Blues harmonicat Charlie Musselwhite looks a lot older than his fifty-something years, but in his case, that's okay: He's earned every line on his face. After four decades of playing and living the blues, Musselwhite is indisputably among the top harmonica players alive, as well as one of the funniest characters in music--a Memphis-born Lenny-and-Squiggy prototype who's served as a sidekick to artists such as Luther Tucker and Muddy Waters. His life hasn't been one laugh after another, however. Bluesmen call him Charlie the Muscle Man, but for a long time he didn't think he was strong enough to face life sober.
"I had a problem with alcohol--I felt trapped by it," he insists. "I remember a time when if I got up and didn't have a drink until noon, I thought that was a big accomplishment. Then I wouldn't have a drink until I went to work--because I didn't think I could get on stage without drinking."
That changed six years ago, and Musselwhite says he has a little girl he's never met to thank for it.
"I was listening to the news one night while driving to work," he recalls. "They had this thing on there about this little girl, Jessica McClure, who had fallen in this well down in Texas. They were telling how brave she was being, singing nursery rhymes to herself down in the bottom of this well. And I thought, `Wow. Here I am whining around about my little problem, which really doesn't amount to a hill of beans compared to her problem. She's in a real situation. Life or death. And look how brave she is being.' I was really struck by that. And I really wanted her to get out of the well. So, in honor of her situation, and like a prayer for her, I got on stage and played without drinking. I think it was a couple more days before they got her out, but by the time she got out, I was out, too. I haven't had a drink since."
The six years since that last sip of liquor have been filled with plenty of musical good times. Musselwhite was introduced to a new generation of listeners thanks to his butt-kicking harmonica work on a number of INXS tunes circa 1990, and Ace of Harps, an album released that same year by Alligator Records, was extremely successful. Just as popular were Musselwhite's 1992 album, Signature (which featured guest appearances by John Lee Hooker and jazz trumpeter Lew Soloff), and this year's In My Time, highlighted by contributions from Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama as well as Musselwhite's work on acoustic guitar--his first instrument, but one overshadowed by the harmonica. In addition, Musselwhite blows harp on the tune "Shadow of Doubt" from Bonnie Raitt's new disc Longing in Their Hearts.
Musselwhite is modest about these accomplishments; he claims that his greatest musical feat has been simply staying alive. That statement alone proves that he understands the blues. "I would think that anybody with feeling could express feeling," he says. "It doesn't mean that you have had to be beat up and live a hard life. That would mean that how much you've been beat up is how good you would be. And if that's the case, I don't want to get any better."
Being open-minded, Musselwhite feels, has everything to do with the continuing improvement in his playing. "Some people box themselves in--you can hear it," he says. "One of the reasons I really like to listen to jazz is that to me, those guys are playing blues, too. And I believe that's what the spirit of the music really is. Not just to stretch out and duplicate stuff, but to really play your own thing from your heart. I end up making mistakes a lot of times, but I'd rather make mistakes trying something that I've never played before than just to stay in a little rut and play the same thing over and over."
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Restlessness has always been a part of Musselwhite's personality. Even at age twelve, when he was toiling at a Memphis mill, he heard the call of the road. "I didn't have a specific thing in mind," he concedes, "but I knew I was going on an adventure. I knew I wasn't going to just stay in one spot and settle down with one job and raise a family and never see what was over the next hill. I wanted to see what was over all the hills."
Musselwhite has no plans to end this journey. "I'd like to tour more places. I'd like to go to China and Russia, and now that Mandela is the president of South Africa, I'd like to go there, too. I'd like to celebrate it. I want to go to all the places I haven't been and take the blues to more people. I'd like to play the blues on the moon."
He laughs before adding, "Maybe they'll have a little club up there some day."
Charlie Musselwhite. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $5, 290-TIXS; with Alan Munde, Joe Carr and Hazel Miller. 7 p.m. Sunday, June 5, E-Town, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $6 in advance/$8 day of show, 786-7030.