By Dave Gil de Rubio
In an age of performers making their name as Instagram influencers and TikTok flavors-of-the-month, Charlie Musselwhite is the equivalent of a land line—steady, reliable and a link to the past. Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, the 78-year-old musician has spent a career dating back to his 1967 debut, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band, being a blues standard-bearer.
His journey continues on the recently released Mississippi Son, a stripped-down collection of 14 songs featuring the harmonica player singing and picking up a guitar to present a mix of originals and nuggets originally recorded by an array of storied names including Yank Rachell, the Stanley Brothers and Charley Patton.
It’s Musselwhite’s first solo outing since moving back to Clarksdale, Mississippi, about a year and a half ago from the tiny Northern California community of Geyserville. (He released 100 Years of the Blues with old friend Elvin Bishop back in 2020.). Climate change prompted the harp player and his wife/manager Henrietta Musselwhite to pull up stakes and move back to the Delta.
“We were having the fires [in California] every year,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The last time, we could see it coming. If the wind hadn’t changed, we might have gotten burned out. We figured it was inevitable that we would at some point, so why wait for that?
“It was really horrible. You have to be evacuated and everything in the freezer was rotten because the electricity was turned off. It was horrible. I remember walking out my front door and the ash was just falling like snow. It ain’t gonna go away. It’s going to get worse.”
With the pandemic forcing Musselwhite to stay in one place, he started hanging out at friend Gary Vincent’s nearby studio, noodling around on guitar. Before long, Vincent was hitting record, drummer Ricky Martin and upright bassist Barry Bays were recruited, and Mississippi Son was the result.
“We started recording some of these tunes that I’d been doing for a long time, and at some point we realized that it could be an album,” Musselwhite said. “It was kind of an accident. Then we invited [Martin and Bays] to play on a few tunes. It just evolved on its own and took on its own momentum.”
The slow-as-molasses tempo on the album is languid and made all the more so by Musselwhite’s laconic vocal phrasing, which is goosed along by his equally loose strumming and harp blowing. The record doesn’t so much rock out as much as it oozes along from the self-penned opener “Blues Up the River” (whose couplets like “I’ll drink muddy water until I’ve had enough” bring to mind images of the mighty Mississippi River) to a reading of Guy Clark’s “The Dark.” The song’s stark tempo is reminiscent of Musselwhite’s old friend and mentor John Lee Hooker, who is immortalized by a version of “Crawling King Snake” perfectly arranged as a loose shuffle.
Fans can expect to hear songs from Mississippi Son and more now that Musselwhite will be back out on tour fronting a guitar, bass and drums trio. He plays Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on both Dec. 30 and 31 to welcome the New Year.
“I do some tunes that people request and I have some new songs they haven’t heard before,” he said. “I might even play guitar, who knows? It depends on the situation and how much time I have.
“A lot of people don’t even know that I play guitar, so that’s a departure. I didn’t even know how people would react to [my playing on Mississippi Son], but it’s just been overwhelming. People are just loving it. I’m happily surprised—it’s a nice thing.”
Musselwhite’s love of the blues can be traced to a childhood spent listening to music being sung by local laborers out in the country.
“I remember as a little kid we lived on a street and then there were woods and in it there was a creek,” he said. “On the other side of the creek there were fields where people would work in them. Down on the shady side of the creek was the coolest place I could find.
“I remember as a little kid, laying on the shady side of the creek, cooling off and listening to people singing work songs in the field. And that was blues. I remember listening to those songs and while I liked a lot of different kinds of music, this music sounded like how I felt. It really pulled me into it.”
In the 1950s a teen-aged Musselwhite moved to Memphis, where he furthered his education in the blues and set in motion what is now a five-decade career that shows no signs of slowing down.
“I remember going around Memphis looking for old blues records in junk stores,” Musselwhite said. “I found the first Sonny Boy [Williamson] record and other players. I really liked the way the harmonica sounded. At some point, I remember thinking that since I had my own harmonica, I decided to start playing my own [music].
“I started going out into the woods where I thought nobody could hear me play and just experimented. I was already familiar with it. I just started playing my own blues and making it up.”
Charlie Musselwhite appears with Angela Strehli on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31 at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St, Berkeley. Phone (510) 644-2020 for information and tickets.