Blues is tough, Charlie Musselwhite explains. He could just as easily be talking about himself. Described by the San Jose Mercury News as, the second coming of Led Zeppelin, with Tom Waits on vocals, Charlie and his band embody the direct and timeless power of the blues.
Charlie continues to deliver that hi-wattage intensity on stage, testifying to the truth of living in real America night in and night out. Whether its the rough river town of Memphis of his childhood, the rough South Side Chicago juke joints where he cut his teeth as a performer or the disillusioned Twenty First Century New Orleans, Musselwhites music still speaks - loud and clear - to the soul with passion and grace.
When Charlie released his first record, 1967s defiant Stand Back, the country was in the midst of an unpopular war and entering the slipstream of rapid cultural and political change. Fast forward four decades and not much has changed. Neither has Musselwhites musical wanderlust nor his creative ambition.
His hunger to explore new sounds and possibilities resulted in an acclaimed 2007 collaboration with alt-rock institution Eddie Vedder on the Golden Globe-nominated soundtrack to the film Into The Wild. Vedders haunting vocals and Musselwhites aching harp strains added to the movies already powerful story. Charlie recalls the sessions as a mutual admiration society. It was great. Sean Penn was there, too. They were fans and knew a lot of my records. We hit it off right away and had great rapport.
Charlie describes this give and take between himself and performers from other generations and different genres as, a conversation. It is an ongoing one that has been a key reason why his music remains so vital. Every situation has something to offer and can spark new ideas, he explains. Something new comes out of it. Musselwhite sums up: Its like... I know what I know. What do you know that can make things even more interesting?
Charlie also finds inspiration in diverse cultural experience. An avid traveler, Charlie loves to investigate all music with feeling / music from the heart. He and his band go wherever the gigs are - including China, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Brazil. Even though Charlie has already racked up thousands of miles on tour buses and still spends a great deal of time away from his current Sonoma County, California home, he still books tour itineraries that would wear out performers half his age. Charlie finds that these journeys allow him, to get beneath the surface of the place.
These treks reinforce Musselwhites belief in musics universality. No matter that they were half a world away from the American stages that gave birth to the genre, Charlie remembers hearing, people playing blues in their own way, their own version. Like some Jungian archetype, Musselwhite calls this a global music of lament from the heart, with, different takes, from country to country.
Musselwhites most recent album, 2006s critically praised Delta Hardware (released by Peter Gabriels Real World imprint), runs a wide emotional gamut from the hip-shaking boogie of, Church Is Out, to the haunting Katrina lament, Black Water. Charlies electric brand of roots music, drawing equally from rock and blues traditions, permeates the disc. But, in addition to the traditional, Delta Hardware finds Musselwhite stretching out and exploring new sounds, including bits of samples and drums loops. When asked if he is writing any new material, Charlie replies, Im constantly working on new stuff. Its an ongoing process.
As if touring the globe, releasing acclaimed albums and embarking on major collaborations wasnt enough for Musselwhites to-do list, he even found time to act in his first feature film, Pig Hunt. A bold, jarring and independent slice of horror dubbed, cinematic punkabilly, Pig Hunt isnt for the faint of heart. But, for Charlie, whose part was created specifically with him in mind by script writer Robert Mailer Anderson, the shoot was, Very professional fun, serious work.
Musselwhite was born in the Mississippi - the cradle of the blues. He spent his formative years in another musical hothouse, Memphis, Tennessee. Fortuitously, he arrived during its burgeoning postwar ascent, a vibrant cross-pollenization of down-home country, swinging jazz and soulful R&B. Charlie remembers, I just figured every place was like Memphis. In the neighborhood, I could take a walk a couple blocks in any direction and come across some guys playing blues, hillbilly, gospel or rockabilly literally on the front steps, or in the yard. You could hear the music, and follow the sound. Some of the young hotshots just getting their start in the citys nightclubs at the time were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. Charlie often found himself at Elvis parties or watching Johnny and Tommy Cash styling through the Memphis streets. Heck, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette lived right across the street from Charlie. Slim Rhodes lived only a couple blocks away.
Music had sunk its teeth deep into Charlie, but economic necessity made him move to Chicago in the mid 60s. Now on his own as a young adult, Musselwhite looked for a good job and a better life. But, inevitably, the South Side scene, filled with legendary players like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, drew him in. Soon, Charlie was living in the basement of Delmark records with Big Joe Williams and meeting the eras greats. Musselwhites prodigious talent and laidback attitude soon won him a place at their sides both on stage or sharing a bottle in the alley out back of the bar.
During the course of the remarkable career that followed, Musselwhite has collected a treasure trove of awards and accolades, including 18 W.C. Handy trophies, and six Grammy nominations. Amazon.com named Delta Hardware the best blues album of 2006. Musselwhite has also been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Monterey Blues Festival, the Mississippi Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts and a prestigious Brass Note plaque on Memphis Beale Street (prominently placed outside B.B. Kings Club). The latest in this list is the Mississippi Trail Marker on the square of his birthplace, Kosciusko Mississippi.
However, probably more meaningful for a true bluesman like Charlie has been the love and respect from his fellow musicians, which he has received in spades. The artists that Musselwhite has worked with reads like a veritable Hall of Fame honor roll: In addition to Eddie Vedder, Charlie has collaborated with Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Govt Mule, INXS, Mickey Hart, George Thorogood and personal friend and best man at his wedding John Lee Hooker.
Ultimately, though, for Charlie Musselwhite the thrill and challenge of engaging an audience fuels his artistry. "It's about the feeling, and connecting with people, he explains, And blues, if it's real blues, is loaded with feeling. Charlie continues that, it ain't about technique either, it's about truth, connecting to the truth and communicating with people."