Charlie Musselwhite: A Gentleman and a Scholar
Charlie Musselwhite, more than any other harmonica player of his generation, can rightfully lay claim to inheriting the mantle of many of the great harp players that came before him with music as dark as Mississippi mud or as uplifting as the blue skies of California. In an era when the term legendary gets applied to auto-tuned pop stars, this singular blues harp player, singer, songwriter and guitarist has earned and deserves to be honored as a true master of American roots music. This has been a big year for Musselwhite: he was invited to perform at the White House as a part of an all-star salute to Memphis Soul, released an album, has been doing live dates with Ben Harper, and the 2013 Living Blues Readers Poll named him “Most Outstanding Musician.” In December Musselwhite will release his thirty-fourth album, Juke Joint Chapel, which was recorded live at the infamous Shack Up Inn on highway 49 in Clarksdale Mississippi. I had the privilege to sit down with this true living legend, gentlemen and music scholar and glean some of the wisdom he has collected in his fifty years of working as a blues man.
Rick J Bowen: I‘ve got a copy of your new album Juke Joint Chapel here. Can we start by talking about it?
Charlie Musselwhite: That’s our place on the cover. It was on a plantation and they were gonna burn it down so they could grow more cotton. Our partner heard about and bought it for real cheap. It cost more to move it than to buy it. It was built in 1882, all cypress so the termites won’t eat it. We moved it over on this lot we had. It had just been sat down, and it has not been fixed up a lot. I took that picture with my iPhone. It is sitting right on the delta outside of Clarksdale on highway 49 and right across the tracks is the Shack Up Inn. It is a great place to stay. It’s called a B and B: Bed and Beer. I asked Guy who runs the Shack Up Inn, “How do you all keep track of the beer, cause it’s on the honor system?” He said “well Charlie, we don’t do inventory.“
RB: They just keep the cooler filled.
CM: Yep and hope they all pay and figure they don’t lose much.
RB: So the album was recorded there a year ago and will be out at Christmas time.
CM: The Shack Up Inn is the Juke Joint Chapel, there’s a club there. We originally did it as a fundraiser for a music school at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. The tapes turned out so well we said “why don’t we just put it out.” So we did it on our own label, the Henrietta Records label. Kinda the way to go these days. Except with the record with Ben on Stax. Which is great. I knew Estel Axton when I was a kid, she was a friend of my mom’s, her and her brother started Stax. But then it was called Satellite, before Stax. I’ve still got some of the 45’s she used to give me when she’s come by the house.
RB: The album sounds like someone just threw a microphone up in the room; you hear glasses clinking and people dancing.
CM: Yeah people drinking and dancing and just having a good time. At the time we weren’t even thinking it would be a record. They had the facility to record, so we said,”all right turn it on,” it was lark. It came out ok.
RB: The selection of songs showcases everyone in the band nicely.
CM: I always like to do that. Cause I know the band likes it, and it’s more fun for the audience too. I don’t need all the attention. I don’t even want all the attention. I’m just trying to have fun and entertain, and that’s the way I do it.
RB: It feels like everybody get a bit of the spotlight.
CM: Well in Chicago that’s the way we did it. A lot of jazz groups did it and the blues groups too, everybody took a solo every tune. You’d go and hear Muddy Waters,and Otis Spann would take solo and James Cotton would take solo and Pee Wee Madison would take a solo, maybe the bass player and the drummer. In those old clubs in Chicago you’d go until four or five in the morning. That’s a lot of time. We’d play seven sets a night and on Saturday you play eights sets. On Sunday morning you go out, well I would, you go out on the street and play for tips on Maxwell Street and then play that night, and then on Monday morning from eight till noon play at what they ‘d call a Blue Monday Breakfast–the people who came to that were the real hard partiers. You’d wrap up the weekend with gangsters and hookers and gamblers. You’d see guys pouring bourbon on their corn flakes n’ stuff: some hard core drinkers Monday at eight AM. Then you get to sleep Tuesday, and Wednesday it all starts again.
RB: You must have played the same songs a hundred times each weekend.
