Born in Chicago but raised in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, Rafael became active in the folk scene of Los Angeles before heading north to the Pacific Northwest in the late '60s. He would eventually return to California, where he settled down in North San Diego County to raise a family.
All through the '70s and '80s, Rafael continued to write folk songs and perform solo and in various groups around Southern California. It wasn't until the early '90s, however, that his solo career began to take off. In 1994, he released his first record fronting his own group, the Joel Rafael Band. Finding some traction in the singer/songwriter-friendly world of AAA radio, the record went on to win the San Diego CCMA award and Rafael also earned the New Folk Emerging Songwriter award from the Kerrville Folk Festival. The group released a follow-up album, Old Wood Barn, in 1996, again on Rafael's own Reluctant Angel Records. By the time of their third album, 2000's Hopper, they had signed with Jackson Browne's Inside Recordings.
In 2002, he wrote a number of songs and composed the background music for a new radio play of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath that was featured on NPR. A longtime fan of legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, Rafael became part of Jimmy LaFave's Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway ensemble. The touring group featured a number of different songwriters paying tribute to Guthrie's music, and in 2003 Rafael released his own tribute album called Woodeye: Songs of Woody Guthrie. The album included guest appearances by Van Dyke Parks, Jennifer Warnes, and Ellis Paul. A second volume called Woodyboye: Songs of Woody Guthrie and Tales Worth Telling, Vol. 2 followed in 2005 and featured four previously unheard Guthrie lyrics to which Rafael wrote music.
After dedicating much of the decade to honored Woody Guthrie's legacy, Rafael returned to his own songs in 2008 with Thirteen Stories High. The album included the protest song "This Is My Country," which featured guest vocals from David Crosby and Graham Nash. His eighth album, America Come Home, arrived in 2012 and he continued to tour, performing with everyone from Sheryl Crow to Taj Mahal. Later that year, he was also asked to perform at the Woody Guthrie Centennial Songbook show at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He delivered his ninth album, Baladista, in early 2015. ~ Timothy Monger, Rovi