In excessive cotton: Charlie Musselwhite is completely content material together with his return to the Delta. “We love dwelling right here,” he says. “It simply is smart, and it feels just like the blues is alive and nicely within the Delta and you may simply really feel it rising up from the earth, it’s so current.”
For Charlie Musselwhite, the blues isn’t only a fashion of music. It’s a sacrament. And Musselwhite is one among its excessive clergymen. With a palmful of bent notes on the harmonica—the instrument on which he’s been an acknowledged grasp for greater than a half-century—or the fats snap of a guitar string, he has the facility to summon not solely the blues’ nice spirits, however the locations they rose from. If you happen to pay attention carefully, you may envision the Mississippi Delta’s plantation lands, the place the summer season solar kinds a shimmering belt on the low horizon and even a slight breeze can paint your face purple with clay mud. It’s a spot each previous and everlasting—stuffed with thriller and historical past and magic. And the music from that place, as Musselwhite sings in his new music “Blues Gave Me a Trip,” “tells the reality in a world stuffed with lies.”
“Blues is the one factor I’ve ever needed to play,” says Musselwhite, who’s 78. “It’s extra than simply one other type of music. No matter life throws at you, blues is there for you. It’s your buddy if you’re up and your comforter if you’re down, and it’s acquired this depth and substance that quite a lot of different music simply doesn’t have. So, in that approach, it has a kind of non secular high quality, and it actually may be your companion in life. It offers you a strategy to go.”
Though Musselwhite’s mother and father moved him to Memphis from his native Kosciusko, Mississippi, when he was 3, the blues has, certainly, gave the impression to be his guiding hand ever since. Most just lately, it’s led him to document Mississippi Son, the primary of his greater than 40 albums that’s constructed round his guitar taking part in—spare as a skeleton’s rib cage, however as stunning as a recent magnolia blossom with hints of mud on its petals.
Charlie Musselwhite – Mississippi Son (Full Album) 2022
Slowly, over the previous few many years, Musselwhite has been incorporating guitar into his stay performances—typically in duets together with his longtime compadre Elvin Bishop, who he met in Chicago within the early ’60s, simply earlier than built-in blues bands like these they’d be a part of and type started making mainstream albums. “Charlie’s guitar taking part in is approach good,” says Bishop. “I actually love the best way he nails the previous deep blues, the nation blues. He solely performs what’s vital, and each observe has nuance. His tone is darkish and deep. He can play slide like Robert Nighthawk, and what Charlie does on the guitar has an excellent emotional impact on his music. It’s excellent for his singing and harp taking part in.”
Musselwhite’s life with the guitar and harmonica started when he was round 13. With an acoustic Supertone in hand, he found the E7 chord and the old-school Delta sound and commenced to study songs like Mississippi Son’s “Pea Vine Blues.” With lyrics that illuminate how the lonesome sound of a distant practice whistle can torture the brokenhearted, the music is prime nation blues, first recorded by Charley Patton in 1929.
“Sooner or later I keep in mind coming to the belief that each tradition most likely has its music of lament.”
Fortunately, Musselwhite had greater than previous shellac 78s to study from. Throughout his teenage and younger grownup years in Memphis, legendary artists like Furry Lewis, who by then swept Beale Road for a dwelling, and Will Shade, the chief of the Memphis Jug Band, turned mentors, cementing his love of the agricultural blues sound.
“I realized extra about slide and open tunings from Furry, and common tuning and harmonica from Will Shade,” Musselwhite says. He additionally met harmonica legend Huge Walter Horton—a fellow acolyte of Shade’s—in Memphis, and Musselwhite would proceed to be beneath Horton’s sway when he moved to Chicago within the late Nineteen Fifties. Lesser-known artists like Willie Borum and Earl Bell had been additionally a part of Musselwhite’s training within the Bluff Metropolis. “I had no concept I used to be making ready myself for a profession,” he says, chuckling. “I might have paid much more consideration. I used to be simply having enjoyable. And I beloved the blues and needed to play it, however I didn’t realize it was going to turn out to be my life and put me on the street.”
Out in entrance of Clarksdale, Mississippi’s Shack Up Inn, Charlie Musselwhite shows his Concord Bobkat and metal slide, worn tight on his pinky.
Picture by Rory Doyle
Musselwhite left Memphis for sensible causes. “I’d been working round Memphis, doing development work and totally different manufacturing unit jobs and stuff, and the pay was so low, so I had completed a bit moonshining on the facet, and sooner or later I seen the police had been following me. I assumed that was a foul signal. I’d been occupied with going to Chicago, as a result of associates of mine had gone up and gotten jobs in these factories, and so they’d come again to go to driving model new automobiles ’trigger they acquired paid so a lot better—and so they had advantages. I’d by no means even heard of advantages earlier than, in order that’s why I went to Chicago—identical to 1000’s of different individuals getting out of the South as a result of it was economically depressed. I used to be on the lookout for a greater life.”
