A few months ago I got the opportunity to sit down and interview 2011 Grammy nominee Charlie Musselwhite. The Well by Mr. Musselwhite, of course, is nominated in the Best Traditional Blues Album category and is one of my personal favorite recent releases. Since the Grammy’s are now upon us, we felt like it would be a great time to share this conversation.
I recently interviewed Curtis Salgado and during our chat he talked about a particular lifestyle down south that inspired the deep country and blues sounds. Charlie Musselwhite is the type of southern raised artist that Salgado eluded to.
Born in Mississippi in the rural hill country, being a musician was hereditary for Charlie Musselwhite, since everyone in his family played.
Well over 20 albums later, with 6 Grammy awards and at least 24 Blues Music awards to his credit with more on the way for sure, Charlie Musselwhite is clearly still at the top of his game. 2010 turned out to be a great year for him with his release of “The Well” and the tour behind it.
When I started the interview I made the offer to talk off the record about Charlie’s recovery from alcoholism, being sober myself, I understand that for some people it can be a private aspect of their life that they don’t wish to broadcast but not so with him. He knows that sharing his story may help others and if you listen to his music, he talks about where he came from and draws his inspiration primarily from personal experience. He has been sober since 1987.
I asked Charlie how performing was when he first got sober (I had read somewhere that he had never played sober before he quit for good). He said he was a little nervous at first but it didn’t last long after he realized that he could perform better. He soon found out that everything in life was better. He felt better, looked better, slept better, treated everyone around him better and said his wife sure was happy too!
When asked if he had any difficulties early on in his recovery, Charlie made it clear that he felt like he was done, so it wasn’t too hard. He hung out at a few places in Santa Rosa very close to where he lived, with some others who weren’t drinking and that gave him some extra support. He said “one of those places was actually right at the end of the block that I lived on, even closer than the bar“!
Charlie goes on to explain what lead up to him giving up alcohol. He told me that prior to quitting altogether, he had been scaling way back on his intake. He was down from 2 quarts a day to a much lesser amount but wasn’t able to stop completely, partly because he didn’t think he’d be able to perform sober. Then, In 1987, Jessica McClure fell in a Texas well and the story of her ordeal completely gripped a nation and especially a man named Charlie Musselwhite. He thought about how courageous she was while she was trapped in there and it totally diminished his personal struggle with booze. He decided that if she could survive down there, then he could survive without drinking, so he made a deal with himself that he wouldn’t drink until she got out. Of course, she emerged 3 days later and Charlie still hasn’t touched a drop.
Charlie has never met Baby Jessica, even though she a had profound impact on his life. I also asked him if she has any idea what she did for him and he told me he has no idea but he did say that if the opportunity ever arose, he would love to meet her.
The subject switched over to the music as we were listening to his band starting to warm up behind us during sound check at Jazzbones in Tacoma, a venue that Charlie said he is very familiar with.
The aforementioned “The Well”, is Charlie’s first non-acoustic album that featured all original songs written by him and I wanted to know if this was an accident or if it was planned that way. He said his producer Chris Goldsmith was behind the idea to write all the music himself for this release. He said it more of a suggestion and then it just kind of happened that way. Certainly not going to argue with the results, “The Well” is a fantastic album and the songwriting was brilliant. The liner notes are great too as they give a snapshot of what was going through his mind at the time. (See my review from10/21/2010) I prodded Charlie a little to see if he was thinking about doing this again and he gave me the standard artist response, that he was concentrating on promoting and touring for “The Well” right now. He did offer that he might try it again down the road.
We then talked about his return to Alligator Records and how they are treating him. Charlie said he is really happy to be back home at Alligator. “They are great, they really take good care of their artists and they know how to sell records. I don’t know of another record label as big as they are, where the owner gives you his cell phone number and says if you ever have a problem with anything, you call me“.
One of my personal favorites on “The Well” is a very interesting song called “Hoodoo Queen”.
Charlie’s inspiration for the song was the story of Marie Laveau. The Voodoo charmer of legend has fascinated many a southern boy and Charlie Musselwhite was no exception. He has been to her grave on many occasions, starting back in 1957 and a few years ago he wondered how Hurricane Katrina had affected the gravesite. So he visited it after the storm, he found it intact, although it was much cleaner now. Along time ago when he used to visit there, it was always heavily decorated with different mementos and charms by her fans and followers. Charlie told me that the song has been on his mind for many years.
One of the lines of the song speaks of a grave robber named. I asked him which Dr. John the song is referring to, the musician or the infamous Voodoo practitioner? He was tight-lipped and that will remain a mystery, so despite my request, Charlie said slyly, “It’s whichever one you want it to be“.
As the interview was coming to an end, I could tell Charlie was itching to get up on stage with his awesome band and jam. I certainly can’t knock him for that, they were sounding great and I was thinking the same thing! We talked a little bit about his opinion about the state of traditional blues and what it will take to keep the blues alive. His answer was somewhat contrary to what I hear some in the blues talk about, Charlie said he thinks the blues are very much alive right now and that there are many good young players out there playing traditional blues.
My thanks to Josh Lindner and Marc Lipkin(Alligator Records), Danno(Jazzbones), Shawn Skager(Electric Phase) and to Mr. Charlie Musselwhite for the conversation, you are a true gentleman. Best of luck at the Grammy’s!