Up the pointy end of the fourth Sydney Blues & Roots Festival in Windsor this October, veteran American blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite is still at the top of his game, as Michael Smith discovers.
May 2011 saw veteran bluesman Charlie Musselwhite pick up two awards: Traditional Blues Male Artist Of The Year and Best Instrumentalist–Harmonica at the 32nd annual Blues Foundation Blues Music Awards, which were presented in Memphis. While he's no stranger to awards, these were particularly sweet.
“It's really nice to get those awards in Memphis, where I grew up,” he explains, on the line from his home in Geyserville, California. “To be there in that town, where I have so many memories, makes it even more special.”
Musselwhite moved to Memphis with his family in his early teens and once he was old enough to be chasing a weekly wage, he headed for Chicago, getting a job driving a truck for an extermination company while at night he'd hit the blues clubs. He soon befriended and then played with Little Walter, Big Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It was in Chicago when he recorded his first album, 1967's Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's South Side Band.
“You know, when I was in Memphis, I was learnin' from a lot of the old-timers round there and hangin' out with them, but I didn't realise that I was preparing myself for a career. If I had known then what was gonna happen I would 'ave been payin' way more attention,” he laughs heartily. “I just thought I was havin' a good time hangin' out and just doin' a little drinkin' and laughin' and playin' some blues – I didn't know I was actually goin' to school.”
That early “schooling”, hanging out with veteran Memphis bluesmen like Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Gus Cannon, obviously paid off in a career that has stretched over nearly 50 years and more than 30 albums, quite apart from appearing on records by acts as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Tom Waits and Cyndi Lauper, with whom he toured the world, including Australia last year. Stories drawn from his colourful life provided the inspiration for his most recent album, The Well, for which he picked up those Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
“It was Chris Goldsmith, the producer's idea, that I write all the tunes,” Musselwhite admits. “He's a good producer, he knows how to get the best out of me and he pushed me to finish up all those tunes I'd started. I wrote about my life because that's all I know to write about,” he laughs. “So it makes it a little personal.”
The Well certainly is autobiographical, whether it's talking about his years of alcoholism in Dig The Pain or his beating it some 23 years ago now in the title track. Perhaps the most deeply poignant, however – even though Musselwhite approached its writing in a more celebratory way than the subject matter might normally have demanded – is his duet with Mavis Staples, Sad And Beautiful World, written as a way of dealing with the tragic murder in 2005 of his 93-year-old mother in her own home, in which he grew up, during a burglary.
“I didn't want that tune to be like a dirge, you know, like a sad, mournful song, so it has a beat to it – and Mavis sure made it just a wonderful piece of music. I mean she really added so much to it. She's so deep and she's such a good friend, it made me feel real good to have her on that song.”
While Musselwhite spent his teenage years in Memphis, he was born, of all places, in a little town called Kosciusko, Mississippi, named after a Polish-Lithuanian general who assisted revolutionaries during the American War of Independence (and after whom Australia's highest point is named). He spent a lot of time between Friars Point, Clarksdale – Robert Johnson country in the Mississippi Delta – where he still has a lot of relatives. So there's always been something for an affinity in Musselwhite for Australia; he's certainly toured here enough times over the years.
“It's really wonderful. I tell people that Australia's probably the last sane place on Earth, you know? It just makes sense – the air's clean and the water's clean and the people are healthy and smart [laughs] and things just make sense. I'm sure they must have their problems that I don't know about, but it sure don't seem like a lot of other places I go, so I really look forward to bein' there. It's always fun.”
Not only has he toured innumerable times, but Musselwhite has also done perhaps his unlikeliest session in Australia. “I recorded with INXS, in Sydney. I was on Suicide Blonde. You know, I was doin' a tour and I get a call in my hotel room, somebody sayin' 'We know you're comin' to Sydney, would you like to come down to the studio and record with this INXS band?' And I didn't even know who they were,” he laughs. “I didn't know they'd just sold, like, 15 million records and how big they were. And I went to the studio and they were so nice, everybody was just really, really, really nice and we just had a real good time and I really appreciated them lettin' me play with them.”
Musselwhite has just recorded an album with Ben Harper due for release in the northern winter, and they'll be touring Australia together next year. He also guested on three tracks off an album put together by Big Head Todd, 100 Years Of Robert Johnson, released in May last year to celebrate what would have been the legendarily enigmatic bluesman's centenary year.
“It was really great for me to work with Honeyboy Edwards [who also guested on 100 Years...], 'cause I'd known Honeyboy a long time and we'd always talked about recordin' together. Every time I saw Honeyboy he'd always bring up the first guy that took him on the road, who was the first guy that took me on the road – that was Big Joe Williams. And it turned out that was Honeyboy's last recording.”