“I was kidding Willie many years ago. I said, ‘Willie, when do I get to stand in the middle?’ He said, ‘Any time you want.’ ”
More content to be a sidekick than a front man, Raphael hopped on the bus back in the early ‘70s and never got off. At the time, he was much more of a folk musician than a country boy. “Red Headed Stranger” was the first Willie Nelson album he played on and it’s been “On the Road Again” ever since. And again…and again…and again.
These days Willie, 78, may not be quite the outlaw country renegade he once was, but he still tours at least half the year and gets busted by the cops occasionally (last November, along the Texas border, for pot). Three of his songs are featured on the soundtrack of the new movie, “Our Idiot Brother.” He just recorded a song by Coldplay for another movie. And he closed out another Farm Aid fundraiser last month.
Before Willie Nelson and Family take to the road (again) and drop by the Wells Fargo Center, Raphael took time out to chat about their faded death wish, the occasional drug bust and he even played a quick game of “What Would Willie Do?”
Q: Do me a favor and take me back to the first time you met ol’ Willie.
A: It was at a picnic party in the hotel room of coach Darrell Royal, who was the University of Texas football coach. It was after one of the games. Willie was there, and Charlie Pride and several other musicians. I didn’t really know who Willie was. I had one of his albums, but I wasn’t that familiar with him.
They sat on the floor and jammed. The room was packed. I brought my harmonica and I was playing along with them. We did some Hank Williams songs. I was just struggling to keep up. Willie told me after the party, “If you ever hear we’re playing anywhere, come sit in with us.” And I did. I saw they were playing a fire department benefit outside of Dallas. I sat in with them and still I was lost, but Willie said, “We’re going to New York in a couple months, why don’t you come with us?” I tell people, “I was never hired, but I was never asked to leave.”
Q: How does being on the road today compare to being on the road back in the ‘70s?
A: Well we’ve kind of grown out of our death wish by now, I hope. And we’re just a lot healthier. Or kind of slowing down.
Q: Why can’t the cops seem to leave Willie alone?
A: He’s an easy bust. It doesn’t take great police work to get this guy.
Q: So if you’re a young state trooper and you see the Willie Nelson bus go by – it’s like shooting fish in a barrel?
A: Yeah, exactly. You still gotta have probable cause. But we still get stopped by the cops and they just want an autograph. Most of them are pretty nice guys. I wasn’t on his bus the last time so I can’t really comment on what happened. But if they’re looking for something, it’s not hard to find.
Q: When you look out from the stage these days, what do you see?
A: You see the grandparents and their grandkids. Rockers and the kids with piercings. Rednecks and hippies. When I first started back in 1973, I had a big afro and we played places where I couldn’t even walk in by myself.
Q: Let’s close with a quick game of “What Would Willie Do?” The bus is on fire. He can run and save only one thing. What would Willie do?
A: He’d grab (his sister) Bobby.
Q: Trigger (his beat-up guitar) is busted and they say he has to go on anyway. What would Willie do?
A: He has a backup Chet Atkins Gibson guitar that he loves.
Q: “Dancing with the Stars” calls up and offers him $1 million to be on the show. What could Willie do?”
A: I’m sure he’d do it. But you know Paul English, our drummer, is the best dancer in the band.
Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @becksay.