CM: It was real casual. A lot of people sittin in. You know, if you weren’t workin you be hangin out at some other club sittin in. That was what went on all the time. If it hadn’t have been for that kind of a casualness I don’t know what I’d have done. How it happened was this waitress I got to know told Muddy “you ought to hear Charlie play harmonica.” He always thought of me as a fan. Because back in the beginning I wasn’t going around asking “hey can I sit in,” I was just happy to be in the clubs socializing and listen to the blues. How great it was, on Tuesday night you’d go to Pepper’s Lounge and it was fifty cents to get in and with that ticket you got a free beer, then you listen to Muddy until four in the morning.
RB: Yeah, why would you want to be anyplace else?
CM: It was heaven for me. I was eighteen but I could get into the clubs as I was big for my age. So when he found out I played he insisted I sit in. A lot of musicians hung out there and they started offering me gigs and that got my attention “you gonna pay me to do this? ok ! Let’s go.” That was the beginning, it all turned a corner for me there.
RB: So you left the Memphis area and headed to Chicago not to play music but just to get a better job.
CM: Everybody was getting outta the south looking for those factory jobs up north that paid well with benefits. The south was economically depressed, it still is, and I was part of the great migration.
RB: The set list- is it indicative of any given night someone would come to one of your shows?
CM: Yeah I still do a lot of those tunes; it was just another night on the tour.
RB: How long has this band line up been together?
CM: People come and go. I’ve already got a new bass player. He decided he needed to stay home with his kids and he was gone too much they were getting to an age where he needed be home more, I understand that. But June Core, the drummer has been with me the longest and Matt Stubbs the guitar player and my new bass player Steve Froberg is a really great player.
RB: Is this album your tribute to the delta and the juke joints?
CM: It’s always great to be back where you come from, where your earliest memories are from. I never did live in Clarksdale, but I had relatives there. I even have cousins there now that I have not met.
RB: There is a big mythology behind the Juke Joints and the culture of the delta; do you think it’s fading away?
CM: They are still alive and well in the Delta. Have you been to Red’s Lounge?
RB: No, I’ve only been to Ground Zero in Clarksdale.
CM: Well you just scratched the surface. You can YouTube Red’s Lounge and see a bunch of stuff. I was just down in Clarksdale and Robert Balfour was playing there.T Model Ford used to play there a lot and Jack Johnson all these blues guys.
CM: Well they been saying it’s dying out as long as I can remember. When I first went to Chicago people were telling me “well the blues is over.” Like it was a fad or somethin’, it’s not a fad, even if nobody’s playin’ it, it’s still there.
RB: Wow way back in 1965 they were saying ”it’s all over.”
CM: Oh yeah like that was the year of the blues, I never thought it was that way at all.
RB: You have the gift of having seen several generations of the blues come and go now.
CM: Yeah- looking back it is quite a trip. When you’re going throw it you don’t realize. When you look the back the past take son something and it grows as you get further away from it. You really can’t perceive the whole thing. At that age I wasn’t thinking that way.
RB: You were just enjoying the moment and having fun.
CM: And I did have some fun. (Both laugh)
RB: That’s a perfect segue to my next question. Is the song “the Blues Overtook Me,” your autobiography?
CM: It is. I wrote that and it kind of covers it. I say the blues over took when I was a child. When I was kid growing up in Memphis at the end of dead end street then there was all these woods and I would go play down by the creek and on the other side of the creek were fields that people worked in and I could hear them singing work songs and blues. I didn’t really know what is was but I knew it sounded like how I felt. I like other kind of music too, but blues was a really a thing all by itself and special to me.
RB: In Memphis you could have gone many ways into music.
CM: yeah there was country and rockabilly. Johnny and Dorsey Burnett lived right across the street from me and I used to go hang out at their house and they had instruments lying around. And Jimmy Griffin who had a band called Bread lived next door to me, and a couple blocks away was guy named Slim Rhoads- he was a country rockabilly guy and he would have barbeques in his yard and everyone was invited over and he be out there with his big white hat playing guitar. Memphis was full of music, not like today. I don’t even recognize the place, that flavor of it is not the same at all. And there were gospel tent meetings in the summer-I loved it. I had an old 1950 Lincoln and I’d pull it up beside the tent and watch all this great singin’ and drink beer.
