John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One By Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. This show is brought to you by White Claw Hard Seltzer.
This week, we talk with Willie’s longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, a musician whose playing is as vital to Willie’s sound as Trigger and Willie’s own voice. He’s here to discuss a fairly forgotten cut from Willie’s last days in Nashville, “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture,” which is a song that predates Mickey even meeting Willie, but it’s also the song that made him first hope there was a place for him in Willie’s band. From there, he touches on the truly freaky photo of Willie that’s on that album’s cover—man, talk about words not fitting pictures; check that one out—before giving an eyewitness look at life inside Willie World, describing things like the unlikely way he was invited to join the Family, concerts in which the band decided to just keep playing until dawn, stowaways on Willie’s bus, and so on. Oh, and he also talks about how much his fifty-year friendship with Willie means to him. Let’s do it.
[Willie Nelson singing “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture”]
John Spong: What’s so cool about the song “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture”?
Mickey Raphael: Well, I’ve got to say that just, first off, the first thing that caught me was the harmonica. Charlie McCoy is playing harmonica on it, and the harp part is just so . . . it’s not overplayed—Charlie is one of these guys that doesn’t play any notes that don’t absolutely have to be there. And he’s actually playing notes that don’t exist on the harmonica; he’s bending notes, which is a technique that you do on the harmonica to get notes that don’t really exist. But it’s just such a simple, kind of a haunting sound that he gets, and that’s what first piqued my interest on this tune.
It’s like, “Oh, this incredible harmonica part.” So maybe what registered was, maybe there’s a part for me in Willie World. But then, listening to this song, I mean just musically, it’s different. It has such jazz voicings, and the changes are just not your typical country song. And it deals with a basic story line—“the words don’t fit the picture.” I mean, you say something, and it’s not really what’s happening in real time. And it just hits me on so many levels—but the first thing that caught my ear was the harmonica, and it just drew me in.
John Spong: Well, and if folks don’t know who Charlie McCoy is, he was one of the Nashville A-Team session players, one of the first-call guys, whenever Chet or Owen Bradley—Chet Atkins, who produced Willie’s stuff back then, and Felton Jarvis, who produced this, I think, because this was 1971—Charlie McCoy was the harmonica player you’d bring in. And if I remember, the story is that Charlie . . . he came to Nashville, he wanted to make it, maybe playing guitar, as a singer, songwriter, whatever, and he realized, “Oh, well, there’s a lot of those here, and that’s not going to work.” So he decided, “Yeah, but there’s not a lot of harmonica players. If I can just play the harmonica well, I’ll always have a place when they call people to come record.”
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, right. Well, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no harmonica players, other than Charlie, and he set the bar. It’s just, there’s never been anyone to play like him, or to make an impact on music. And saying so much with so little notes—which is hard for a harmonica player, because, first off, you don’t have anything to hide behind; you’re pretty naked up there with this little piece of tin in your mouth. And most players, me included, tend to play way too much. So I think with age, or with experience, you kind of back off, and Charlie’s just one of those guys that has definitely achieved saying a lot with a minimal amount of notes.
[Willie Nelson singing “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture”]
John Spong: Wow.
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, those lyrics—it’s like he’s been reading my mail.
John Spong: And it’s interesting—so at that period, in the early seventies, he’s going through a breakup with his second wife, Shirley, who—presumably that’s written about, or it’s during that, and it’s funny, because it’s one of those Willie things where he’s, in a sense, letting her know that everything’s going to be okay. He is leaving her. You know? And he’s already with Connie.
Mickey Raphael: Right. Everything’s going to be okay . . . for him.
