Interview: Charlie Musselwhite

The American blues-harp master looks ahead to June 7's Lucerna Music Bar show

America's best blues harp player roars into town Tuesday night with a hot band and his latest release, The Well. It represents a milestone for Charlie Musselwhite, even after 40 years in the music business: This is the first CD for which he wrote or co-wrote all the songs, and is nakedly autobiographical, dealing with intensely personal subjects like his alcohol addiction, time in jail and the 2005 murder of his mother, Ruth Maxine.

Musselwhite doesn't just play the blues -- he's lived them. Born in small-town Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he eked out a living for years doing hard, blue-collar work -- digging ditches, driving trucks, even running moonshine -- before finding a home in the blues clubs on the south side of Chicago. He sat in with icons like Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams and Howlin' Wolf, and recorded with Big Walter Horton.

In 1967, Musselwhite's first release -- Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's South Side Band -- coincided with the rise of the American counterculture, which embraced the new style of electric blues. In the four decades since, Musselwhite has built a diverse fan base that ranges from aging hippies to bikers to hardcore blues fans. A lot of musicians are fans, too: Mavis Staples sings on his new CD, and last summer Musselwhite toured with Cyndi Lauper.

The Well is a powerful personal work. What prompted you to dig so deep into your own life?

It wasn't really a plan, that's just how it turned out after my producer, Chris Goldsmith, asked me to write all the tunes for the album. And when I write, I write what I know about. I draw from my life experiences.

The cut Sad and Beautiful World is about your mother's murder. Was it difficult for you to revisit that?

Sure. Dealing with the death of one's mother is not easy, and murder is just about unbearable to contemplate. But I didn’t want to write a sad dirge. You can actually tap your foot to Sad and Beautiful World. Having Mavis Staples join me on the song meant a lot to me -- she's a close and dear friend, and has so much depth and substance. But I wrote the song for my mom, and I know she wouldn't want me to be sad. That's why it has a beat, and is not a weary blues.

There are dozens of good blues guitar players, but you can count on one hand the number of great harp players. What drew you to the instrument?

I've played harmonica as far back as I can remember. Seems like there was always a harp around the house. As a child, I'd make up little kid's tunes, just making noise to entertain myself. When I was about 13, I had lots of blues records and had been listening to blues on the radio and following the street singers in Memphis, and it just occurred to me to start making up my own blues. Since I had a harmonica, and was familiar with how to get something out of it, I liked to go out in the woods by myself and make up my own blues.

Was it intimidating trying to break into the blues scene in Chicago?

I arrived in Chicago from Memphis in 1962, when I was 18 years old. I didn't know a soul. I discovered the blues scene there by seeing signs in the windows of bars advertising the likes of Muddy Waters or Elmore James. At night I would go to those clubs and hang out. It was never a problem for me, I fit right in. I already knew how to drink, and being from the South just made me one of the guys from down home.

What will you be playing in Prague?

Some tunes from The Well, some older tunes and some that I've never recorded. We have so much fun playing them that the audience can't help but have fun, too.

This will be your Prague debut. Any reason you've never been here before?

I don't know why, maybe it was just a matter of hooking up with the right booking agent. But we're all very much looking forward to coming to Prague. I'm very excited to see and visit your beautiful city.

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