Willie Nelson had a birthday April 30—no doubt one that was filled with gifts, wrapped and/or rolled. The occasion of the legendary outlaw/country musician’s 80th was celebrated on April 28 with an annual concert for about 10,000 friends at a outdoor venue in Austin, Texas, called the Backyard at Bee Cave. The concert was also a benefit for the victims of the recent deadly explosion in West, Texas. And for one Salt Lake City resident, the birthday concert became a life-changing event.
Brad Wheeler—longtime host of KRCL’s weekday afternoon drive-time show and a well-known local musician—was involved in the station’s recent Radiothon fundraiser. Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s stalwart harmonica bandmate, arranged for a pair of tickets to Nelson’s birthday concert to be a prize for donors. Raphael also surprised Wheeler by giving him a ticket to the Austin concert.
“Mickey told me it was ‘Make-A-Wish for DJs,’ ” Wheeler joyfully says about Raphael’s help in the promotion.
It was after City Weekly had published story I’d written in 2012 about local harmonica players that Wheeler, Raphael and I met for dinner at the Red Iguana. “It really was that story and dinner that allowed me to come to know this amazingly kind artist,” Wheeler says. “Mickey truly is the most compassionate person, certainly of any musician I’ve ever met. He’s just the best.”
After spending the day in Austin with Raphael before the show, Wheeler found himself as a guest at Nelson’s birthday bash. Not only was he able to attend, he also was invited onstage. “All of Willie’s Family Band had brought up guests, and it seemed like there were 200 people on that stage,” Wheeler says, adding that Texas Gov. Rick Perry recognized Nelson for his unparalleled contribution to Texas music. “Then, Willie called for David Allan Coe and Randy Travis to come up and help him and the band sing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’
“I was sitting in the back, at Mickey’s feet, when he just handed me his harp and the mic and told me to stand up and play a solo,” Wheeler continues. “It was like that [Michelangelo] painting of God touching Adam’s hand! I was ready to stop after that song, but Mickey told me to keep playing for two more. It was so amazing that I don’t even remember what those last ones were.”
Wheeler says the night was an honor and very humbling. “My life has changed,” he passionately exclaims. “Who ever gets to do that? I’m just so lucky! Willie thanked me after, and this just has given me so much confidence. I’m standing in Mickey’s shadow.”