John Spong: Yeah, precisely. There’s kind of that element. But then, the other thing is, you know, the album before this is Yesterday’s Wine, which is one my very favorite records I’ve ever heard by anybody. It was so weird—it didn’t do anything, and then this album—because this was the title cut to the album, Words Don’t Fit the Picture—comes out in ’72, and it doesn’t even chart. This song was released as a single, and it was on the charts for two weeks. I think it got to seventy-three or something. It’s not quite working, and that’s after years of frustration at RCA, who he knows is fixing to drop him—to let him go. So in a very real sense, he’s going through two nasty divorces in this moment that he’s singing about here. There’s a lot in there.
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, a lot of information to write about, a lot of inspiration. Yeah, it was a hard time for him, emotionally, and this is what came out of it. This is something good that came out of those, you know, those hard times.
John Spong: And I cut you off a little while ago when you started to talk about how nuts that album cover is. But yeah, it’s very difficult times for Willie, and anybody listening to this should really just hit pause and Google the album cover art, because, I mean . . .
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, Willie’s standing in front of the Rolls with Connie. I can’t remember if she’s wearing fur, or she might be wearing a fur hat, and then Felton Jarvis, the producer, is the chauffeur . . .
John Spong: It’s his big Rolls.
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, Willie’s wearing bell-bottoms, which he did anyway, I think, in those times. But that’s actually a great picture of Willie. And Connie looks fabulous.
John Spong: The suggestion that in the middle of all of this difficulty, especially with RCA, he might be a rock star with a Rolls and a chauffeur—that’s a nice inside joke between Willie and Chet, and maybe a handful of others, I guess.
Mickey Raphael: Yeah. And his covers back then were fabulous. The one, it’s called Willie and Family. One of my favorite songs on that is “I’m a Memory”—we have to go back and talk about that cover, too, eventually. That’s one where the whole family’s around the bonfire.
John Spong: At Willie’s place in Ridgetop, right?
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, and I asked him one time. I mean, I see Paul, Willie, Bee—who is wearing a fuzzy pair of, it looks like boxer shorts. And it’s obviously winter, they’re around a bonfire, and I said, “Who is this?” And they go, “Well, this is the whole family.” Bobbie’s there with her husband, I think, and kids, and they’re really young, and Lana, Willie’s daughter, was there with her babies. And then there’s one guy I didn’t recognize. I said, “Well, who is this guy?” And they go, “Oh, we don’t know, he just walked up out of the woods and was standing by the fire.” Which kind of sums up everything. I mean, we’ll be doing a recording session with Willie, and there’ll be a couple of people, or one guy, in the studio, and it’s like, “Is this guy with you?” “No, I thought he was with you.” Somebody just walked in. That’s kind of been our MO in the early years. I mean, there was a guy—we were on tour, and there was a guy riding on our bus for several days, and we were up in the East, and I said, “Bee, who’s your friend?” He goes, “My friend? I thought that was your friend.” And this guy had just been traveling with us, and we find out that nobody knew who he was. He’d just gotten on the bus. So it didn’t surprise me at all when they said, “Oh, that guy just walked out of the woods.”
John Spong: And it’s weird, too, because that record—like, when people bellyache, when Willie fans talk about how Nashville mistreated Willie—I mean, I love so many of those records from the sixties, and to me, they don’t sound like you guys later, but it sounds like great sixties-era country music.
Mickey Raphael: It’s my favorite; it’s my personal favorite.
John Spong: Really?
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, yeah. . . . And Then I Wrote, Willie and Family, Words Don’t Fit the Picture, Laying My Burdens Down—all the RCA stuff back then is just brilliant.
John Spong: It is. So back to “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture” specifically, you talked about it having jazz chords in it—I’m not going to be able to identify that. But . . .
Mickey Raphael: Nor me, but it sounds very intellectual.
John Spong: Yeah, sho’ nuff.
Mickey Raphael: But no, that wasn’t your basic, you know, three-chord country song. Even though it was pretty simple, it wasn’t too complicated a song to play—it just was, you know, it’s kind of timeless. It just didn’t fit, definitely didn’t fit with what was going on in Nashville at that time.
