By the Way

Mickey Raphael talks new Willie album, recording with Chris Stapleton

While there is strife, both politically and socially, in the country, we must all strive to find common ground. Especially when it involves Willie Nelson.

It is time for the internet to stop killing Willie.

Seriously.

The amount of ageism directed at Willie is appalling. I’m not kidding. Leave Willie alone. Stop waiting for him to die and spreading death rumors just so you can wax poetic about what he meant to American music.

Willie turned 84 last week, and for some reason the internet has again given him a death sentence. I hope and pray I get to turn 84 one day.

Even as a “dead” man, on April 28, Willie released his latest album, “God’s Problem Child.” And although he has a distinguished musical catalog that includes “Red Headed Stranger,” Stardust,” the Daniel Lanios–produced “Teatro” and the sparsely arranged “Spirit,” “God’s Problem Child” is one of his best albums.

Produced by his longtime friend Buddy Cannon, “God’s Problem Child” is a record that celebrates Willie’s life, while looking over its shoulder at mortality. No, unfortunately, we are not going to live forever. But when we do cross the bar, I hope the next spot is as pleasant as the “Little House on The Hill” of which Willie sings in the album’s Southern gospel–tinged opener.

On the Donnie Fritts–penned “Old Timer,” Willie faces growing older and, hopefully, wiser. The line “Still got a lot of life and a song to sing” will hang around with you long after you’ve listened to the record.

Willie even says it himself in a song he co-wrote with Cannon — “Still Not Dead” — that even though the internet keeps killing him, he’s still not dead.

I saw Willie a couple months ago at the IP Casino Resort in Biloxi. I assure you he was alive, healthy and performing at a top level. He put on a great show.

Although he has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music, and the same could be said about his guitar tone, that’s only two-thirds of what makes Willie’s unique sound, especially on “God’s Problem Child.” The other one-third of the sound is the harmonica playing of Mickey Raphael. For more than 40 years, Raphael has been playing beside Willie, becoming one of the most sought-after musicians in country music. He’s played with everyone from Chris Stapleton to Motley Crue.

In an interview with the Sun Herald, Raphael, who was about to start a five-night residency with Willie at The Fillmore in San Francisco, reflects on Nelson’s latest album, which he said was “really special.”

For a fan of Willie’s work, “God’s Problem Child” ranks up there with “Teatro” as one of his best works.

I love it. It’s one of my favorites and it’s up there with “Teatro” and “Across The Borderline.” I just love the content. But the songs and the arrangements and the playing — it’s just one of my favorites.

You’ve told me you thought the album was “really special.” What made it so special for you?

I think the songs are age appropriate, too. I really like the Donnie Fritts song “Old Timer.” To me, that’s probably Willie looking in the mirror and seeing himself like he’s still 30 years old. It’s a great group of songs. We’ve worked with Buddy Cannon for a while now and he and Willie write well together.

Willie has always been prolific, especially with releasing albums. Is there already talk about the next album?

There’s probably two albums that are already done. We recorded a bunch of Merle Haggard songs and I’m not sure what’s going to happen with those. I also know he’s recorded some stuff with his sons.

You’ve played some pretty interesting gigs recently, including the Merle Haggard tribute and Stagecoach. Any standout moments from those shows?

Stagecoach was great. It’s at the same place Coachella is held. Margo Price and John Doe and Jamey Johnson came out and played with us. At the end, Neil Young walked out and grabbed a harmonica and we had a little harmonica duel.

I really like the new Rodney Crowell song, “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which also features you in the video. How did you land that?

I knew Rodney before I was playing with Willie. They cut the track in Nashville and they shot the video there and the director wanted me to be in it. When I went to shoot my scenes, I was there by myself.

The new Chris Stapelton album drops this week. Was it cool to play on “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning,” which you recorded with Willie in the early 1980s on the “Always on My Mind” album?

It was cool. Stapelton asked me to do it and he told me to just “do what I did” when I recorded it with Willie. I play on a couple of tracks on the new album and I’m on four cuts on the next album. I hope I get to do some more dates with him this year when I have some time off, but he’s been doing fine without me.

Catch Willie and Mickey at the Outlaw Music Festival

Willie Nelson & Family

The Avett Brothers

Sheryl Crow

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

Shrine on Airline in New Orleans

Saturday, July 1

Tickets start at $50 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.

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