument that produces music from inhalation as well as exhalation—feels like sucking in the air from an alternate reality, one where I can create music, a reality in which oxygen is the Chicago blues and no one has any trouble breathing. 

After a dozen years of fooling around on the harp, I decided I needed to speak with Mickey Raphael. I wanted to learn what it was like to devote oneself to an art that most take for granted, especially when that art form barely still exists. Willie Nelson is the last popular entertainer who tours with a full-time harmonica player. It’s been that way for several decades. Raphael, sixty-seven, doesn’t do anything else on stage; he doesn’t play tambourine, and he’s barely capable on guitar and piano. (One of Raphael’s favorite sayings: “If I got out there with my talent on the guitar, which equals how some people play the harmonica, I’d be run off the stage.”) He remembers “winging it” on the accordion in performance once in the early nineties and seems to regret having done so. He doesn’t even sing background vocals, not since the seventies, at least, and anyway he was on drugs back then.

“The world’s greatest job” is how Joe Filisko, a harmonica player who customizes the instrument for the world’s greatest players (including Raphael), describes Raphael’s high-profile gig with Nelson, one that involves nothing more than playing harmonica. “Even Charlie McCoy sings.”

Since its introduction from Germany to the United States in the 1830s, the harmonica has uniquely grasped the American imagination. “It serves our collective, subconscious notion that such a universal and unassuming device is a fitting symbol for humankind’s boldest democratic experiment,” Kim Field, author of Harmonicas, Harps, and Heavy Breathers, writes of the instrument’s enduring American appeal. McCoy, the legendary Nashville session harpist, puts it more plainly: “It doesn’t matter what the skill level of the player is, the sound of it catches your ear.” 

Raphael told me he learned to play harmonica in much the same way as I did. He was a solitary teenager, growing up in Dallas in the sixties. During lunch period in high school, Raphael would escape and wander the school’s ball field by himself, toying around with the harmonica he’d brought with him to school (to this day, he never goes anywhere without one), messing around with blues riffs he’d started to fall for as a teenager enthralled with the folk revival. 

Raphael came of age during an unexpected resurgence in the instrument. The harp’s popularity had boomed during the Great Depression, when, according to Field, an estimated two thousand “harmonica bands” formed. That led to an unlikely decade of harmonica prominence, in which thirties vaudeville acts like Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals starred in films and live revues that, confounding as it sounds today, featured the instrument as their main attraction. But as vaudeville faded into the big band jazz of the forties and fifties, the instrument fell out of favor.

Mickey Raphael learned everything he knows about the harmonica from Don Brooks, a harpist four years his senior who was already touring with Jerry Jeff Walker by the time Raphael was in high school. “He showed me the diatonic scale, the pattern of the harmonica, how all the notes fit together, how the notes were laid out. It was the basics for everything. He opened everything up. He was the key.” 

Raphael talks about Brooks in the reverent tone that an apprentice reserves for a mentor. I wanted to know more: When did Mickey first meet Brooks? How long did he study with him? “Well,” he says, making it clear I had misunderstood. It turns out his tutelage took place during a chance meeting in between sets in a Dallas folk club called the Rubaiyat. “We sat on the steps behind the venue, and he showed it to me in five minutes,” says Raphael. “He wrote it all out on a napkin or something.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mickey Raphael has a profoundly unsanctimonious relationship toward his instrument, and if he’s spent his entire life not being taken as seriously as other similarly virtuosic instrumentalists—Buddy Emmons on pedal steel, James Jamerson on bass, Pee Wee Ellis on sax—he’s uninterested in touting his own expertise. “I’m sure,” he says, “that I could make a lot more noise about who I am or what I do.” 

It seems fair to estimate that, apart from perhaps Stevie Wonder, more humans around the world have heard Raphael’s harmonica than that of any other living player, but to Raphael, the idea of serving as a representative for the instrument is entirely unappealing. “I know nothing about the history of the harmonica,” he says. “I’m not necessarily an ambassador.”

After starting his career playing with the Dallas country-pop singer B. W. Stevenson (“My Maria”), Raphael was invited to tour with Nelson in 1973 after a chance meeting in a Dallas hotel room after-party thrown by their mutual friend, Darrell Royal, the University of Texas football coach. He made his recording debut with Nelson on the 1975 breakout classic Red Headed Stranger, with most of the world first hearing Raphael the same time they first heard Nelson, on “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” the singer’s first pop hit. Raphael appears halfway through the song’s opening verse, slipping behind Nelson’s vocal the moment the ballad switches from personal memory to zoomed-out reflection: Love is like a dying ember, Nelson sings, as Raphael tiptoes his way into the song, like a ghost of the recollection the narrator has just finished sharing, and only memories remain. Raphael barely plays on the song at all, joining in every so often, yet it’s impossible to imagine it without him. “It’s what Miles Davis once told me,” Raphael says, “what you don’t play is just as important as what you play.”

For the bulk of his career, Nelson has relied on Raphael’s melodic runs to provide the type of instrumental color and emotional complexity that most singers need an entire array of accompanying instruments to establish. Apart from its rhythm section, Nelson’s touring band includes only Bobbie Nelson, his sister, on piano, and Raphael. Describing himself as a “melodic” harmonica player, Raphael can make his harp sound like the accordion, the fiddle, the pedal steel. 

“His licks are all melodies,” says Drew Lewis, the harmonica product manager at Hohner. “He’s not just vamping and doing your typical bends, which is not common with that level of player, where a lot of ego usually comes in.” At times, Raphael enjoys stretching out on a solo, but for the most part, his playing is entirely in service of Nelson’s vocal, the story the singer is telling. Before Raphael records a song for the first time, he’ll ask for a copy of the lyrics. He wants to ingest the narrative. “You’re painting a picture that you’re reacting to,” he says of his playing. “It becomes another voice. I’m a singer, singing with Willie, an extension of his voice. I’m Willie’s other voice.”

If it’s a cliché to describe an instrument as a voice, in the case of the harmonica, the comparison is more than metaphorical. After all, it used to be called the mouth organ. In the late eighteenth century, a Danish engineer named Christian Kratzenstein invented a direct precursor to the harmonica that, according to Field, “he claimed could articulate five vowel sounds and the words mama and papa.” 

Much like the reactions to the earliest iterations of the phonograph, the popularity of the harmonica throughout much of the twentieth century was tied directly to the instrument’s astonishing capability to mimic the live human voice. There once existed a subgenre of popular recordings based on the sole premise that the harmonica could so faithfully recreate strings of human sentences—The Lord’s Prayer, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—that audiences could tell exactly what the harmonica was saying.

Listen to the first two notes Raphael plays on his solo on Nelson’s “Georgia on My Mind” and it’s impossible not to hear Mickey singing the word “Georgia” through the instrument, the second syllable bending upward, just the way Willie sings it. Raphael’s harmonica grounds the song in its call-and-response gospel impulse: one voice means little without the other’s ghostly affirmation.

When he plays, Raphael wills his imagination into sound, putting noise to whatever he conjures when we all hear Willie sing. Some part of Raphael has never left his high school ball field, wandering around to find the riotous sound he couldn’t stop hearing in his head. It’s the same sound I still hear whenever I take out my rusting C harp when no one’s home, when simply shouting along to music just won’t cut it, when I need to show the music just how closely I’m listening.

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a research editor at Rolling Stone. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, GQ, Pitchfork, and the Village Voice. He lives in Brooklyn.