John Spong: Well, when I get to overthinking it, one thing that did strike me as cool about it—the verses, at the least the first one or two, it sounds almost like it doesn’t resolve itself at the end. And so, when he sings, “Where are the words I say to you / The words don’t fit the picture anymore,” it kind of ends without resolution, and it’s almost like the end of the verse is a cliff-hanger. And then he goes into, “If we’ve been acting all along / We both act right; we both act wrong,” and he leaves it there again. But then at the very end, you keep thinking, “Oh wait, it’s a cliff-hanger—maybe this is going to work out. What’s going to happen next?” And then he says, “Nope, it’s a one-act play that comes to an end.” And it’s like, “Oh, wow. Yeah.”
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, yeah. He keeps pushing you towards the edge, and you don’t actually go over till the end—you know, figure it out till the end. So yeah, Willie’s really brilliant.
John Spong: It’s awfully sophisticated.
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, in a very simple way, too, which is fabulous.
[Willie Nelson singing “The Words Don’t Fit the Picture”]
John Spong: So, had you listened to a bunch . . . you grew up in Dallas, right? And you’re—
Mickey Raphael: I grew up in Dallas, but I had no country background whatsoever. I think the only country song I was exposed to was, as a teen, was “Blood on the Saddle”—Tex Ritter. And I thought, “Oh, this is country music? I’ll pass.” But I grew up in Dallas, and I was kind of into the sixties folk scene and the British invasion. I loved the Stones and the Animals and . . . you know, I had no country background. And then, when I met Willie, he was so unique, he didn’t strike me as your typical country and western singer, and I was just so enamored by his guitar playing and his writing, you know, I just really latched on to his music and started doing a crash course in his music, and found those RCA records.
Well, at the time, I was playing with B. W. Stevenson, who had some local success in Dallas, and we were on RCA. And when we would go to the RCA offices, they had a vault with all the records that they were releasing—B.W., the Guess Who, you know, I can’t remember who else was on RCA at the time—and there was this Willie record, and that’s the first record I picked, was the Willie and Family, was the one with everybody standing around the firepit at Willie’s farm in Ridgetop, and I just picked it because it was such a weird album cover, and I thought, “Wow, this is crazy. Who is this guy?” But that was my first introduction to Willie, was the and Family record, and it was the album cover that drew me in. And then I end up meeting Willie in ’72 through Coach Royal and kind of put it all together, and I got interested in—was definitely interested in Willie, but then got interested in the rest of the world of country music.
John Spong: Tell me about that first meeting, because it’s kind of legendary. And I don’t want to blow too much smoke, but, in fact, I really think that you meeting Willie—when you think of how important he is as an artist, as a figure in American history, and how important your harmonica is to his sound—for me personally, that’s on par with Lennon running into McCartney in high school, or whatever they called it in Liverpool, or Jagger meeting Richards. And I know that’s a pretty dramatic thing to say, but you and Willie hooking up really changed history.
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, well, it changed my life, anyway. And thanks to Darrell Royal and Edith Royal. Darrell was a real patron of the arts and a close friend of Willie’s and a serious music fan, and I guess they’d heard me play with B.W. or heard me playing around Austin. And I guess they knew I was in Dallas, and the coach was at a ball game. I think Texas was playing Arkansas that weekend, and he got word to me and said, “Hey, we’re having a little picking session in my hotel after the ball game. Why don’t you grab your harmonicas and come over, and I’d like to meet you, and you can meet some of my friends.”
John Spong: Oh, wow.
Mickey Raphael: And I wasn’t a big football fan at all. I mean, of course I knew who Coach Royal was, but I was not an athlete, and the reason I was a musician was because I couldn’t play sports. So I go over there, and Willie’s there; Charley Pride was there—I had met him because my dad designed and built custom furniture, and Charley was one of his clients, so I had met Charley when I was a teenager. And I think I was twenty at this time. And they just passed the guitar around, and I had my harmonicas, and I just tried to play along with them. Willie did “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy,” and I thought, “Oh, this is the guy that wrote those songs?”
