If anyone has ever deserved the title of ‘living legend’, it’s Charlie Musselwhite. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, and raised in Memphis, Charlie picked up the harmonica early in life, playing where he could, whenever he could. Encouraged by bluesmen Will Shade and Furry Lewis to pursue his dream, Charlie headed for Chicago, where the blues was in high gear. He was all of 18.
It was on the city’s South Side that Musselwhite got his sea legs, hanging out at the Jazz Record Mart and the city’s blues clubs, where he played for tips: making due and making music.
He found mentors in Big Joe Williams and Walter Horton, and slowly but surely gained a following and a band ─ steps that would lead to his first album in 1966. The success of that album (Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band) kick-started his career, despite the fact that Vanguard misspelled his name on the album’s cover.
But not to worry, as over the next 50 years, Charlie Musselwhite’s name would become synonymous with the blues. Adding his own nuances to the genre, he travels from his home base in California’s wine country to just about every city and town in the world.
With close to two dozen albums of his own, and numerous guest appearances on other artists’ recordings, Charlie Musselwhite has garnered a passel of Grammys and W.C. Handy awards over the years, from the Governor’s award for Excellence in the Arts in his home state of Mississippi, to the Monterey Blues Festival and Spain’s San Javier Jazz Festival.
But life wasn’t without its challenges. Over the years, Charlie has faced some major personal losses and hurdles, as well as those confronting the music industry as a whole. Rising to the challenge, he closed out the 1990s with Continental Drifter, an album that added a Cuban feel to the mix, and moved into the new century with appearances in two films: Blues Brothers 2000 and Louisiana Gator Boys.
As of 2017, Charlie Musselwhite is still crisscrossing the globe, making music and adding new accolades to his impressive collection. Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010, he continues to record, appeal and amaze. One need only listen to his catalog of recent albums ─ the list is too long to include here, but a sampling of which includes My Time (2006), The Well (2010), 2013’s Juke Joint Chapel, and the Grammy-winning Get Up! Crowned Best Blues Album of 2014. It was an honor he shared with Ben Harper.
Since then, Musselwhite has taken home two Blues Music Awards and added even more albums to his discography, with 2015’s I Ain’t Lyin’ and Delta Hardware, and Sanctuary, his latest offering. Just out this year, the album is already poised to become a classic. And, in a world where technology and social media have turned the recording industry on its head, that’s nothing to sneeze at. To the contrary, it’s downright remarkable.
Which prompts us to ask: what would Charlie Musselwhite like to do that he hasn’t already done? Is there any place he would like to go that he hasn’t been, or that he would like to return to as a ‘civilian’? Does he have a so-called “Bucket List?” And are there any thoughts of slowing down, staying state-side, or sitting on his well-earned laurels and just enjoying life with Henrietta (Henri), his wife of some 36 years, daughter Layla (who inherited the Musselwhite musical gene) and others close to his heart?
Charlie considers the question and replies: “The Russian Hells Angels have asked me to play an event of theirs in Russia. I hope that happens. That’s got to be really interesting. And Ben Harper and I have a new CD due out early next year, so I’m really looking forward to touring with Ben again. Maybe we’ll win another Grammy. That’d be nice! But, all in all, I’m pretty satisfied.”
But we were curious, wanting to know more about the places he’s been, the music he’s made, and any advice he might offer for those whose career is just beginning.
And so we shot off a list of questions, and Charlie answered every one of them.
Q: How have you adapted to life on the road over the years? Any concessions or major changes?
A: “Well, I travel more comfortably. I used to go get in my van and drive non-stop from the west coast to the east coast to start a tour. That would take about three days. I’d only stop for gas and the restroom and more coffee to go. I’d be a zombie by the time I got to the east coast. These days I fly to a city, rent a comfortable car or van or SUV. And when flying overseas I don’t ride coach anymore. If I do, I feel all beat up when I get over there. After you turn seventy you don’t care so much about roughing it anymore.”
