New to Willie Nelson? Don’t cop to that shit around these parts, partner, unless you do it in a Martian accent. In his 76 years, Abbott, Texas’s native son has done so many phenomenal things a list of them would amount to a religious text, but let’s put it this way: He wrote a hit song for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”) and appeared in a Snoop Dogg video (“My Medicine”). The words “living legend” aren’t really adequate; that should’ve opened up a wormhole in space-time. We’re still waiting for him to bring his Fourth of July Picnic back to San Antonio, but you’ve got a chance to verify his actual existence Sunday at the Majestic. Don’t let your ignorance keep you away: Use the handy guide below to begin your lifelong meditation on the aspects of Willie today, because the man won’t be with us forever. Actually he might. That wouldn’t really surprise us at this point.
Mickey Raphael has played harmonica with Willie Nelson since 1973. He produced 2009’s Naked Willie, featuring Nelson recordings from 1966-1970 stripped of their Nashville studio flourishes. Raphael is currently working with Salvador Duran and Calexico’s John Convertino and Joey Burns to record a follow-up to his 1987 solo album Hand to Mouth.
How is Willie Nelson’s hand recovering? `He canceled a concert last month due to hand pain.`
It’s good. I mean he plays. He had that carpal-tunnel-syndrome operation — it’s been awhile back `2004`. … We’re out on the road now, but we just had a day off yesterday, and we’ve got a day off Monday, so he’s giving it some rest. … He’s the only guitar player we got, though.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve had playing with Willie Nelson?
`Performing in Amsterdam with` Snoop Dogg was pretty unique. We’ve gotten to play with U2. Willie and I went to see Bono in Ireland, and they were working on a record and they asked us to come down and record a song that they released in Europe `“Slow Dancing”`. I don’t think it was a U.S. release. Willie and I played in Georgia at Ray Charles’s funeral. We just did this thing with Wynton Marsalis `2008’s Two Men With the Blues`.
How did you begin playing with him?
I met Willie through `former University of Texas football coach` Darrell Royal, at a jam session at the coach’s hotel room after a ball game. He had about 30 people in there … a bunch of musicians and just his buddies and stuff. They just sat around passing the guitar around. Willie sang some. I think Charlie Pride sang some; I can’t remember who else was there. And Willie just said, “Hey, if you ever hear we’re playing anywhere, come sit in.” I started checking his schedule and seeing where he was playing in Texas. … It just kind of segued into playing with him more often.
How did the idea for Naked Willie come about?
I just pitched the idea to the record label. I said, “We’ve got all these great songs from the ’60s, and I wonder what they would sound like without all these strings and background vocals. What would it sound like if Willie had been the producer?
So this was your idea?
Yeah, totally my idea. Willie really heard it when it was finished.
The impression I’d had was it was similar to the way that Let It Be Naked had arisen— something that had been eating away at him for a long time.
No, no. It was something that had been eating away at me for a long time. •
Yesterday’s Wine (1971): The story of an “imperfect man” looking back on his life as he approaches death. Features the beautiful heart-crusher “Summer of Roses,” the incredibly badass “Me and Paul” (“We drank a lot of whiskey, so I don’t know if we went on that night at all”), and a heaven-set spoken-word intro that belongs on a Yes album.
Shotgun Willie (1973): “Whiskey River” and “Bubbles in My Beer” are required for any good liver-torture soundtrack, and the title song is a funny and surprisingly funky look at writer’s-block-induced insanity. Meaningfully romantic, “A Song for You” is irrefutable proof of the wizard-like power in Nelson’s voice.
Phases and Stages (1974): A crumbling marriage viewed from the wife’s perspective on side one and the husband’s on side two. Don’t allow anyone who’s ever been through a painful breakup to listen to “Pretend I Never Happened” or “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” within a five-mile radius of a gun.
Wanted! The Outlaws (1974): This platinum compilation album (the first to sell 1 million in country music) is a decent introduction to Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but disposable once you get further into their catalogs. The tracks featuring Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter, or any combination thereof are awesome, but do yourself a favor and skip Tompall Glaser.
Redheaded Stranger (1975): A starkly minimalist concept album about a preacher who murders his adulterous wife and her lover. It became a surprise hit thanks to “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and Nelson’s pretty much done whatever the hell he wanted to ever since.
Stardust (1978): Blows the dust off some seemingly used-up standards — “Unchained Melody,” “Blue Skies,” “Georgia on My Mind” — to reveal the emotion underneath. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Can See Clearly Now” were included just to make you stop crying.
San Antonio Rose (1980): Nelson teams up with Ray Price on this album of duets named for the Bob Wills classic. More importantly, it makes San Antonio one of only five cities (the others are New Orleans, Nacogdoches, Augusta, and Austin, if you count subtitles) with their names in an official Willie Nelson release! It’s not on this album, but Nelson’s got another song named “San Antonio,” too, which includes the even-better-than-intended lyric “I must admit I’m just a homeboy.”
Tougher Than Leather (1983): A lesser-known concept album in the Red Headed Stranger model about a hard-ass gunfighter weakened by remorse (or something). Mostly worth noting because it shares its title (but nothing else) with a 1988 Run DMC album. Sadly, they never attempted a “Walk This Way” style crossover.
Highwayman (1985): The debut from the supergroup comprising legends Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. The batshit-awesome reincarnation-themed title track could be called “The Traveling Wilburys Can Suck It.”
Countryman (2005): Yes, it’s a Willie Nelson reggae album with pot leaves on the cover, but it’s no joke. The almost-surreal hybrid of classic country and reggae features more steel guitar than steel drums, but the reworking of Johnny Cash’s “I’m a Worried Man” as a duet with Toots Hibbert and the heartfelt take on Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” reveal a true respect for the genre.
The Electric Horseman (1979):
Nelson made his acting debut in this story of a washed-up rodeo star alongside Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and supplied five songs for the soundtrack, including “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and a cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.”
Half Baked (1998): In a cameo appearance as the “Should’ve Been There Smoker” Nelson claims he can remember a time when people openly smoked marijuana in the streets, a dimebag was actually a dime, and no one knew what condoms cost because they never used them.
A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (2008) This Grammy-winning holiday special features Nelson dressed as a Magi singing “Little Dealer Boy,” the touching story of a poor man who has nothing to give the infant Jesus besides a joint of primo bud: “Let not mankind Bogart love.” Anyone picking up on a common theme here?
You bet your ass he’s written books, too.
A Tale Out of Luck: A Novel
The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in
The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes
Songs Other People Wrote About Willie Nelson
“Willie and Waylon and Me” by David Alan Coe
“Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
by Waylon Jennings
“Weed With Willie” by Toby Keith
“Willie Nelson” by Miles Davis — yeah, that Miles