Lucerna Music Bar
|Putting a contemporary edge on traditional blues.|
It’s always an occasion when Charlie Musselwhite comes to town. At 67, Musselwhite is America’s reigning blues harp player, a veteran who learned his trade on the south side of Chicago and has lived a hardscrabble life that informs every note he plays. His concert at Lucerna this week also marks his Prague debut, a signal event for serious blues fans.
Born in small-town Mississippi, Musselwhite was raised in Memphis, where he first put a childhood toy to serious use.
“I’ve played harmonica as far back as I can remember – seems there was always a harp around the house,” he says via e-mail. “I like all kinds of music, like hillbilly and rockabilly and gospel and jazz, but blues sounded like the way I felt. When I was about 13, I already had lots of blues records and had been listening to blues on the radio and following the street singers in downtown Memphis. One day, it just occurred to me to start making up my own blues. Since I already had a harmonica, and was somewhat familiar with how to get something out of one, I liked to go out in the woods by myself and make up my own blues on harmonica.”
Like a lot of people in the South in postwar America, Musselwhite eventually went north looking for work. He landed in a musical hotbed that inspired a generation of young musicians, from Paul Butterfield to the Rolling Stones.
“I arrived in Chicago from Memphis in 1962, when I was 18 years old,” Musselwhite recalls. “I didn’t know a soul. I was just looking for a job. The first job I got was driving for an exterminator, and I drove him all over town. So I learned the city real fast. I also discovered the blues scene by seeing signs in the windows of bars advertising the likes of Muddy Waters or Elmore James. At night I would go there and hang out. It was never a problem for me, I fit right in. I already knew how to drink, and being from the South just made me one of the guys from down home.”
Nearly 50 years later, Musselwhite has over 30 albums to his credit, including signature works like Ace of Harps and In My Time. His latest, The Well, is also his most personal. He wrote or co-wrote all the songs, which deal unabashedly with subjects like his alcohol addiction, time in the Cook County jail and the 2005 murder of his mother, Ruth Maxine.
“It wasn’t really a plan,” Musselwhite says. “That’s just how it turned out after my producer, Chris Goldsmith, asked me to write all the tunes for the album. And when I write, I write about what I know. I draw from my life experiences.”
Was it tough revisiting the death of his mother?
“Sure,” he says. “Dealing with the death of one’s mother is not easy, and murder is just about unbearable to contemplate. But I didn’t want to write a sad dirge, so you can actually tap your foot to ʽSad and Beautiful World.’ And Mavis Staples joined me on the song, which meant a lot to me. Mavis is a close and dear friend, and she has so much depth and substance – I thought she was perfect for the song. I wrote it for my mom, and I know she wouldn’t want me to be sad. Now, every time I hear Mavis’ voice, it makes my heart smile.”
Musselwhite is bringing his band: Matt Stubbs on guitar, Mike Phillips on bass and June Core on drums. “We’re sounding better than ever,” he says. “We’ll be playing some tunes from The Well, some older tunes and some I’ve never recorded that we have so much fun performing, the audience can’t help but have fun, too.”
That audience is remarkably diverse; Musselwhite counts everyone from convicts to jazz aficionados among his fans. What explains the broad appeal of his particular style of the blues?
“I don’t know,” he says. “But my guess is that not being afraid to experiment has opened more doors for me. I like to call it ʽfinding new ways to be traditional.’”
For more on Charlie Musselwhite: http://www.charliemusselwhite.com/