Charlie Musselwhite Interview

By Matthew MacDonald
July 2015

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Charlie Musselwhite Interview Transcript: The Bull Run 4/29/15

We caught up with Charlie Musselwhite after his show, where he and the band were meeting and greeting people, selling CD’s and signing autographs. He very graciously took some time to chat.

BBS: You have a lot of different influences that go into your music; for example, you did a lot with Quarteto Patria on Rough News and you have jazz influences. How about with this new album (I Ain’t Lyin’…)? Will it have some of this or will it be more straight ahead blues?

CM: It’s straight ahead blues, yeah. It’s live.

BBS: Throughout your career, lots of different influences have made it into your music. Is there any one that has remained constant throughout, beyond just “blues”? Something more specific within that?

CM: I listen to all kinds of music. Jazz and blues, old hillbilly music, gospel, but I couldn’t be specific to say where that music influences me. When I’m making up stuff improvising, I’m just… I can hear where I want to play and it just kind of comes to me and I just try to play it.

BBS: How big an influence is the North Mississippi blues sound for you? When I hear some of your tunes,like “Strange Land”, it seems I can hear something like that.

CM: Well, there are lots of single… that chord change. John Lee Hooker did a lot of that. It’s not just confined to North Hill music of Mississippi. I mean, John Lee’s from the Delta. So, it’s not just confined, although it’s prominent there… I just like all blues. I don’t ever think about where it came from, who invented it, or nothing like that.

BBS: I wasn’t thinking so specifically about it either, but there’s a song on the album you did with Ben Harper (Get Up!) – “Blood Side Out” – that just seemed to have that real droning drive to it.

CM: Well, Ben wrote the tune. I don’t know, really. We just played it. No discussion about dissecting it to see where it came from. We just played the tune (chuckles).

BBS: I read in one of your instruction books that certain places will put different tunes into your head: I think the example was about how walking past an abandoned building in Cincinnati will put a different one in your head than if you’re walking down the street in New Orleans at sunset. You lived in Memphis with blues giants influencing your sound and in Chicago with blues giants influencing your sound. California’s a little bit different. Does California have a big influence on the music you make?

CM: It doesn’t matter where I go. The music that I like is what I play. I listen to everybody. I enjoy anything that has to do with what I play. I just play from my heart. I’m just a hillbilly from Mississippi. That’s all there is to it. It doesn’t matter where I am, I’m still an old hillbilly from Mississippi.

BBS: When you’re home, what do you listen to and how do you listen to it? When you’re driving, do you surf the car radio or are you more specific in what you like to listen to? Do you go to clubs?

CM: I like anything from the heart that’s got feeling to it, whether it’s rockabilly, hillbilly, gospel, jazz or blues. That’s the kind of music that I listen to. I have a radio show called Charlie’s Backroom. You can go to KRSH.com. Some of the shows are archived. You listen to that and you’ll see what I listen to.

BBS: But how do you get exposed to different things? Do people give them to you? Do you go to record stores? Do you just like to stumble upon stuff?

CM: It’s all that. Anywhere. You never know where you might find something… Foreign countries.

BBS: I figure when you go different places, the stimulus is so great when you’re hearing different things that the antennae are more up for that.

CM: Every culture has its music of lament. Good times and bad times. Lost love, found love. You try to find that music in that place – it’s usually the country music.

BBS: When you get a new idea, how do you communicate this to the band? Do you play out the melody on a harmonica or do you do it on the guitar?

CM: It can happen a million ways. I might just say, “Here’s a beat I like.” And they learn the beat and I write some lyrics to it.

BBS: When you communicate the beat, do you hum it out? Play it out on the harp? Just plunk it on the

CM: Any of those ways. Maybe I’ve got a record that has the beat on it that I like. Wherever it comes from… I might make it up. It might be a gospel tune and I say to listen to the beat.

BBS: Any harmonica players today that you really like to listen to?

CM: There are so many that I can’t even keep track of them.

BBS: Any of them really make you reach? I saw a video of you onstage with Billy Branch and Sugar Blue and I was wondering if any of them make you stretch a little further.

CM: You just want to be on your toes. I mean, we’re all… you know, Billy Branch is the best Billy Branch there is and Sugar Blue is the best Sugar Blue there is and… I’m still working on getting better myself. There’s no end to learning.

BBS: I know that you were close to Walter Horton. What would you say is the biggest thing he showed you? The biggest thing he taught you?

CM: He always kept saying, “Play your own blues. Don’t play like me. Play your own blues.”

BBS: You’ve been over to New Zealand and Australia. Have you ever had the chance to make it over to East Asia? To Japan and China?

CM: I’ve been in Japan and China and played blues. I played the blues on the Great Wall. I’d love to go back. I love China. I love the people, the food… the best mashed potatoes I ever had was in Beijing.

BBS: If I were to go to the Mississippi Delta and could visit one place aside from Clarksdale, where should

CM: Oxford’s a good town.

BBS: Okay. Very good. Thank you very much.

Special thanks to Henrietta Musselwhite for arranging our chat with Charlie.

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