Q: Other than your family, what about your home do you miss when you’re away?
A: “The smell of the orange tree when it’s in bloom…and I try to travel as light as possible, so I miss being able to play recorded music and my own guitar.”
Q: Speaking of traveling light: Any packing tips?
A: “I remember telling [the late musician/songwriter] Allen Toussaint about how if you pack all your shirts and suit jackets in a separate cleaner’s plastic bag, then they won’t wrinkle. Allen hadn’t heard about this, and since my suitcase was in the ‘green room’ where we were talking, I showed him, and he thought I was a genius. Ha ha. It really works and I don’t know why.
“I keep a separate plastic box with my toothbrush and razor, etc. in my suitcase. It lives there, so I never have to take it out, and I have all that stuff at home too.
“So, other than putting in fresh clothes, my suitcase stays packed. Roller bags are a huge breakthrough. Always get on the plane as early as possible if you need the space over your seat to put a bag in.”
Q: Do you carry any kind of lucky charm?
A: “In my harp case I have a mojo and a tiny smiling Buddha.”
Q: And, speaking of your harp, do you have a favorite?
A: The Seydel 1847 with stainless steel reeds and a wood comb.
Q: Traveling as often and as far as you do, are you able to take your band along with you?
Charlie says it isn’t always possible, but –
A: “I always prefer working with my own band because they know all my tunes and play them far far better than anybody else.”
Q: Do you have a favorite ‘food’ city?
A: “In America, it would have to be New Orleans. In the world…too numerous to list, but most anywhere in Italy.”
Q: Ever get back to Kosciusko?
A: “I was there when they unveiled my Blues Trail marker downtown. I still have relatives in the area. I don’t get back as much as I’d like. And I like to go from Kosciusko up to Possumneck. That’s where the old Musselwhite Cemetery is and where many Musselwhite’s still live. My dad was born in a ‘dog-trot’ style log cabin there.”
Moving on to the blues, we asked─
Q: Do you have a favorite all-time blues album?
A: “I don’t really have one favorite of anything. It depends on the day sometimes. Or the time of day. But, one that comes to mind is the box set of Charlie Patton. To me Patton is about as deep as you can get into real blues.”
Q: When it comes to your own albums, excluding your most recent, do you have a favorite?
A: “Well, my first album, Stand Back, gave me a career and put me on the road, but Continental Drifter stands out, where it blends traditional Cuban son with [singer/guitarist] Eliades Ochoa, y el Cuarteto Patria and my blues.”
Q: Of all your albums and/or songs, which is the most personal?
A: “In Your Darkest Hour.”
Q: As for other artists and music, what are you listening to currently?
A: “I enjoy listening to https://www.internet-radio.com/station/xrds/. They play one great tune after another and lots of blues. They also feature my own radio show: Charlie’s Back Room. So, at home I listen to blues, gospel, rockabilly, old hillbilly, some world music and jazz from the 60s and before. And, like I said, I’m a big fan of Charlie Patton.”
Q: Do you use social media? And if so, what?
A: “I have a web page, and I enjoy Facebook.”
Head to charliemusselwhite.com and you’ll find all sorts of things there, from his tour calendar to links to his radio show, music, and a goodly assortment of photos and videos, past and present.
There are formal and informal videos, where he plays a tune or two and reminisces a bit, recalling the night the fresh-out-of-Kosciusko teen got to play with the legendary Muddy Waters.
Other videos include his show-stopping performance with Cyndi Lauper at the White House, a couple of solo performances, and a duet with Ben Harper. Scroll down on Charlie’s website’s video page and you’ll find a wonderful video featuring Charlie and his daughter Layla performing the very personal In Your Darkest Hour. Over a decade old, the performance still resonates.
But then, tried and true, old or new, whatever Charlie Musselwhite does, he does with a love for the blues ─ and the harmonica that cuts through the clutter and gets to the very heart and soul of it.