Charlie Musselwhite Swaps the Harmonica for A Guitar on New Album ‘Mississippi Son’
The American musician takes us behind the making of his new 14-track record, reminisces about India, and more
In 2019, Mumbai was blessed with the bright harmonica playing and raspy vocals of American musician Charlie Musselwhite at the Mahindra Blues Festival. Three years on, and the now 78-year-old Musselwhite is out with his latest body of work – the 14-track album Mississippi Son, out via Alligator Records. While the record does feature plenty of harmonica playing, Musselwhite has also tracked a lot of the guitar parts on his own to bring out a smooth blues sound.
In this interview with Rolling Stone India, Musselwhite talks to us about how Mississippi Son came together, recalls his India trip, what he has in store next and more.
When did Mississippi Son begin to take shape?
Well, I’m living in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and just a couple of blocks away, a friend of mine has a studio. He’s a musician and a guitar player. We spent time just fooling around in the studio, we started recording tunes, just for fun, really. Along the way we realized, other people might want to hear this. So, we had a whole album’s worth. Alligator was interested in it. In fact, they really lit up over it, so they put it out. We’re really excited about it. I’m happy that they’re so excited.
You’re known for your harmonica playing and you do bring some of it on the record too. But you also showcase a lot of your guitar playing this time. Why did you decide to venture in that direction?
Well, I always did play guitar; I just became known as a harmonica player because there already were tons of guitar players. So, I always played for myself and friends. And that’s what we were doing in the studio. We didn’t start out thinking about an album, we were just recording tunes for fun. Well, we kind of liked the way they sounded, and we thought maybe other people would like it too, and turned out we were right [laughs].
Jumping to the songs on the album, could you describe some of them for me and what they mean to you as well?
Well, there’s a couple of tunes like ‘Hobo Blues’ and ‘Crawling King Snake’ that I remember hearing Holly Hooker do on the radio when I was a teenager growing up in Memphis. I always loved those tunes and the way Holly used to play back then… his guitar playing always knocked me out.
Then ‘Rank Strangers’ is actually an old hillbilly tune. I just liked the lyrics too, so I bluesed it up. I wrote ‘Blues Up The River,’ I think of scenes in my mind and I just put the words to them. ‘Remembering Big Joe Williams’ was just a coincidence. Joe had died and a mutual friend of ours had inherited his guitar and came by with it while we were recording. So, one of the tunes we recorded was just an instrumental of me playing his guitar and I thought it’d be suitable for this record.
‘My Road Lies In Darkness’ is another image that I had in my mind about traveling and stuff and I just put the words to the image in my mind drifting from town to town. I’ve been on the road for over 50 years driven from town to town, so obviously it’s something I would write about and is something that I sure know about. I used to do ‘A Voice Foretold’ with The Blind Boys of Alabama. ‘Blues Gave Me A Ride’ is about how the blues tells the truth in a world full of lies. It’s part of the beauty of the blues – it’s about life and it tells the truth. It’ll take you through the world as your comforter when you’re down and be your buddy when you’re up.
What do you remember from the recording process and how was that experience like for you?
We were just having fun. Like I said, we didn’t know this was going to be a record. We were just fooling around in the studio, having fun. So, it was a labor of love. The drummer and the bass player are local guys who live right down here. They came in on a couple of tunes and this is definitely a local production. All done right here, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the Delta.
As someone who has over 40 albums to their name, why is this one special?
Well, since I’m playing guitar, and a lot of my own tunes it is way more personal. When I play in venues where people are dancing, they want a song with a beat. This is more subtle and more laidback and more suitable to Mississippi and the Delta. It’s Mississippi music – blues from the Delta.
For someone who hasn’t heard Mississippi music from the Delta, what would be the best way to describe it in words?
Describe blues from the Delta… well, I guess there’s lots of kinds of blues. There’s jump blues and urban blues and rock blues. With the original blues, they say it started right around here and it has more subtleties, and more substance and depth to it – it is really more for listening rather than party music. I’d like to think you’re going to have a good time listening to it, though.
I think you’ve got shows planned for later this year. So where will you be heading out to perform?
I just got back from Switzerland after playing there for a week with my band. In the U.S, I got gigs on the west coast in June and also duo gigs with Elvin Bishop. In the fall, I’ll be doing a tour with The Blind Boys of Alabama, where I do a solo set and then join them. So, I got a lot of gigs coming up and I’ll be busy playing the blues.
Of course, you were here in Mumbai, India, a few years ago for the Mahindra Blues Festival. What do you remember from that trip?
Well, it was wonderful, we loved it so much. Everybody was so nice. It was just a fascinating time and I was really knocked out by the local musicians. There’s a guitar player [from Kolkata] named Arinjoy [Sarkar], he’s great. He’s a really nice man, can really play guitar and he’s a good singer too. He’s a real good blues man. I didn’t know that blues is that popular in India, it was a pleasant surprise to find this and I’m a fan of his. We email on occasion. He sends me tunes and we talk back and forth, he’s a good guy.
Do you have plans to return to India and perform?
I’m ready to go.
What’s next for you once you’re finished with this album cycle? Have you thought ahead or are you taking your time with it?
I already have another album in the can. When Mississippi Son has run its course, we will release this next one. This is a band album, I’m really excited about that one too. There are some great songs on there.
Stream ‘Mississippi Son’ on Spotify below and listen to or buy the album on other platforms.