Mickey Raphael of Willie Nelson & Family
'When Less Becomes More'
After establishing himself as a major Nashville songwriter (he wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, among others), Willie Nelson signed his first serious artist contract at RCA in 1964. At that time, the producers and A&R men like Chet Atkins had complete artistic control. Singers weren't allowed to select arrangements, musicians or studios – any of the key factors in making the records the artist had in mind. Willie Nelson found himself constantly frustrated by the syrupy strings, vocal group choruses and generally "slick" final product that made up ‘The Nashville Sound’ and which was considered normal for country recordings in the 1960s.
But that was then. Now, in 2009, Willie and his long-time harmonica player, the Dallas-born Mickey Raphael, have gone back to the essence of those songs in the newly-released 'Naked Willie' collection.
Having tracked down the original tapes, Mickey remixed the tracks. Gone are the syrupy strings and choirs of back-up singers. Gone is the over-the-top production that often drowned out Willie’s voice, and in its place is a stripped down, ‘naked’ production.
Mickey Raphael ‘unproduced’ these seventeen tracks. As well as being Willie Nelson’s right hand man, Mickey Raphael has, over the years, played with such legendary artists as; Elton John, U2, Motley Crue, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, The Mavericks, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and many more. I recently talked to Mickey, and he gave me a fascinating insight into the making of ‘Naked Willie’.
Going back in time to re-mix old material seems to be a really original idea. Whose idea was it to revisit and work on songs that had originally been cut in the 1960s? "Well, actually it was my idea. First off, I’m a big Willie fan. I loved this era and these years of his song writing and recording, and this was really my first experience of Willie’s music. I really didn’t listen to Willie until the early 70s, but I was listening to these songs when I first discovered him and I loved the songs and what he was doing."
"Then I came up with the idea of what would it sound like if he were to record these songs now. Because I knew that, at the time he was in the studio with Chet Atkins, he really had no say in the production. I didn’t want to change any of the performances: the players at that time were so wonderful, but I wondered what this stuff would sound like had Willie been the producer. It’s not like I thought Chet Atkins production was bad, in fact, it was brilliant for the time, but I thought the songs were timeless and I wanted to see what they would sound like, without the strings and without the backing vocals."
"The point is that they could have been recorded last week in this particular arrangement of just piano, bass, drums, guitar and Willie’s vocal. So, I pitched the idea to the record company and everyone thought it was a great idea. I was already stuck into the project before Willie got involved in it. I wanted to make sure it would work. I did a couple of songs as an experiment to see if my theory was correct. So I played Willie a couple of songs so he could hear what it might have sounded like had he been producing himself at that time."
Did you ever think of just re-cutting the whole album rather than ‘unproducing’ it? "Well, that was one way to go but I think that the original performances were so classic that I really wanted people to hear them. I wanted people to hear the guitar player at the session; Grady Martin playing. There are some great solos of his that I uncovered that were covered up by the strings; and there’s a solo of Willie’s on ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ that really wasn’t too present in the mix. The strings were leaking, they were in every microphone that was open at the time, so there were a couple of songs I couldn’t work on because there was too much leakage and I couldn’t isolate some of the instruments."
"For instance, some of the strings bled into the bass track. I could have erased the bass track and re-cut it but I thought that would get away from the integrity of the original recordings and I wanted to keep everything original. So we didn’t change anything except sonically enhance Willie’s voice and make the guitars a little louder and re-mixed it to where it sounds a little more modern without losing the 60s feel. Those original recordings are such gems and they really stand the test of time."
Recording methods have changed a great deal in the last 40 years. From a technical point of view, how difficult was the ‘unproducing’ to do? "These were all multi-track analogue tapes and all I did was put them into a digital mode so we could transfer them to Nashville, where I worked with my engineer. We put them into Pro Tools just so we could do the editing and mixing. So there’s still a lot of tape noise going on there, we didn’t take anything off or clean it up like we could have. However, we did warm up Willie’s voice a little bit because it sounded a little thin on those early recordings, but that was the only tweaking we did. We wanted to make sure that you could hear his voice and all the instruments."
Were you tempted to add any of your own harmonica playing to the songs? "No, because I wanted to keep true to the original recordings. As a joke I would have loved to put my harmonica all over those songs. The great harmonica player Charlie McCoy played vibes on some of those sessions but there was no harmonica on the originals. I really wanted the original musicians, such as; Chet Atkins on guitar, Grady Martin, David Briggs, Chip Young, Jerry Reed and Buddy Harman, I wanted these guys, and their great playing, to be heard again by a younger record buying generation."
That 1960s country sound seems rather unloved these days, why do you think that is? "You know, at that time, that’s what was selling. Everything that was cut in the sixties had strings on it and was called ‘The Nashville Sound’, and Chet Atkins was famous for it. But Willie was unique and Chet knew that Willie was different and he felt that this formula might not work, and it really didn’t. I seem to remember that out of twelve albums that he did only two songs ever charted."
"But that was the sound that radio wanted to hear and the producers knew that they had to become more mainstream with country music. So, the fiddles and banjos were replaced by strings and backing singers in an attempt to compete with records by pop performers, like Andy Williams and Perry Como. Willie’s never cared about being commercial but at that time he was a new artist and I’m sure he felt fortunate to be recording for RCA, so he would never tell the producer what to do. Much later (with the album ‘Red Headed Stranger’) he managed to gain artistic control and the result of that was one of the biggest selling albums of his career."
How involved was Willie Nelson in the whole project? "His involvement was only to give me his blessings. I told him I was going to do the project and I would keep him posted. After it was done I played it for him and he loved it. He said that this was the sound he had imagined when he wrote these songs. So, I did all the heavy lifting and just hoped he liked it."
"It was always something I wanted to do and when Legacy acquired the RCA catalogue it opened up for me. I know Rob Santos at Legacy and I told him I had an idea about getting into these tapes and see if we couldn’t come up with something different. They liked the idea and Willie said “go for it”."
If this project is successful are there any other Willie Nelson albums you might want to ‘unproduce’? "Yes, I think there is still some more material in the Willie catalogue that I can probably get into. There are seventeen songs on this record and I think I can probably hopefully pull together another ten or twelve songs. Knowing Willie as well as I do, his style has always been ‘less is more’. Keep things simple is the dictum with Willie, and these early recordings really lend themselves to that philosophy."
Who came up with the term ‘unproducer’? "That was my idea. We were trying to figure out the credits. I couldn’t call myself a producer because Chet Atkins produced these tracks. Traditionally the producer picks the musicians, puts together the music and is responsible for the recording. And, since I went in there and started taking things off I thought I’m almost unproducing these tracks. One of the things that inspired me to do this was The Beatles ‘Let it Be…Naked’ I saw how they did that, how they took the strings off of the Phil Spector recordings and I thought that this would be a great thing to do with Willie’s songs."
Lastly, The Family still tour a two hour show all around the world and Willie meets the fans afterwards. How does he keep it up? "We are on tour at the moment with Asleep at the Wheel. We work consistently two weeks on, two weeks off. The next tour will be in March in Florida. Somebody recently asked him “when are you going to retire?” and he said, “all I do is play music and play golf, which one am I supposed to retire from?” So, he’s 75, he’ll be 76 in April, this is what he loves, he really loves doing it, what better way spend your life?"
Interviewed by: Peter 'taB' Walker
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