Editor’s note: Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin Bishop perform in Reno on July 28. LINK
In an age of performers making their name as Instagram influencers and TikTok flavors-of-the month, Charlie Musselwhite is the equivalent of a land line — steady, reliable and a link to the past. Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, the 78-year-old musician has spent a career dating back to his 1967 debut “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band” being a blues standard-bearer. (The record label misspelled his first name.)
It’s a journey that continues on the recently released “Mississippi Son,” a stripped-down collection of 14 songs featuring the harmonica player singing and picking up a guitar to present a mix of originals and nuggets originally recorded by an array of storied names including Yank Rachell, The Stanley Brothers and Charley Patton. It’s Musselwhite’s first solo outing since moving back to Clarksdale, about a year and a half ago from the tiny Northern California community of Geyserville. (He released “100 Years of the Blues” with old friend Elvin Bishop back in 2020.). Climate change prompted the harp player and his wife/manager Henrietta Musselwhite to pull up stakes and move back to the Delta.
“This is where I’m from and I had a home here,” he explained. “We were having the fires every year. The last time, we could see it coming. If the wind hadn’t changed, we might have gotten burned out. We figured it was inevitable that we would at some point, so why wait for that? It was really horrible. You have to be evacuated and everything in the freezer was rotten because the electricity was turned off. It was horrible. I remember walking out my front door and the ash was just falling like snow. It ain’t gonna go away. It’s going to get worse.”
With the pandemic forcing Musselwhite to stay in one place (“I’ve been on the road for over 50 years, so it was a nice break for me. I didn’t miss my suitcase at all.”), he started hanging out at friend Gary Vincent’s nearby studio, noodling around on guitar. Before long, Vincent was hitting record, drummer Ricky Martin and upright bassist Barry Bays were recruited and “Mississippi Son” was the result.
“We started recording some of these tunes that I’d been doing for a long time and at some point, we realized that it could be an album,” Musselwhite said. “It was kind of an accident. Then we invited (Martin and Bays) to play on a few tunes. It just evolved on its own and took on its own momentum.”
The slow-as-molasses tempo on the album is languid and made all the more so by Musselwhite’s laconic vocal phrasing, which is goosed along by his equally loose strumming and harp blowing. The record doesn’t so much rock out as much as it oozes along from the self-penned opener “Blues Up the River” whose couplets like “I’ll drink muddy water until I’ve had enough” bring to mind images of the mighty Mississippi River, to a reading of Guy Clark’s “The Dark,” whose stark tempo is reminiscent of Musselwhite’s old friend and mentor John Lee Hooker, who is immortalized by a version of “Crawling King Snake” that is perfectly arranged as a loose shuffle. There’s even an original instrumental called “Remembering Big Joe,” an homage to Musselwhite’s late friend Big Joe Williams that brings to mind visions of noodling away on the porch of a shotgun shack in the Deep South. Fans can expect to hear songs from “Mississippi Son” and more now that Musselwhite will be back out on tour fronting a guitar, bass and drums trio.
“I do some tunes that people request and I have some new songs they haven’t heard before,” he said. “I might even play guitar — who knows? It depends on the situation and how much time I have. A lot of people don’t even know that I play guitar, so that’s a departure. I didn’t even know how people would react to (my playing on “Mississippi Son)”, but it’s just been overwhelming. People are just loving it. I’m happily surprised — it’s a nice thing.”
Musselwhite’s love of the blues can be traced to a childhood listening to music being sung by local laborers out in the country.
“I remember as a little kid we lived on a street and then there were woods and in it there was a creek,” he recalled. “On the other side of the creek, there were fields where people would work in them. Down on the shady side of the creek was the coolest place I could find. I remember as a little kid, laying on the shady side of the creek, cooling off and listening to people singing work songs in the field. And that was blues. I remember listening to those songs and while I liked a lot of different kinds of music, this music sounded like how I felt. It really pulled me into it.”
