Blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite backs his strong blues with hard knocks
Charlie Musselwhite needs little introduction to blues fans. He can rock and shout the blues with the best of them. Sometimes flashy, always dynamic, his harp playing is razor sharp. Musselwhite drives his music through a variety of settings, but his surest footing is where the blues bubbles straight up out of the ground. While the music can have different shades of meaning, for Musselwhite the blues is good-time music. The Sierra Nevada Big Room is in for a treat.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Tennessee says a lot, but it doesn’t fully describe Musselwhite. As a youngster in Memphis, Charlie watched Johnny Cash tear up the streets in his Thunderbird. Many local influences grabbed for Musselwhite’s attention, but a radio show beckoned Charlie to his instrument. At 13, he heard Sonny Terry playing harmonica on the radio, and that was it. Soon, young Charlie sought out other local legends and steeped himself in living blues lore. He says the blues made him feel good.
Other local “traditions” also promised good times. “At first, alcohol was a whole lot of fun,” says Musselwhite. Just a kid, he ran a still and moved moonshine. After graduating high school, he put some needed miles between himself and the local sheriffs. Musselwhite migrated north to Chicago, in search of “the elusive $4-an-hour job.” He didn’t find that job but instead landed feet first in the middle of one of Chicago’s greatest musical eras, the electric blues scene of the ‘60s, where he began honing his chops in earnest.
Blessed with talent, Musselwhite apprenticed with the greats. He debuted on record as “Memphis Charlie,” trading riffs with harmonica legend Big Walter Horton on the sassy classic, “Rockin’ My Boogie.” Musselwhite crossed paths and shared stages with blues royalty.
In 1967, when just 22, Musselwhite made history himself with his album Stand Back!, a benchmark for the early white blues movement. His ensuing career was respectable enough, but he began dousing himself with alcohol to conquer stage fright. Later, he was drinking two quarts of liquor a day. Heavy drinking began taking a genuine toll. His performances and career suffered, and there were some bad car wrecks. Knowing he was badly bitten by booze, Musselwhite began working on it, going to A.A. meetings but admitting he “just felt trapped.”
Once again, radio proved Charlie’s beacon. One night in 1987, while driving to work, he heard on the radio the story of little Jessica McClure, who had fallen into a well in Texas. “I was struck by how brave this little girl was, in the dark, singing nursery rhymes. I decided to stop drinking as sort of a prayer in honor of her until she got out of the well.” He performed that night sweating and shaking but without drinking a drop. “Anyway, Jessica made it out of the well, and so did I. I haven’t had a drink since,” Musselwhite says.
His career reignited, he now totes a ton of Handy awards and Grammy nominations. A real-life blues survivor, Musselwhite owns cool. He displays a veteran’s mastery of all the nuances in the blues idiom, where one musical trick can take years of practice to put across right. A graduate from the school of hard knocks, Musselwhite is well versed in the Chicago school of blues, where a line is played only to make a statement.
At the Sierra Nevada Big Room, you will witness a consummate showman and a genuine world class act. You’ve had fair warning: This man plays power harp. And he delivers the goods.