"If there is a sound that says 'Chicago Blues' to the world," Alligator Record's founder Bruce Iglauer once said, "it's the sound of a harmonica blown through a hand-held microphone blasting through an amplifier." Urban, gritty, roaring like the El over Wabash, blues harp is alive and well in the Nineties, despite the long reign of the guitar hero in the blues kingdom.
It's the sound of James Cotton, Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Blue, all of whom have released excellent sides in the last year, as have harp-driven bands Little Charlie and the Nightcats (with and without John Hammond, a mean harpster himself), Satan and Adam, and the Nighthawks. Party music, to be sure. And then there's Charlie Musselwhite's latest, In My Time.
A solid collection that follows the artist's stylistic (and personal) journey up the Big Muddy A Mississippi, Memphis, Chicago A In My Time dredges deep Delta waters and throws down in fine Chicago form. And although most of these originals boogie along like an after-hours jam (you're not dubbed "Good Time Charlie" by Muddy Waters for depressing folks), that's not all it's about. On the opening three cuts, the man who built his rep with his mouth harp puts aside his Lee Oskar and picks up his Mudslide. Or Moonshine. As in guitar.
And the tunes A Musselwhite's own "Stingaree," Sleepy John Estes's "Brownsville Blues," and another original, "Ain't it Time," where he's subtly backed by the gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama A are stark, moody, evocative, beautiful. Not quite what one would expect, unless they've seen Musselwhite live in the past couple of years, where he has mesmerized A and probably confounded A more than a few fans by sitting down with a six-string.
"I recorded a few guitar tunes in the past, but it seemed to kind of slip by," Musselwhite says from a hotel in Houston, on the first leg of the tour that will bring him back to Tobacco Road tomorrow (Friday) night. "A lot of people never realized it was me. They assumed I was just singin' with a guitar player and not playin' the harp. But I've been playing since I was a kid." But you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a guitar picker in the late Fifties and early Sixties. So Musselwhite stuck with harmonica for the simple reason that it made finding work easier.
"I've always kinda been pickin' around on it at home or at some get-together," the Mussel man says. "And people would say, 'Yeah, you oughta do that on stage.' And I said, 'Naw, nobody wants to hear this old stuff' A 'cause it's that old style. I had always played these old beater guitars I'd get at junk stores, 'cause I couldn't afford to get an expensive one. So my wife said, 'Why don't you get yourself a good guitar? You can afford one now. Get one and have fun with it.' I did and I got talked into playin' it on stage, and my manager convinced me to record more tunes. And I'm havin' fun doin' it in person, too."
In contrast to his more grooving material A the Latin-propulsion of "When It Rains It Pours," the jazzy instrumental break-down "Watson's Excellent Adventure," the bluesy shuffle of "Midnight Mama" A Musselwhite's guitar forays owe more to his Delta roots than to his Chicago coming of age. "Because I focused so much on the harmonica," he explains, "I advanced further on that, where the guitar sort of leveled off at some point back there." Typical of the harpman's humility. When asked about his Handy Award nomination he disavows any knowledge. "For this year? Oh, I didn't know that." And you believe him.
Part of the credibility of Musselwhite's A and contemporaries John Hammond's and Bonnie Raitt's A sound and feeling can be attributed to his having learned directly from the masters of the past generation. He was just eighteen when he set out for the Windy City in 1962, with, legend has it, the law on his heels for running moonshine in backwoods Tennessee. One of the first heroes he met was the extraordinary guitarist Big Joe Williams, many years his senior. The two ended up gigging together, even sharing basement living quarters for a while. "We'd sit up all night talkin' and drinkin' and him tellin' me stories about all the people he had known, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. He was a good friend and a good teacher." And as for Big Joe's fabled nine-string, Musselwhite probably didn't spend too much practice time on it. "The strings were like cables. You could hardly press 'em down to the fretboard. They were just so tight and heavy. And he just played it like butter."
Another major influence on young Charlie was Big Walter "Shakey" Horton. Horton had learned from the same teacher as Musselwhite, the Memphis-based Will Shade. "He was also a big influence on Little Walter and Sonny Boy [Williamson]," Musselwhite says of Horton. "He was one of the first real harp players, aside from harp blowers. I used to go over to his house, and we'd sit around and drink and play, all hours of the night, ramble around Chicago."
At the time, Chicago was the only place to be if blues mattered to you. "You could go out and hear A if you had enough time A a dozen blues bands, real good ones, any night," Musselwhite recalls. "Muddy was always at Pepper's. Wolf was at Silvio's. And people like Sonny Boy would come through town and Elmore James, and Little Walter was living there. It was jumpin'."
There was also a revolution happening on the West Side of town, with cats roughly contemporary to the harpman: Buddy Guy, Junior Wells (performing Saturday at the Back Room), Otis Rush, Magic Sam. Musselwhite's impact on that scene is now documented thanks to a Vanguard/Welk "best of" collection, slated for release this fall. At least one track has him keeping company with Magic Sam, Shakey Jake, and Lester Dorsey. "They got access to an old acetate," says Musselwhite. "It's all scratchy and all, but the music's still there. I mean this is the real deal, it's all the way down."
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Now living in Sonoma County ("I'm the only musician that moved up to the wine country and quit drinking," he says), Musselwhite enjoys the fruits of his labors. Much in demand as a performer and sideman, he's featured on "Shadow of a Doubt," the last track of Bonnie Raitt's new album. And from early work with longtime pal John Hammond to recent recordings with rockers INXS, Musselwhite consistently branches out. Along with the late Paul Butterfield, it was Musselwhite who was instrumental in bringing the blues to rock audiences, hopping a Greyhound to New York with Mike Bloomfield to record with Hammond and the Band. "I think it's a lot easier to have a perspective on that now," he reflects on his place in the lexicon. "At the time, I was just out for a good time. A helluva good time. I knew that the music was great and that people should like it. I didn't know it was gonna get spread like this, but I believed in it, and I loved it, and I didn't care what was gonna happen. That music meant more to me than having anything to do with fame or fortune. It was just the music I loved and I was gonna play it regardless. It didn't matter if I had never recorded and never got out of Chicago and I was still workin' in a factory today there. I'd still be playin' that music."
Musselwhite will be playing at least part of "that music" on acoustic guitar at the Road, though he won't say exactly when during the show that'll be. "It'll just be a surprise," he hedges.
The rest of the time he'll have harp in hand, blasting. He promises to blow the freakin' roof off. And you believe him. "Tell everybody to bring their dancin' shoes." Consider 'em told, Charlie.
Charlie Musselwhite performs tomorrow (Friday) after 10:00 p.m. at Tobacco Road, 626 S. Miami Ave, 374-1198; admission is $6; and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at the Ft. Lauderdale Seafood Festival, Bubier Park, the southeast corner of Andrews Avenue and Las Olas Boulevard; admission is $2.