After his folks split, Musselwhite and his mom moved to Memphis in the early ‘50s, where neighbors included rockabilly brothers Dorsey and Johnny Burnette and he was exposed to hillbilly, gospel and country music along with the emerging genre of rock and roll. The blues proved to be the impetus for Musselwhite, who started playing harmonica as a child, to seek out local mentors like Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Gus Cannon. And while the teen scared money up by working at various times as a ditch digger, concrete runner and moonshine runner, Musselwhite took that money to local record shops where he did a fair amount of crate diving for anything blues-related and beyond.
“I remember going around Memphis looking for old blues records in junk stores,” Musselwhite said. “I found the first Sonny Boy (Williamson) record and other players. I really liked the way the harmonica sounded. At some point, I remember thinking that since I had my own harmonica, I decided to start playing my own (music). I started going out into the woods where I thought nobody could hear me play and just experimented. I was already familiar with it. I just started playing my own blues and making it up.”
Musselwhite hopped on Highway 51 (aka the “Hillbilly Highway”) up to Chicago in search of better-paying jobs and quickly dove into the local music scene. It was here that he quickly started running in the same circles as Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson 2 (Rice Miller), Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter Jacobs. Big Walter Horton was a constant running buddy who Musselwhite roamed the streets with, often dropping into clubs to pick up licks, check out gigs and sit in with many of the aforementioned blues icons.
Far from being a blues purist, Musselwhite’s musical curiosity has made for some odd creative bedfellows. One of the more unusual collaborations was with INXS, who tapped him to play the harmonica solo on the 1990 INXS hit “Suicide Blonde” during a tour Down Under.
“I got a phone call in my hotel room and (the guys in the band) said they knew I was coming to Sydney and wanted to know if I’d like to come down to the studio and record with them. I said sure ‘cause I had a day off. I went down there and recorded with them. I remember asking someone who INXS was and the response I got was, ‘You never heard of them? They only sold 15 million records last year.’ They were really nice guys. We had a good time.”
Musselwhite was also tapped to play on Cyndi Lauper’s 2010 outing “Memphis Blues,” which found him touring with the Queens native, an experience to which he gives high marks.
“It was really a wonderful time being on the road with her,” he said. “Her audience didn’t have a clue as to who I was. She made a point of them knowing who I was. She would point to me to take a solo but the spotlight would stay on her. The audience would look at her while I was soloing. After that, she would stand behind me so that the spotlight had to be on me. I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s a really fabulous human being and a great musician who really knows music. She has a lot of compassion and does a lot to help people. At the same time, she’s tough as nails. You do not want to cross that woman. We got along great. She’s a good friend and I’m really glad to know her.”
This musical adventurousness has occasionally bled into Musselwhite’s own work, most notably on 1999’s “Continental Drifter,” a project that found him throwing Tex-Mex into the mix along with joining forces with Cuba’s Cuarteto Patria. At other times, he’s jammed with Brazilian forró musicians. He traces that creative curiosity back to his days of seeking sounds growing up in Memphis.
“Ever since I was a kid in Memphis going around looking for blues records and 78s, anything else that looked interesting I’d get that, too,” he said. “They were only a nickel or a dime. I discovered a lot of music that I ordinarily wouldn’t have heard because you wouldn’t hear it on the radio. Stuff like Greek, Indian and flamenco music. I was able to expose myself to music from other cultures at an early age. Even though it wasn’t blues, I could tell it had a spirit to it that was similar to blues. When you listen to flamenco, man, it sure enough sounds like blues in a way. I came to the conclusion that all around the world, every culture has this music of lament. There’s a guy on the corner singing about how his baby left him in every corner of the world. That’s music from the heart. I discovered that you can play with anybody that plays from the heart, even if you can’t speak the same language.”
-Dave Gil de Rubio, Last Word Features
Related story: Musselwhite and Bishop record “100 Years of Blues.”
Album review: “Mississippi Son” hits home.