King of the blues, Grammy Award-winning music legend Musselwhite, once hoped to see the world but never imagined doing it as a musician. Now, this multi-award-winning artist has just released Mississippi Son his 40th album and is on the road again. Unlike his former albums featuring his virtuoso harmonica playing and backed by a full electric band, Mississippi Son (Alligator Records) is front porch country blues focusing on Musselwhite’s acoustic and electric guitar playing and straight-from-the-soul vocals (although Musselwhite also plays brilliant every-note-matters harmonica).
Charlie Musselwhite, who until recently, was living in Northern California, has moved back to Clarksdale, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta. It was at a Clarksdale studio that he recorded his latest back-to-the-roots album celebrating his Mississippi blues heritage. The 14 songs on Mississippi Son (eight are originals) include songs by Charley Patton, Big Joe Williams and Yank Rachell. Each reflects on Musselwhite’s personal take on the world around him.
Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, Musselwhite’s family moved to Memphis when he was three. At the age of 19, Musselwhite moved to Chicago and taught himself both harmonica and guitar. Later, he learned guitar from his friend/playing partner/roommate, Big Joe Williams. (Musselwhite dedicates a song on the new album to Big Joe Williams and records it with one of Big Joe’s guitars).
In the early 1960s, Musselwhite began to focus on harmonica playing, learning from Big Walter Horton, with whom he recorded on the famed Chicago/The Blues/ Today! series on the Vanguard label. He cut his first album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band, launching his career, which has so far, lasted almost 60 years. Musselwhite has produced 40 albums and played thousands of gigs around the world.
I caught up with the blues king on a boat in Puget Sound [Pacific Northwest] were he was on a brief vacation with his with, Henrietta (who is also his manager) and family, before resuming his U.S. summer tour which will last until mid-October.
You call your blues “secular spiritual music.” Can you elaborate on that?
For me, blues is more than just another kind of music. It’s not some fad. It has substance to it. It’s deeper than music. It’s about life. It can accompany you through life and help you live that way. it’s kind of a philosophy, but it’s always there for you.
Your albums have included straight blues with elements of jazz gospel, Tex Mex Cuban and a lot of other world music. What made you decide to come back to your roots on this album?
Well, I didn’t even think about it being an album. It was during the pandemic, and everything was shut down. I had a lot of time off and I was at Gary Vincent’s Burning Man Studio, only three blocks from me in Clarksdale. He’s got a lot of guitars and he’s a guitar player and songwriter and his studio has really good studio quality microphones.
I was just fooling around playing guitar and he said, you know, we should tape these tunes. I said, sure, go ahead. I’m just playing tunes I like to play instead of sitting at home alone. At one point he said, ‘this could be an album.’ We wrote in a bass player and drummer on a few tunes. It just kind of accidentally happened.
How do you feel about this album compared to your other albums?
Well, I’m sure happy most people like it so well. You can’t please everybody, so you might as well just please yourself, and probably somebody else will like it.
What’s your favorite original song on this album and why?
It’s “Blues Gave me a Ride” off the top of my head, but tomorrow I might have a different answer.
Is the song, ‘Drifting from Town to Town” based on what you’ve been doing all your life?
Pretty much. My music reflects what I’ve been through or how I feel.
You said all the tunes you wrote are extensions of you. For instance, the song “Where the Frisco left the Shed’ is based on a vision you had. What does the phrase ‘when the Frisco left the shed’ mean and what was your vision?
The shed is where they work on the engine. I’ve heard that phrase before in other blue songs. There’s a lot of floating verses —they call them— which show up in songs over and over. I thought that image was strong. it’s hard to describe, but I just liked the way that sounded. And it seems like a lot of my life has been around railroads. Where I grew up, the window panes would rattle when the trains passed by. Another time I lived in an area called the Iron Triangle because it had three railroads. Where I live in Clarksdale, you can see the train right across the river. I could just about hit it with a rod.
What do you want your listeners to take away from this album?
I’m just trying to play real blues. For me a lot of what passes for blues today is just real busy. Rock blues. It’s all about technique. It seems like those people don’t understand what real blues is. They use the music to support their technique when it should it be the other way around, the use of your technique to support the music. It reminds me of somebody who has a huge vocabulary but nothing to say. Where’s the music? I don’t get any excessive heart. So that’s where I attempt to come from: from my heart.
What does the blues mean to you?
It’s always been my comforter, even when I was a little kid when I first heard the blues. I liked all kinds of music, but blues sounded like how I felt.
Last time I interviewed you for the book, Masters of the Harmonica you said when you were a kid you wanted to see the world. What made you want to travel the planet?
I was curious about the world and different cultures and people, the food they ate, the customs they had, how they thought about things. I didn’t want to be stuck in one place and not know what else was out there.
You ended up traveling the world, not as a tourist but as a professional musician. Do you have any idea how many countries and cities you’ve played?
It’s probably easier to come up with how many I haven’t!
What’s your favorite place to visit?
Well, home is always pretty good. I spent so many years away from home that being there is almost exotic. The pandemic was a refreshing break for me because I spent so much time at home and really enjoyed it.
Are you making up for lost time from Covid?
I’m kind of easing back into it, getting in the van and hitting the road, going from town to town to town like I have in the past.
When you’re doing gigs, do you have time to visit as a tourist would?
I do if I’m going to someplace like China or Europe. I’m trying to arrange to stay there a while after the gig is over. I want to go below the surface and be with the people, not just as a tourist but see how people live there.
Are you partial to any culture?
Everything’s got something unique. I can speak some Spanish, but if you know a Romance language, you can get by. And the food is really interesting in different places. I try to go taste local food, not where the tourists go. Every place seems to have something unique.
What are some of the things you love about Europe?
They have such a great train system. You can go from the middle of one town in one country to the middle of town and another country. You don’t need a car because where you get off is every level of hotel from affordable to non-affordable. I’ve been all over Europe on trains from Italy to Oslo. On a train you see people’s backyards, you see the laundry hanging up. Another thing is every culture has music like the blues. There’s a guy singing about “my baby left me” in every corner of the world.
And how about playing with musicians from other countries?
It’s interesting, even if we can’t speak the same language. If you’re playing from the heart, you can play together easily.
What’s your next project after this tour?
Well, I have another album in the can, a band album, but it won’t see the light of day for probably another year or so.