Follow the leader.
After four decades as a member of Willie Nelson’s musical family, Mickey Raphael’s pretty good at that game.
He has to be — because that’s what playing with Nelson is all about.
“We follow Willie,” explains Raphael, who’ll be playing harmonica, as usual, when Nelson and Family check into The Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Reynolds Hall on Tuesday night.
It’s hardly their first Smith Center performance, however.
Nelson was one of the headliners at the center’s starry opening gala in March 2012 — a gig Raphael remembers well.
“What a dump,” he jokes, quickly adding that Las Vegas’ new performing arts center is “as beautiful as any place I’ve ever been. It reminds me of the Kennedy Center.”
Not that the venue makes any difference to Raphael and his colleagues.
“It doesn’t matter where we play,” Raphael says during a telephone interview from his Nashville home. “That’s inconsequential. It can be a bar full of drunks or The Smith Center,” he says, pausing expertly before delivering the following punch line:
“I might wear a nicer shirt if it’s The Smith Center.”
But seriously, folks, Raphael and his bandmates — including Nelson’s sister Bobbie on piano, drummer Billy English, percussionist Paul English and bassist Kevin Smith — have other concerns.
Because, once the 80-year-old Nelson uncorks “Whiskey River,” his traditional opener, “he just does what comes off the top of his head,” Raphael says. “We don’t need a set list. He starts the songs off” — and they’re off.
Raphael and his bandmates know there’ll be the usual array of Willie Nelson classics, from “Funny How Time Slips Away” to “Night Life” to “Crazy,” along with a variety of other tunes that demonstrate his eclectic musical approach.
“It’s a melting pot,” Raphael says, citing a musical itinerary that ranges from country to pop to jazz. “I hate putting names on a genre. There’s good music and bad.”
Whatever they’re playing, however, “the approach is the same,” according to Raphael. “Less is more. Keep it simple.”
Easier said than done, perhaps, but Raphael’s had plenty of time to figure out Willie’s way of doing things — once he found himself a member of Nelson’s musical family.
Before joining Nelson’s band, the Texas-born harmonica player didn’t know much about country music, having grown up listening to folk, rock and the blues.
But when the late Darrell Royal, then football coach at the University of Texas, invited Raphael to join him and some friends at a post-game picking party, the guest list included Nelson.
And after hearing Raphael play at the party, Nelson invited the self-described “hippie kid with an Afro” to sit in with him sometime.
That was in 1973.
“I tell people, I was never officially hired — and I’ve never been officially fired,” Raphael says. “I was never asked to leave, so I stayed.”
And while “not too many bands have a harmonica player,” Raphael has managed to play alongside everyone from U2 to Elton John, Paul Simon to Emmylou Harris.
But it just wouldn’t be a Willie Nelson concert without Raphael trading solos with Bobbie Nelson or chugging along with the beat.
Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday in April, but shows no signs of changing his on-the-road-again style — on stage or off.
With Nelson, “what you see is what you get,” Raphael says.
As for his seemingly permanent membership in Nelson’s musical entourage, Raphael has a simple explanation.
“I know how to listen,” he says. “And I’m good at what I do.”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.