Legendary singer-songwriter Willie Nelson, now 81 and showing no signs of slowing down, is about to go “on the road again.”
Flush with the success of his 69th studio album, “Band of Brothers,” which debuted at number one on the Country Albums chart and number five on the all genre Billboard 200 in June (his best showing in more than 30 years), Nelson is just about to fire up his “Honeysuckle Rose” tour bus for another round of concerts with his family, which includes his sister Bobbie on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, drummers Paul and Billy English and bassist Kevin Smith.
On Thursday, Sept. 11, Nelson and his cohorts will make their seventh stop at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. Nelson, who earned his Fifth Degree Black Belt in the art of Gong Kwon Yu Sul (a modern Korean martial arts system) in April, first appeared at the Wilkes-Barre theater in August 1988. His latest performance in May 2012 completely sold out, and the Sept. 11 show looks likely to do the same.
Expanding the Family even further, Nelson’s 24-year-old son Lukas and his band Promise of the Real will open the show.
For nearly 40 years, each time Nelson goes back on the road, harmonica virtuoso Raphael has been along for the ride.
“I’ve been doing some sessions and producing a Highwaymen boxed set,” said Raphael, 62, in a recent call from Nashville. “They’ll swing through and pick me up (soon).”
Raphael, who was originally from Dallas, Texas, played on the first two albums by B.W. Stevenson (best known for the original version of “My Maria”) and met Nelson in 1972 at a party thrown by University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal.
“He called me and said he was having a picking party after one of the ballgames, and that some of his friends would be there,” Raphael recalled. “His friends turned out to be people like Charley Pride and Willie Nelson – I didn’t really know who he was because I never really listened to country music. But he started singing like ‘Night Life’ and stuff like that, and then I kind of figured it out.”
Raphael said Nelson liked his playing and told him to come and sit in with him sometime. After a few gigs, Raphael moved from Dallas to Austin, then Nelson’s home base, and became a fixture at shows and in the studio, first appearing on Nelson’s classic 1975 album “Red Headed Stranger.”
Raphael said the band now plays about 120 to 130 shows a year, usually with a two-weeks on and two-weeks off schedule. The next tour begins on Sunday at the Lockn’ Music Festival in Arlington, Va., then on to two more shows before hitting the Kirby Center. The annual Farm Aid show follows on Sept. 13, this time at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh, N.C.
Asked if there was any discussion about either playing or not playing on 9/11, Raphael responded: “Oh God no. You can’t just stop or they win. We played a benefit show right after it happened, so we were on a plane almost immediately afterwards. It will be an honor to play on that day in their memory.”
Raphael said the new album was kind of different from Nelson’s most recent ones in that nine of the 14 songs are new compositions and none of the tunes had been previously recorded by Nelson.
“He co-wrote a bunch of new songs with our producer Buddy Cannon, and it was the first time in many years that there were so many new tunes.”
Raphael said there are some tunes featuring Nelson and his sister Bobbie already in the can, and Nelson has been writing again. Besides the new material, the next release may be the boxed set Raphael is producing that features a 1990 concert by the Highwaymen supergroup (Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, the late Waylon Jennings and the late Johnny Cash).
“They were at the peak of their game when this show at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island was filmed,” he said. “Twenty-five songs came out on a DVD in the ‘90s, but there were 35 recorded and we have brought those other 10 up to speed and it is sounding great. The film will be transferred to HD and the music will come out on three CDs, including a new song we uncovered that has never been out before.”
As for the Kirby show, Raphael said there will probably be two or three songs from the new album mixed in with the classics. Asked if it is hard to put a setlist together since Nelson has so many iconic songs, Raphael just laughed.
“I wouldn’t know because there is no setlist,” he said. “There’s a certain pattern, like we always start with ‘Whiskey River,’ but after that, it’s whatever comes to the top of his head.
“Luckily I don’t play at the beginning of many songs, so I just wait and listen. We’ve been playing together so long, I don’t have to listen for long, and then we’re off and running.”