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INTERVIEW – Charlie Musselwhite, January 2015

| 10 February 2015 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Charlie Musselwhite, January 2015
By Shane Pinnegar

Charlie Musselwhite 01
If you know the Blues, you know Charlie Musselwhite. A legend of modern blues, the electric harmonica player – who plays the Perth International Arts Festival on 2 March, 2015 – recalls that he came up in the ‘60s, sitting in with the likes of Big Joe Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters at night whilst he worked day jobs like driving for a pest exterminator and a short stint running moonshine. Playing with those cats, he says, taught him the ropes.

“Well, they were real encouraging. They gave me a lot of faith in myself and they were really pushing me to play, so they were very encouraging and I appreciate their support. They were intimidating in a way but they didn’t mean to be! But they insisted I sit in, they’d pat me on the back and tell me to keep playing, keep it up, and keep coming back. It was very friendly.

“And they could be [very charismatic],” he reflects. “There were some rough characters too. You wouldn’t want to mess with them.”

Working with those old cats must’ve been a real eye-opener in life, with sex, drugs, and rock n’ blues, going hand in hand – especially in those days.

“Oh yeah, it was just… Gosh, I wish I’dve been paying more attention!” he chuckles softly, a rasp to his voice. “I [also] wish I’dve taken a bunch of pictures. I didn’t have a camera or nothing. At that young of an age I didn’t dwell on the fact that some day all this is going to be gone. I just didn’t think about it. I was just having fun in the moment.”

It was certainly a different era – no selfies, no Instagram, not even a real idea that music was something you could make a career out of.

“Yeah,” Musselwhite sighs, “nobody had any clue that there’d be a day when you could take a great picture with your phone!”

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He learnt, lived and loved through the years, and continued to release albums steadily – in fact his 29th album is due later this year. In fact it was only during the ‘80s that Musselwhite’s album releases slowed down, releasing only 2 records between 1978 and 1990.

“I think a lot of live music suffered during the disco era – I think that’s when that was,” he recalls. “A lot of clubs quit having live music. They’d just hire a DJ to come in and spin records and the whole live music industry had a big dip in it there. But I kept working. I just kept rolling along and trying to have as much fun as possible and do the best work I could, and it’s paid off.”

Musselwhite cites quitting drinking in the ‘80s as a pivotal turning point in his career.

“Oh, sure. When I quit drinking it was in ’87 and everything in my life got instantly better. It was interesting because I didn’t know how to quit, it seemed like, but when I did quit it was, ‘wow, what was that all about? This is a piece of cake!’”

Astonishingly, the bluesman from Tennessee didn’t need AA or anything, he just cut booze out of his life by himself.

“I called it, cutting myself down,” he laughs. “I came sliding in for a landing by shaving off a little bit every day, drinking less and less until I finally just wasn’t drinking anymore.”

Charlie Musselwhite with Muddy Waters

Charlie Musselwhite with Muddy Waters

He’s not a blues purist either, and has been happy to team up with some unlikely musical collaborators over the years. It’s Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica you can hear all over INXS’s Suicide Blonde, and he went out on tour with Cyndi Lauper when she took a left turn with her Memphis Blues album of 2011, even helping to rearrange her signature hit song Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. He says he finds it easy to adapt his style to less traditional blues.

“Sure, and it’s fun too. Whatever setting I’m in where you might not consider it blues but what I play is blues. To me it’s interesting how I can apply blues to another situation and make it better.”

Musselwhite teamed up with Ben Harper for the 2013 album Get Up!, a record that won them a Grammy Award for Best Blues Album. He says the award has pride of place on his mantelpiece at home.

“You betcha. Right in the living room. [And] I’m nominated for another one that’s called Juke Joint Chapel, my latest CD. We’ll know in February if it wins or not.”

Charlie, Ben Harper & that Grammy Award

Charlie, Ben Harper & that Grammy Award

Little did Musselwhite know, but he was influential for more than just his amazing music. Dan Akroyd took close note of his signature look – hair slicked back, dark shades and dark suit on – when he was creating his character Elwood Blues, later featured alongside John Belushi in The Blues Brothers movie.

“I never thought about [seeing myself in his performance].” Musselwhite says. “I never would’ve known that but he’s told me that on more than one occasion and I read interviews with him where he brought that up again. I used to play at a club in Canada and I didn’t know him then but he was hanging out in that club and he would see me coming in there with my shades on and my hair slicked back and a black suit and carrying my harp case so he took that look that I had and added to it. I never wore a hat but he started wearing a hat and he had the deal with the handcuffs on his [briefcase]… I didn’t do that either but that’s where he said he got the inspiration.”

Softly spoken, unfalteringly polite and humble down the phone line, Musselwhite is self-deprecating to a fault. One well known quote of his goes, ‘I only know one tune and I play it faster or slower or I change the key, but it’s just the one tune I’ve ever played in my life. It’s all I know.’ I put it to Charlie that, having listened to some of his records, surely there’s more to it than that, evoking a wheezy laugh.

“That’s just a trick way of saying I have a style! When you hear me play, if you’re a fan of harmonica or fan of mine, you can identify me soon as you hear it without being told [it’s me]. That’s what that really means, is I just have a style.”

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Born in Mississippi on 31st January, 1944, Musselwhite moved with his family to Tennessee aged three, and lives there to this day. He says music was always around him when he was growing up, and can’t recall when he first picked a harmonica up.

“I always loved music and a lot of the people I was around in my environment played music but I never thought about it as something I was going to do someday for a living,” he explains. “I just loved it and Blues was like a comforter to me as a child. I was alone a lot and blues made me feel good. Blues was like my good buddy.

“I always had harmonicas around ever since I was … I don’t even remember the first one. Seemed like they were always there. When I was about 13 I remember I was listening to these harmonica players and I loved how they sounded, and one day I thought to myself, ‘you know, you have a harmonica. Why don’t you play your own blues on it?’ I started messing around with it and making up stuff and teaching myself at first. Then later I started hanging out with the real blues guys around Memphis, real old timers, and learning from them.”

At 70, he continues to work hard and love what he does, with two more releases already being prepared for release.

“I have a new album that’ll be ready when I come to Australia,” he reveals, “and Ben Harper and I have one in the can, as they say. It’ll probably be a year before it comes out. You never know. There’s all kinds of irons in the fire. We’ll see what happens.”

It seems Charlie Musselwhite doesn’t feel like slowing down and retiring and putting your feet up on the porch just yet.

“Oh, sometimes I do,” he laughs gently again, “but I’m having too much fun to quit.”

Charlie Musselwhite with Ben Harper

It’s certainly a life less ordinary. When you look back at all the things you’ve done and the places you’ve been and the things you’ve seen, it must surprise you that’s it’s been so incredible.

“Oh yeah, it’s really…” he pauses to find the right words. “I feel really lucky that all this happened and, gosh, I never planned any of this. This was amazing. It wasn’t a goal of mine – I just loved the music and that just took me where it wanted to go. The blues overtook me.”

So, heading to Australia to play at the Perth International Arts Festival. I bet you didn’t see that coming when you were running moonshine as a young pup?

“I sure didn’t,” he laughs. “It wasn’t anywhere in my mind at all. I didn’t even know I was going to have a career in music. I just liked music. I can’t wait to get there – we love Australia. We always have a great time and can’t wait to get there and have some more good times.”

An edited version of this story first appeared in X-Press Magazine’s 4 February, 2015 issue

Category: Interviews

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