“Home was almost like something exotic,” says Charlie Musselwhite about his time spent during the pandemic. “Up until then I’d spend 200 to 250 days a year on the road. I really enjoyed being home. I hadn’t enjoyed being home for that length of time since I was a kid. What a luxury having all that time to do stuff that I never had time for. I did a lot of woodshedding and got to tinker around the house fixing things, just had a hell of a good time. I really enjoyed being home.”
Out of that time comes Mississippi Son recorded at Clarksdale Soundstage, a couple of blocks from Charlie’s home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The album contains 14 songs, seven of them originals. You can palpably feel Charlie’s sense of peace and solitude flowing from his acoustic and electric guitar.
Bruce Iglauer, CEO of Alligator Records, calls the new release Charlie’s “most intimate and nuanced record.” That’s not record exec hyperbole. I’ve been enjoying his recordings since his first, Stand Back, released in 1967. And for me, this new album and Stand Back are bookends encapsulating a career of one of the finest artists ever to emerge from the Mississippi Delta.
“It happened by accident, sort of,” says Charlie about this recording. “I came back to where it started, my home state, and just a few blocks away, a friend of mine had a really good studio. I know it’s good because Morgan Freeman does his voice-overs there. The owner of the studio is also a musician and songwriter, and we would sit around and play guitars. We decided, ‘Hey, why don’t we tape some of these tunes of mine, and see what they sound like.’ It was just something to do to pass the time, a couple of years. Anyhow, we just piled up some tunes, and at one point we thought, ‘You know, this is enough for an album. Maybe somebody would like to put it out.’ Alligator heard it, and they loved it. They’re all over it, and it’s coming out.
“To me it’s just me doing what I do. A lot of people have sure been moved by what they’ve heard. So, that’s exciting for me that they perceive it that way. I had no idea what people would think of it. I’m not known to be a guitar player. I play guitar on every tune with an overdub harmonica.
“I could have played harmonica on a rack, but I play it so much better when I’m holding it. So, I just overdubbed it. My first album was done in Chicago, but I was fresh out of the south when I did it, and now I’m back in the south. A lot of veterans told me that they really enjoyed Stand Back when they were in the service. Some of them told me “Christo Redemptor” really helped them in a way.”
I’m one of those veterans. I heard Charlie play “Christo Redemptor” live shortly before I shipped out to Nam. It was medicine. Mississippi Son is today’s medicine for a world gone mad. It’s his welcome home gift to his fans. As comfortable as a warm blanket in a cold world, it marks his moving back to Clarksdale from California.
“Where we were living, they had the drought, and the fires were coming. Every year it came closer and closer, and we thought it’s just a matter of time before we got burned out. I mean we could see the fires from our bedroom, and we’d be without electricity, and all the food would rot in our freezer. This would happen over and over and over. We just got tired of it. We knew it wasn’t going to go away. It wasn’t going to get better. It was gonna get worse.
“So, we didn’t feel we had a choice. We sold our home, and we already were familiar with Clarksdale. I’d been coming to Clarksdale since the ’50s. When I was a kid, I had three uncles who lived here. So, I had family here and early memories of Clarksdale and the association with blues, so it was just a natural choice to come back to Clarksdale. It just makes sense. Living in the delta just makes sense.”
Warm memories of the south go back to his childhood. He covers his friend Yank Rachel’s “Hobo Blues.” “As a kid I remember hearing John Lee’s version of it on the radio late at night on WLCA in Nashville, and I’ve been liking it, too, since I was a kid.”
Charlie didn’t have the money to order the records advertised on WLAC. “But I did go to junk stores around Memphis and furniture stores looking for 78s. Nobody wanted them anymore, and so a lot of it was junk I didn’t want, but I’d find a lot of blues records, and I still have several hundred of ’em. A lot of ’em were real rare, and at the time I had no clue what was rare, and I didn’t know anybody even wanted those things. I just wanted to hear those old blues records. If I found two of the same one, I’d just keep the best one and throw the other one away. I can remember taking stacks of Memphis Minnie and Tampa Red and just dropping them into the garbage can.”
Charlie was 11 when Elvis’ first records came out on Sun Records in Memphis. “I thought he was the real deal. He kind of validated all us poor boys from Mississippi because we all combed our hair like that. We all shopped for clothes on Beale St. There were layers of society with the cotton people at the very top, and poor whites and blacks were at the bottom, and if you were from Mississippi, you were kind of looked down on. So, when he became famous, it was like he was one of us. He dressed like us. He talked like us. He combed his hair like us. Suddenly we weren’t so bad anymore.
