For a disarmingly large number of his worldwide fans, Willie Nelson burst onto the country music scene in the mid-'70s, fully hirsute, sporting an earring and proclaiming the joys of being on the road again. Real aficionados know that his "overnight success" came only after decades of struggling as a songwriter (hitting big with "Crazy" and "Night Life") and climbing even greater obstacles as a performer. For much of the 1960s, Nelson recorded for RCA at a time when there was great interest in country music "crossing over" to the pop charts (or at least removing itself from its redneck roots). As a result, it was common practice to overdub heavy strings and backing vocal choruses to sweeten the tunes, alternately referred to as the "Nashville Sound" or "Countrypolitan."
And it was the producer - not the artist - who called the shots on everything from source material to studio locations to session players. Often, a performer wouldn't even hear a "final" version of a song until the record had been pressed. Willie was no exception, as RCA producers Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis - neither wanting to mess with the formula - give many of his records the treatment. Nelson's longtime harmonica man Mickey Raphael loved the songs of the era, but not necessarily the sound, and began to ponder what how they would come across "stripped" of the fluff. With Nelson's hearty approval, he delved into the master tapes of the era, and the result is Naked Willie (RCA Nashville/Legacy), featuring 17 tracks distilled into what Willie might have originally envisioned. Rocks Off spoke with Raphael from a hotel room in Austin, where he had just finished taping an episode of Austin City Limits with his boss and Asleep at the Wheel.
Rocks Off: This is only the fourth record that Willie has released in the past year, and I know he's got another one coming out soon. Shouldn't he pick up the pace a bit? Mickey Raphael (laughs): I know! Isn't that something? At least he didn't have to go into the studio for this one. RO: You call yourself the "unproducer" of this record, but I assume it was more than you just sitting at the board taking off the strings and vocals. MR: I went to New York and got the actual multi-track tapes and had them transferred to a digital mode. Then I worked with an engineer on ProTools and just tried to isolate the [things] we wanted to take off. A lot of those recordings were done with everyone in the same room, so you had the strings leaking into every open mike. So it wasn't just a matter of hitting a button. We had to find the frequencies that the strings laid in and just sort of shave them away, but not take away anything we wanted, like Willie's voice. RO: He sings a lot of these songs in a full-throated style that might surprise those more used to his later laid-back talk-singing.
MR: Yeah. It's because he was really fighting those strings to be heard. Willie always says that "less is more." There were a lot of people in the studio, so it was a big production. One thing we did uncover was a lot of [his] great guitar work that was sort of buried on the original recordings. I love these songs and this whole RCA era. I had thought about doing this for awhile, and once the Beatles did something similar recently [with Let It Be...Naked], now there was some sort of [precedent]. RO: I would guess that a huge chunk of Willie's fans are only familiar with his music from the mid-'70s onward. What reaction do you hope to get from that kind of person when they hear this earlier material? MR: I want somebody to hear this stuff and if they like it, go back to the originals, which are easily accessible. Just so they can see what was happening in another era. And to me, these songs don't sound dated. RO: How did you decide which tracks to include? MR: I started with about 50 candidates. There were some I didn't want to touch because I actually liked the strings on there. Others there was too much microphone leakage. And we just whittled them down. It was hard, though! "The Local Memory" and "What Can You Do To Me Now?" were two that I did get to work on that were favorites. RO: Many writers and performers today denigrate the "Countrypolitan" sound as being fake and forced. But in the context of the times, it was hugely successful. MR: It's what was selling and what radio wanted to hear and what people were buying. The [country artists] were competing with people like Perry Como and Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra. And it did work for a lot of the artists like Jim Reeves and Ray Price. It just didn't work for Willie.
RO: On another topic, you're the one player from the Family Band that Willie does use on a lot of records and side projects that the Jazz at Lincoln Center shows with Wynton Marsalis. You just did a second one - how did that go?
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MR: We did two days rehearsal, and Mark Rothbaum, our producer, put together a song list, which was all Ray Charles. Wynton wrote out the charts that he and the sax player Walter Blanding did. For me, he would just say "fill here on the second verse."
We ran through the songs without Willie a few times, then brought him in, then we did the shows for two nights. It was one of the most exciting things I've ever done. And it was recorded. Norah Jones is involved too. RO: Going back to the beginning, I've always loved the story of how you got involved with Willie and just started playing with him informally, but there was never a time when he said you were officially in the band. That was almost 35 years ago! MR: Yeah, he's never said I was hired. But he's never asked me to leave, either! I was 21 and playing with this country band and really wasn't familiar with his music. We'd play all these dance halls and beer joints in Texas that I was barely able to get in, and I was this long-haired hippie. Several times, Paul [English, Nelson's feared drummer] had to get me out of some sticky situations. RO: Do you have any particular memories of playing Houston over the years?
MR: Liberty Hall was such a great place in the '70s. But one of the most incredible things I've ever done was sit in on an operation with [famous Houston heart surgeon] Dr. Red Duke! In the late '80s, a buddy of mine who owns the Black-Eyed Pea and I were supposed to meet him for lunch, and while we're at his office and he gets a call for an emergency trauma. He asked us if we wanted to watch him work! So we scrub up and the patient is split wide open and I had to cover my eyes just to walk into the O.R. One of the nurses comes in and asks my friend and me "Are you with Dr. Debakey's team?" And Red turns around and says "Naw, Mickey here's a harmonica player and Billy owns a restaurant!" We were in there for four hours! But he plugged in a little tape deck and he puts in music from Willie and I asked him how he does it. He looked at me and said "Well, you just gotta look at it like you're working on your car!" RO: Finally, you know, Willie turns 76 this year. Eventually, nature will stop him from performing and recording. Are we ready for a World Without Willie? MR: I think he's gonna outlive us all! We lost Waylon, Johnny, all the original producers on this record. We're all gonna go. But Willie is such a young spirit and so active, he'll go until he drops. He won't retire. And there definitely won't be a lack of material. I think he's working on four different records right now! Naked Willie is available in stores now or at amazon.com.