Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son

Photo: Rory Doyle

Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son, Alligator Records

The word legendary is easily bandied about with regard to musicians, but when it’s applied to Charlie Musselwhite, it’s the stone-cold truth. He’s a Grammy winner and 13-time nominee and a 33-time Blues Music Award winner. He’s played with and collaborated with top artists within and without the blues genre, including Ben Harper, Cyndi Lauper, Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Gov’t Mule, INXS, Cat Stevens…the list is almost endless.

He’s hung around with the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and had John Lee Hooker as the best man at his wedding. He was born in Mississippi, moved to Chicago in the early sixties for the blues revival and has been performing and recording the blues for the past fifty years. At 79, he really is the elder statesman of the blues.

He taught himself to play both harmonica and guitar, but it is with the blues harp that Musselwhite has distinguished himself over the years. “To me,” he says, “playing the harmonica, it sounds like singing without words, it’s real voice-like.”

He has recorded over 20 albums and Mississippi Son is right there with the best of them. It’s fourteen songs of raw, country blues steeped in the history of Musselwhite’s native state. Eight of the songs are Musselwhite originals, though these sound as authentic as the covers included of John Lee Hooker and Charlie Patton. Musselwhite has thrown in two songs you’d think of as more folk or country rather than blues – the Stanley Brothers’ Rank Stranger and Guy Clark’s The Dark. Both, as Musselwhite says, are “bluesed up.”

Musselwhite slows down Rank Stranger and converts it to a classic acoustic blues, just himself and acoustic guitar, showing in the process his prowess as a guitarist. The Dark becomes a talking blues accompanied again, by some tasty acoustic guitar. That’s the thing about this album – we know of Charlie Musselwhite the harmonica player, but here his guitar chops come to the fore as well.

Well, he’s been playing for the past 60-odd years – he says that it was the sound heard as a 13-year-old when he first played an E7 chord on an old Supertone guitar he dad gave him that first turned him on to the blues.

He says of the album that “All the tunes I wrote on Mississippi Son are based on things I think about and/or witnessed. They all somehow are extensions of me.” Blues Up the River riffs on the looming presence of the Mississippi river in the blues, a river, of course that he watched as he grew up; Drifting From Town To Town reflects the life of the itinerant bluesman and Remembering Big Joe recalls his time rooming with guitarist Big Joe Williams in Chicago. Musselwhite picked up a lot of his guitar chops from watching Big Joe and, in fact, plays one of his old guitars on this song. Big Joe Williams had known Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton – here, then, another link in Charlie Musselwhite to the original Delta blues.

So, it’s no wonder that this album has such an authentic feel to it. Musselwhite’s guitar and harmonica work throughout are masterful and, along with his deep baritone, worn raw by the years, are a perfect celebration of the Delta and the blues they generated.

Traditional blues it may be, but there’s a lot of positivity in this album. Blues Gave Me a Ride sounds positively jaunty with its “you can forget all your troubles and just roll on down the road,” while the aching and slow blues of In Your Darkest Hour offers the hope of “in your lonely room…call me.”

The album finishes with a gospel blues which Musselwhite has performed many times with The Blind Boys of Alabama. I’m glad to have heard Charlie play, many years ago with the Blind Boys, in Belfast – quite a evening it was. A Voice Foretold begins with some plaintive harmonica, which is then echoed by an acoustic guitar line, and then moves into Musselwhite’s perfect laid-back vocal delivery. Said Musselwhite, “I use the same guitar style as with Rank Strangers playing the melody on the bass strings along with the chords. I don’t know where I got this style from and maybe I made it up.”

A voice foretold
At my grave
That God shall come
My soul to save
And there I will be
And out with grace.

This is just one outstanding blues album, something of a classic really. You’ll not hear better this year. You’ll certainly not see a better album cover – Charlie and his ‘89 Cadillac, which he uses to “just tool around the Delta.”