RB: Cause it’s always hot in Memphis.
CM: They would have the side rolled up on the tent to get a breeze, and they would be rockin’. Great, really moving, it would be hot, but you’d get goose bumps from the music.
RB: That was quite an era. Things are quite different now.
CM: Gospel music is pretty big deal in the south. I went to a gospel event in Boston and it was such a disappointment: it was more of a fashion show than anything else. And the singing and all the posturing, not a drop of grease. It was the most sterile thing, there was no heart. Not like in the south at all.
RB: I think there’s a little bit of that going on in the blues right now.
CM: Oh yeah. People call themselves blues players, back then nobody would say it was blues. That was bad. I guess they think playing three chord changes makes it blues. They don’t realize it’s about a feeling, more than anything. Three chord changes is a convenient way to express that feeling but it doesn’t have to be that way. John Lee Hooker stayed on one chord.
RB: You talk about that on the album with the song about Brazil “Feel It In Your Heart,” a blues vocal over a samba.
CM: It’s called Forro’, that kind of music. It’s kind of like the blues of Brazil. They tell me it’s a corruptive of “for all,” because it’s the music for all. If you translate the Portuguese it’s the same thing as blues, about being in bad luck or winning the lottery or falling in love, falling out of love it it’s all the same thing. It’s kind of looked down upon, a lot of people say “oh I don’t listen to that stuff,” and then you find out actually in their closet they have a stack of Forro’ records they pull out when they feel like drinkin’ and havin’ a party. But they don’t admit they listen to that- its considered low class. It’s the country hillbilly music of Brazil. It’s from the northeast of Brazil which is sort of the delta of South America. It’s where samba comes from- it’s like the soul of Brazil up in the northeast.
RB: Have you been there a few times? I understand that music is imbedded in all aspects of life there.
CM: Oh yeah. I have this theory: all the places, like the southern US and Cuba and Brazil, where European and African music blended sparked a new music in this new place. It’s like they are all cousins of each other blues and samba and traditional Son of Cuba and Forro’. Cause it has the same ingredients just a little different here and there. And they are all singing about the same thing, about life.
RB: Indeed- life, love, and heartache.
CM: Yeah ups and downs, I say blues is your buddy in good times and your comforter in hard times. It’s all purpose music, always there for ya.
RB: What do you think is you signature song?
CM: Well Cristo Redentor. That was on my first album, just an instrumental- it was written by Duke Pearson, jazz piano player. Donald Byrd the trumpet player had the first popular recording of it. It was on the jukeboxes in Chicago, that’s where I first heard it. I heard that melody, and I’ve always been attracted to melody, and I thought I can play that on harmonica.
RB: That is what you are known for, melodic harmonica. There’s a lot of cats out there making a lot of racket with harmonicas.
CM: Yeah they think they’re playing something, and there’s not any thought involved. Just notes. They’re playing from up here (moves hand to head) not down here (moves hand to heart). I recorded that on my first album and it became real popular, and I tried to quite playin’ it, I thought people were tired of it, and then at the end of the night people would come up and say “man I waited all night to hear Cristo Redentor and you didn’t play it man,” oh sorry. I didn’t know. I still play it; it never gets old and always seems fresh and seems different somehow. I start the melody and the music goes where it wants to go. It never gets stale, that’s a special song for me. Usually people end the night with a real up beat thing, but this is real somber and slow , so it’s just a perfect way to wrap up the evening. People get real moved by that music–I’ll see people crying some times. Not in a sad way.
RB: You touched their heart. Isn’t that goal of all us musicians?
CM: I don’t even feel like it’s me, I just get to present something- I am the instrument too– of this song. It seem like today it’s all about technique, “hey look how fast I can play here,” that’s great but what about the music? It’s somebody who has a huge vocabulary and has nothing to say. (Both laugh) But more power to em’, anybody who gets a penny out of this business.