John Spong: Wow.
Mickey Raphael: After that little party, Willie says, “Hey, if you ever hear we’re playing anywhere, come sit in.” And a couple of months go by, and I read that Willie is playing in a junior high gymnasium, a benefit for a volunteer fire department in Waxahachie. So I drive down there, show up, and sit in with them. And play with the band. And they’re set up on the floor, you know, on the court in a gym. And I think we played “Fraulein” four or five times that night, because people like to dance; they like to two-step. So it gave me a chance to learn the song. I mean, they weren’t hard songs, but I really didn’t know any of these songs, and he was just playing standards. And afterwards, we went to the truck stop right on 35 and had breakfast, which is what you do at one in the morning. And I was getting ready to leave, and I thought, “Well, I’ll have one more cup of coffee.” And that last cup of coffee, Willie says, “Hey, we’re going to New York in a couple of months to play Max’s Kansas City; why don’t you go with us?”
So the rest is my history, anyway. So that was a couple of months previous to the Max’s gig, and then I would see—I’d just look and find; I don’t know how I . . . oh, I think I would call Connie or something and say, “Is Willie there?” “No, I haven’t seen him in several days.” Or I would find out where they were—they’d be playing around Texas, and I’d just drive my car down there and show up and play. So that’s kind of how I learned. We didn’t practice, but that’s how I learned to play with him, by showing up four or five times on the weekends—he would just be playing weekends. And then, one day, Willie asked Paul English, our drummer and bandleader, he says, “What are we paying Mickey?” And Paul goes, “Nothing; he’s just coming to sit in.” And Willie’s famous line is, Willie says, “Well, double his salary.”
John Spong: One of the things that was so different about the band after you joined—really is different from pretty much every country band there had been prior to that, is that there’s no steel guitar and there’s no fiddle. In fact, your harmonica replaces the steel guitar with a lot of what it does, right?
Mickey Raphael: Yeah. I mean, well, he had Jimmy Day playing, who was an iconic pedal steel player, and when Jimmy left the band, Willie wasn’t going to replace him with another steel player. So I happened to be playing. I had just started playing. And so I just kind of segued from the steel, as a voice in the band, to the harmonica. Because he wasn’t going to hire another player, because you couldn’t replace Jimmy Day. So the timing was perfect.
John Spong: When I talked to Steve Earle, it was an offhand comment; he was making a joke—kinda—but he said, in talking about the way the band sounded and how unique and different it was from country bands that preceded it, he said that there were two great achievements of the Armadillo World Headquarters, and one is the one everybody thinks of, which is the hippies and the rednecks communing. But the other was that he said that those hippies being there, and the Grateful Dead being there and bands like that, gave Willie permission to form a jam band, as opposed to a traditional country band. And that was an interesting way to think about it, because it really does sound very different from Ray Price’s band ten years ago, or the way Ernest Tubb and those guys, his players—
Mickey Raphael: Yeah, we’re not as structured as that. I don’t think we’re as accomplished musicians as those guys, really, but, I mean, we are a great jam band. At that time, we were playing four-hour sets.
John Spong: What?
Mickey Raphael: We would just play. And songs would last forever. I mean, whatever we were fueled on at the time was working. I remember we played an outdoor festival in Baton Rouge, and it was raining, and it looked like The Walking Dead out in the audience, and Willie thought, Let’s see if we can outlast this audience. And we played till the sun came up. And it looked like a zombie apocalypse.
John Spong: [Laughs] When you talk about it being loose, who keeps time? Who do you follow in—
Mickey Raphael: I’ve been asking myself that question for forty-eight years. We all keep time, and I think we’re all listening to a different drummer. It doesn’t matter. Willie starts the song, and as long as we end close together and nobody gets hurt, it’s fine.
[Willie Nelson singing “Whiskey River”]