He discovered that, and much more. “I knew nothing in regards to the blues scene there,” he continues. “I’d been informed that anyone within the leisure area both lived in Hollywood or New York Metropolis, and regardless that I had all these information that had Chicago written on ’em, with Vee-Jay and Chess labels, I assumed, ‘Effectively, that’s simply the place they manufacture the information.’ I didn’t know that’s the place all these guys lived. However fortunate for me the primary job I acquired in Chicago was as a driver for an exterminator, and I drove him throughout Chicago, so I realized the town rather well, actually quick. Driving round, I began seeing posters and indicators for guys like Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and I couldn’t consider it! All my heroes had been proper right here in Chicago! So, I’d make an observation of the place these golf equipment had been and at night time I’d be hanging out listening to stay blues proper in entrance of my heroes that I solely had information of earlier than.”
For a spell, he lived within the basement of the now-historic Jazz Report Mart music store, the place he additionally often labored, with the irascible 9-string-playing bluesman Huge Joe Williams as his roommate. “Oh boy, you by no means knew what was going to occur,” Musselwhite provides. “We had a good time. I actually want I’d written down the tales that he informed me. We’d go round city visiting associates and kin, identical to I did with Shakey—which is what they known as Huge Walter in Chicago—all the time on the lookout for a bit style. That was type of a standard interest amongst most of the older blues guys, and infrequently we’d sit up late at night time simply consuming beer and Joe could be taking part in guitar and I might be taking part in harmonica with him, and he simply appeared to take pleasure in doing that, so it was terrible encouraging. I picked up little recommendations on his taking part in. Sometimes I’d choose up his guitar to attempt to play it, however, man, the strings had been like cables. It was arduous to even fret it, however he would play it prefer it was butter.”
Musselwhite and his supervisor and spouse, Henrietta, have lived and realized within the courtroom of blues royalty. The opposite gents on this picture are Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
Picture courtesy of Charlie Musselwhite
Williams’ guitar—albeit decreased to its authentic 6-string setup—makes a cameo on Mississippi Son, on “Remembering Huge Joe,” an instrumental reflecting the savvy gutbucket fashion of the bluesman famous for the primary recordings of “Child Please Don’t Go” and “Crawling King Snake.”
“I simply performed off the highest of my head, occupied with Huge Joe, and that’s what got here out,” says Musselwhite. “That’s what I keep in mind him sounding like.”
In Chicago, Mussselwhite additionally had entry to the canonical harmonica gamers of electrical blues: Horton, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and his fellow younger trailblazer, Paul Butterfield. And by the mid-’60s, Musselwhite’s personal mojo was working. In 1965, he met producer Samuel Charters, who was making his influential Chicago/The Blues/At present! trilogy of recordings. Billed as Memphis Charlie, Musselwhite appeared with the Huge Walter Blues Harp Band on the third quantity. Later that 12 months, Musselwhite performed on John Hammond Jr.’s So Many Roads album, and a session of his personal with Charters yielded 1967’s Stand Again! Right here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band.
Charlie Musselwhite’s Gear on ‘Mississippi Son’:
Again dwelling within the Delta, Charlie Musselwhite plucks a Concord Bobkat as he sits on the porch of a former sharecropper’s residence at a Clarksdale, Mississippi, lodge compound known as the Shack Up Inn, the place his stay 2012 Juke Joint Chapel album was recorded.
Picture by Rory Doyle
- Classic Gibson L-4
- Concord Bobkat
- 1967 Silvertone solidbody
- 1954 Gibson J-45
- Classic Gibson L-7
- Laney A3012
Strings & Slide
- .011-gauge units
- Metal slide
As luck, or, maybe, the blues’ guiding hand, had it, the album arrived when freeform FM radio was an emergent drive in American music and Musselwhite’s popularity unfold all through the nation. Driving this acclaim, he relocated to San Francisco, the place his bona fide sound was embraced by the rock counterculture scene anchored on the Fillmore West.
Since then, Musselwhite’s star has burned. At instances extra brightly than others, however he has constantly toured and recorded and remained not solely within the eyes and ears of blues followers, however within the normal music loving public’s. It’s not only a matter of his excellence—his means to blow pure soul by means of his primary axe’s tiny reeds. Musselwhite, regardless of his devotion to bone-deep blues, isn’t any purist. Over the many years he’s collaborated and made albums with Bonnie Raitt, Flaco Jiménez, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Lee Hooker, and Ben Harper, exploring jazz, gospel, Tex-Mex, Cuban, and different world musics.
“I found that quite a lot of music—flamenco, Greek, Arabic—has a sound or really feel that jogs my memory of blues,” Musselwhite observes. “It’s acquired the identical type of coronary heart— particularly flamenco. If it ain’t blues, I don’t know what it’s. It has that spirit, that very same vitality. Sooner or later I keep in mind coming to the belief that each tradition most likely has its music of lament. And there’s a man on the nook singing about ‘my child left me’ wherever you go on the earth.”
“From time to time I’d sneak in a observe on an album the place I used to be taking part in guitar. Lots of people by no means even realized it was me.”
Musselwhite has additionally hosted a collection of world-class guitar gamers in his bands, from Harvey Mandel and Robben Ford within the ’60s, to Matthew Stubbs and Kirk Fletcher in recent times. “From time to time I’d sneak in a observe on an album the place I used to be taking part in guitar,” Musselwhite says. “Lots of people by no means even realized it was me.”
