Harmonica player has 25 years of stories about Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson is the original rambler, the man who embodies the country poet rock star.

At 76 years old, he could easily hang his bandanna on the wall, unbraid his hair and settle into a recliner.

But after half a century of performing, Nelson continues to tour and release new music at a breakneck pace, further securing his status as one of the most prolific performers and coolest musicians in history.

Who else pulls off their first reggae album ("Countryman" in 2005) in their 70s, openly advocates marijuana use and still maintains the respect of the entire music industry as one of the greatest songwriters ever to pen a verse?

Nelson already has released three albums this year. "Naked Willie" "unproduces" 17 of his songs from the 1960s, revealing the raw essence of the tunes before additional instrumentation and backing vocals were added.

"Willie & the Wheel," a collaboration with the group Asleep at the Wheel, is a swing dance concept album produced by "Mr. R&B," the late Jerry Wexler. "American Classic" brings in Diana Krall and Norah Jones for a record of jazz standards.

Band member Mickey Raphael has played harmonica with Willie and the Family Band for a quarter century, and he's got stories to tell. He jokes about the time their bus pulled up to a festival in northern California with a full Hell's Angels escort, only to be turned around by the police at the gate who didn't recognize the band.

Willie pulled out his American Express card to prove his identity and gained them all entry.

"Willie's a true renaissance man," Raphael said. "He's not afraid to take chances. He's got the time.

"What's he going to do, sit at home and watch TV?"

The Family Band jumped on tour with Nelson this fall for a stretch of shows with Dave Matthews after Nelson spent the summer touring with Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp.

"It hardly ever stops," Raphael said. "It just gets perpetual. We just keep on going."

In addition to the three concept albums Nelson has released this year, the Family Band has already laid down a double album worth of new studio material.

"He's so prolific. There's so much stuff," Rapheal said. "But you can't put out 10 records all at once, even though he seems to do that."

Touring with the Family Band means Willie can draw from his entire song catalog. Raphael says they never step on stage with a set-list.

"We'll start with 'Whiskey River,' then maybe 'Beer for my Horses' or 'Stay All Night,'" he said. "Willie just plays the songs, and we just follow him."


WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Koger Center, 1051 Greene St.

TICKETS: $58 and $45

INFORMATION: (803) 251-2222 or