RB: This has been a pretty good year for you. You played the White House, did a record with Ben Harper and constant touring.
CM: yeah Ben is great and his band are really great guys. It’s been a real joy to play with em’, to travel with em’ , hang out with em’. They are great musicians there is no ego thing it’s just mellow it’s really great.
RB: And the White House?
CM: That was really special I got to play with Ben and Cyndi (Lauper).
RB: Was that your first time at the White house?
CM: That was my first time. It was the second time I played for Obama. I played for a private fundraiser with Booker T and Les Claypool and Al Green. And that was fun.
RB: Wait a minute Booker T on keys, Les Claypool on bass thing; it’s more like a banjo when he plays it.
CM: He’s a character I really like that guy. Booker T was at the White house too. During the televised part of the show, Cyndi forgot some of her words and went back later and overdubbed them to get it right. In that process somehow my harp got sped up or slowed down so it’s like out of tune, so when you hear it it’s I’m playing out of tune, but not at the time. I just wanted to clear that up for people so they know what happened, it’s a behind the scene thing people don’t know and they might wonder “why was Charlie out of tune?” So I wanted to clear that up.
RB: Just a little disclaimer, you did not play out of tune at the White House. (Both laugh)
RB: Are there plans to do another album with Ben?
CM: We’re talking about it yeah. I don’t know when, it probably won’t be real soon.
RB: Well the album is still fresh and just getting heard.
CM: We have been talking about it while we’ve been touring, the next one, what we’re gonna do on the next one. I’ve got this idea for the next one, so that iron is in the fire.
RB: Or might you record a live show?
CM: There has been talk of that too but I don’t know what Stax has in mind, but there will be another album. We just jelled so much doing all that touring and it has to be done, cause we are really cookin’ now. It’s often the case. You record something and then the band gets so solid on the road and you start playing off of each other. It get’s easy in the saddle.
RB: So how do you do it?
CM: Do what?
RB: You keep going, you’re unstoppable: the White House, two new albums, how many dates did you do this year-a hundred and fifty?
CM: Oh probably more like Two or two fifty, I kinda hate to count’em up it makes you tired. “God I did all that.” I don’t know I’ve been doing it so long I just roll with it.
RB: There’s no secret Charlie Mussellwhite blues elixir?
CM: Well I don’t do all the stuff I used to do. I quit drinking twenty six years ago, I don’t do any drugs. I’m just glad to be in the game. I mean life; life is the best game in town. And music is really rewarding in many ways, not just money, but to see all the smiling faces and meet people around the world. I feel real lucky.
RB: That joy just fills you up.
CM: Music does something for you, it energizes you. John Lee Hooker says it’s the healer and I believe it too. There more to it than just music. Blues is not just another kind of music it has a depth and substance. It can appear to be uncomplicated and simple to play. But deceptively so ; it may appear simple but it is really deep. That’s where you get in trouble thinking you can play it. (Laugh) it’s not just the notes.
RB: Wow, true wisdom.
CM: I am sure you know these things too.
RB: I am trying to learn them.
CM: it’s endless, I’m still learning too. That another beauty of it, you never get to the end; always more to learn. I told Ben after we finished record the album, I was listening to it and thinking “Ok its blues, but it’s not like a traditional blues”, so I said “you know Ben, this is a new way of being traditional.” It’s traditional but it’s new and that’s how I felt about it. It has all the ingredients that make it right, but it’s now, today, cookin’.
RB: Thank you again. This interview will be an exclusive for No Depression; the roots music community.
CM: I love No Depression. I had a subscription when it was on hard copy, now I get in online. I’m glad that there‘s a place to read about this kind of music and that there is lot of people out there who know that this is good music.
RB: Are you still doing your radio show?
CM: It’s on KRSH and called Charlie’s Back Room. If you ever heard that you’d know all the other stuff I’m into, cause it’s not just blues, there’s blues and hillbilly and gospel, world music and anything I like. In fact I think it would appeal to people you read No Depression, cause it’s all roots music. I just call it music from the heart. Most likely I play stuff that people have never heard before but they’ll like, even classical- if it’s short.
Rick J Bowen