Texas songwriter Guy Clark may have had it right: you probably don’t need a whole lot to get through life, just stuff that works. Stuff that holds up.
For most of his career, Willie Nelson has managed to get along pretty well with a handful of that kind of stuff: his expressive, inimitable voice and his battered nylon string guitar. And that core group of musicians who form Nelson’s Family Band — Bobbie Nelson, Paul English, Mickey Raphael, Bee Spears, Jody Payne, and Billy English — have been on the road with him through fat and lean times for the better part of four decades.
Last year, Nelson’s widely celebrated 75th birthday drew praise and a few wild stories from Willie’s vast circle of admirers. A three-inch thick Nelson biography hit the book shelves. The man himself shows no sign of slowing down. He released four new albums last year, and four this year. And Nelson’s life-long love affair with touring forges on.
We caught up with the recent tour and spoke to Mickey Raphael, Nelson’s harmonica player since 1973. Just ahead of their annual Farm Aid concert, a benefit show which has been going strong for over 20 years, Raphael talked about his new role: record producer.
Released earlier this year, Naked Willie is a dip into Nelson’s early RCA catalog. Raphael worked with 17 tracks, originally recorded between 1966 and 1970, and scrubbed them clean of their ’60s-era “Nashville sound” — the term Raphael uses is “un-produced.” Buried under layers of string arrangements and ill-fitting horn sections lay the work of some of country music’s finest session musicians. Taking in the production excesses like a tailor might alter an off-the-rack suit, Raphael lets the music breathe in a new way. However, the challenge was to find tracks that could be effectively reworked.
“[The songs on the album] were chosen by what my favorites were and which songs we were able to strip down,” says Raphael. “Sometimes the string sections would bleed into Willie’s mic, and we couldn’t touch that. Or they’d bleed into the piano mike because they were all recorded in the same room. And taking out the strings, I didn’t want to lose the piano. I wanted to keep everything in the original form.”
And that original form, the one that would evolve into Nelson’s stripped-down signature sound is especially evident on tracks like “Laying My Burdens Down” and “What Can You Do To Me Now?” which come through Raphael’s “un-production” process refreshed and newly engaging.
More recently, Raphael has put in studio time on Nelson’s latest album, American Classic. Produced by Tommy LiPuma, perhaps best known for his work with jazz artist Diana Krall, American Classic bears all the hallmarks of a classic jazz studio album, bringing together a dozen songs that run the gamut from Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” to Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway hit “On the Street Where You Live.” On a pair of tracks, Diana Krall and Norah Jones trade vocals with Nelson.
For Raphael, it was an opportunity to make music with some personal favorites like Joe Sample. Overall, it harkened back to the rich vein of American standards that yielded 1978’s multi-platinum Stardust.