“I had his phone number. He would have these parties around town, and I’d call up to find out where the party was. He’d rent a theater, or he’d rent entire fairgrounds, a skating rink or stuff like that, and he’d go from midnight until dawn, and, boy, was I into that, especially because there were so many girls at these parties. So, I never really had any conversation with him. I’d say hi or something, and that was about it. I didn’t push myself on him. I appreciated what he did. I love especially his early records for Sun. I thought that was just cool as hell.”
In the liner notes to another one of his albums, Charlie says, “In my teens I started hanging out on Beale St., the original Beale St., not the tourist trap of today.” He explains, “Well, it was a real neighborhood behind the street.”
“In the neighborhood playing in the street were blues singers. At first when I was a kid, I was too shy to introduce myself to anybody, a stranger. I just loved having these guys playing the blues on the street. I don’t know today who all they were. One of ’em I got to know later, a blind guitar player named Abe McNeil, but Furry Lewis, Will Shade, a guitar player Earl Bill, they all lived around there and the other people, Bo Carter lived there, and I knew all of them. I got to know all of them and hang out with them and learned how to play hangin’ out with them. I didn’t know at the time I was preparing myself for a career. I’d have paid a lot more attention.”
The songs on this CD
The first single from Mississippi Son is “Blues Gave Me A Ride,” an original with the lyrics “Blues tells the truth in a world that’s full of lies.” On another original “Blues Up The River,” Charlie sings, “Blues on the river/rolling down to the Gulf/I’m gonna drink muddy water until I’ve had enough.” It almost seems like the Mississippi River is a living entity, and it inspires so many blues singers. I asked Charlie how he views the river, and what its influence has been on him.
“Well, it’s like it has a spirit or something. The Mississppi has a lot of history. When my mom was growing up in a town called Frier’s Point right on the river, she told me stories about the steamboats that would come along. Before they got to town, and you could even see them, they’d blow their whistle, and they could tell which boat was coming by the sound of the whistle. They’d hear it and say, ‘Oh, here comes the Kate Adams’ and everybody would go down to the landing and see who was getting on and off the boat. That’s where the mail came in, too. So, you’d get packages and stuff.”
“Remembering Big Joe” is an original instrumental about Big Joe Williams who played a nine-string guitar. “When we were recording together in Chicago, he would let me play it and, good Lord, that guitar was hard. The strings were like cables, but he would play it like it was butter. He could just play it with such ease. But it was hard. He would just press down the strings to fret ’em.
“He was a tough old man, I gotta tell ya. One time he’d gone out to California in a bar. He was wearing a cowboy hat, and some lady wouldn’t leave him alone and started making fun of him. ‘You ain’t no cowboy,’ and all this, and he just said, ‘Lady, you better mind your own business.’
“‘You think you’re a cowboy, and you can come in here. Where are you from? I’ll bet you’re from the south. You’re some hick from the south wearing a cowboy…’ She wouldn’t shut up. So, finally, he just pulled out a knife and stabbed her. He said that was the only way to shut her up.
“He went to prison. They called it Greystone, and Chris Roberts went and bailed him out of there. I don’t know the details, but after he got him out, he took him home and recorded him and that’s where that first big album on Arhoolie came from.”
Charlie calls his sound secular spiritual music. I asked him what he sees as the relationship between secular music and the spiritual music in gospel.
“It’s about real life. Some people say, ‘I don’t want to listen to blues. It’s something sad.’ Well, it’s not really it. I say blues is your comforter when you’re going through rough times. It’s also your buddy in good times. You can dance to it, part to it, or if you’re having a rough time, it’ll help you through that, listening to all-purpose music for whatever life throws at you. It’ll get you through it. It’s like a philosophy or an attitude or something. It’s more than just another kind of music. It’s not a fad, a feeling. It focuses your own life.
“It used to be when I was touring and partying, it was a lot of fun, and I had a lot more energy than I have now. Now, touring doesn’t have the fascination it did when I was a young man. I appreciate it. I like going to different towns and seeing people, different friends, and stuff like that, but the road just doesn’t have the allure to it that a young man would, you know, especially a single young man.
“I’m just trying not to overdo (touring.) There’s not really a lot of point to doing it like I used to do where I used to get in the van and go from town to town and play every night in a different town and pack up the next day and drive all day and play again all night. Now, I’m more choosy, and I can afford to do that. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to be out there on the road killing myself like I used to.”
Reflecting on the pandemic’s gift of time at home, Charlie says, “In the past, I could never start any kind of project because I’d have to leave before I could finish it, and that’s a huge thing, very satisfying. I’m feeling good. I mean I got vaxxed and I wear a mask to avoid getting sick. I got pretty good with that until a few days ago. I did come down with Covid, and I’m just getting over it now. If I hadn’t been vaxxed, I might have been a lot sicker than I was.”