Now, with Mississippi Son, the feline is out of the flour sack. And Musselwhite is again in his native state. He and his spouse and supervisor, Henrietta, bought a house within the blues mecca of Clarksdale, Mississippi, some years in the past, however in 2021 they departed the West Coast to take up everlasting residence within the small Delta burg with a downtown that appears frozen in 1966. In Clarksdale, Musselwhite befriended guitarist, songwriter, and producer Gary Vincent, and in 2012 Vincent produced Musselwhite’s stay Juke Joint Chapel, on the hip native venue bearing that title.
This time, they regrouped in Vincent’s downtown studio, Clarksdale Soundstage. “With the pandemic, I had all this time on my fingers, and Gary’s studio is three blocks from me. He’s acquired a ton of guitars, so I spent quite a lot of time over there taking part in them. At one level, he mentioned, ‘Ya know, we should always tape a few of these.’ I mentioned, ‘Yeah, go forward.’ So, the album began spontaneously. We had been simply recording tunes for posterity.”
With a borrowed white Stratocaster, Musselwhite evokes the old fashioned onstage on the Blues Cazorla Pageant on July 22, 2011, in Cazorla, Spain.
Picture by Jordi Vidal
Posterity needs to be happy. Mississippi Son’s 14 songs add as much as probably the greatest new albums of nation blues recorded in many years—for the reason that early ’90s titles reduce by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside for the Fats Possum label. However Musselwhite’s proclivity for acoustic and clear however frivolously bushy electrical guitars takes the sound again even earlier, to the times when Chess, Vee-Jay, and Solar had been slicing information by artists straight out of the cotton fields. His repeated sliding chords and up-picking on the tunes “Hobo Blues” and “Crawling King Snake” evoke the spirit of John Lee Hooker, who reduce their most well-known variations. However most of the songs are Musselwhite originals with lyrics that additionally conjure visions of the Delta of yore, alluding to the ’Frisco (the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway), the itinerant bluesman’s life (the semi-autobiographical “Drifting from City to City”), and the countless circulate of the Mississippi River.
Musselwhite is joined on 5 songs by drummer Ricky Martin and upright bassist Barry Bays, and he overdubbed his personal harmonica. However a few of the album’s most profound performances are simply Musselwhite and his guitar. The center-squeezer “The Darkish,” a Man Clark quantity, is particularly hypnotic. As he lays out frivolously surging riffs on the Gibson L-4 acoustic archtop that’s one of many album’s MVP 6-strings, he gently intones the lyrics in a approach that transforms the small components of a fading day—a June bug on a window display, a dripping kitchen faucet, the Earth turning its again on the solar—into one thing existential. “A technique or one other,” Musselwhite observes within the third verse, “we’re all at the hours of darkness.”
The album’s different guitars had been a 1967 Silvertone solidbody electrical borrowed from the Clarksdale guitar store Bluestown Music, a 1954 Gibson J-45, and the Gibson L-7 that belonged to Huge Joe Williams. A tube-driven Laney A3012 was the amp Vincent used for Musselwhite’s guitar and harmonica. This mannequin amplifier was made within the ’80s and ’90s and has 4 12AX7 preamp tubes and two 6V6 energy tubes, however in Musselwhite’s management it seems like a classic tweed Fender or a Valco Sears particular—an previous man of a soundbox with greater than a touch of expertise in its voice. Vincent recorded the amp with a Neumann U 87.
“I actually love the best way he nails the previous deep blues, the nation blues. He solely performs what’s vital, and each observe has nuance.”—Elvin Bishop
Musselwhite’s tunings, in addition to normal, had been textbook Delta blues. “Furry Lewis taught me Spanish and Vestapol,” he says, utilizing the phrases sometimes used to explain the open G (Spanish, or cross-tuning for minor-key variations á la Skip James) and open D/E households of tunings. After he plugs in, “I flip the treble all the best way off and the bass all the best way up, the mids about half-way, and I’m able to go.” Pedals? After all not.
Once we spoke, Musselwhite had some dates on his schedule with Elvin Bishop, and each artists had been trying ahead to taking part in nation blues—and particularly some nation blues guitar—collectively once more, as they’ve intermittently since assembly within the music’s ultra-fertile ’60s Chicago scene.
“I beloved the sound of Chicago blues and the place it took the electrical guitar, however I’ve all the time been a giant fan of nation blues guitar,” says Musselwhite. “There are such a lot of subtleties in it. That’s the place the actual great thing about the blues is—in these subtleties … simply listening to the best way these guys accompanied themselves. One man with a guitar: whether or not it’s John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Charley Patton. I like that stuff and so I assume that’s why I play like I do. I additionally knew quite a lot of the old-timers, and so they weren’t shredders by any stretch of the creativeness. That sound captivated me after I was a child, and it nonetheless does.”
Charlie Musselwhite – Blues Up The River
Charlie Musselwhite performs his music “Blues Up the River,” from Mississippi Son, on a brand new Epiphone John Lee Hooker mannequin Zephyr.