Harmonica wizard Norton Buffalo can recollect a leaner time when his record collection had been whittled down to only the bare essentials: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's South Side Band. Butterfield and Musselwhite will probably be forever linked as the two most interesting, and arguably the most important, products of the "white blues movement" of the mid- to late '60s — not only because they were near the forefront chronologically, but because they both stand out as being especially faithful to the style. Each certainly earned the respect of his legendary mentors. No less than the late Big Joe Williams said, "Charlie Musselwhite is one of the greatest living harp players of country blues. He is right up there with Sonny Boy Williamson, and he's been my harp player ever since Sonny Boy got killed." Musselwhite in particular, from the very beginning of his recording career in the early '60s, established himself as a true lineage member of an earlier generation of Delta bluesmen who made the trek to Chicago to further their careers, creating a new form of blues in the process. Musselwhite is the winner of seven Grammy awards, 27 Blues Music Awards, and is a Blues Hall of Fame inductee.
It's interesting that Williams specifies "country" blues, because, even though he made his mark leading electric bands in Chicago and San Francisco, Musselwhite began playing blues with people he'd read about in Samuel Charters' Country Blues — Memphis greats like Furry Lewis, Will Shade, and Gus Cannon. It was these rural roots that set him apart from Butterfield, and decades later Musselwhite began incorporating his first instrument, guitar.
When his aforementioned debut LP became a standard on San Francisco's underground radio, Musselwhite played the Fillmore Auditorium and never returned to the Windy City. Leading bands that featured greats like guitarists Harvey Mandel, Freddie Roulette, Luther Tucker, Louis Myers, Robben Ford, Fenton Robinson, and Junior Watson, Musselwhite played steadily in Bay Area bars and mounted somewhat low-profile national tours. It wasn't until the late '80s, when he conquered a career-long drinking problem, that Musselwhite began touring worldwide to rave notices. He became busier than ever and continued releasing records to critical acclaim.
His two releases on Virgin, Rough News in 1997 and Continental Drifter in 2000, found Musselwhite mixing elements of jazz, gospel, Tex-Mex, and acoustic Delta blues. After signing with Telarc Blues in 2002, he continued exploring his musical roots by releasing One Night in America. The disc exposed Musselwhite's interest in country music with a cover version of the Johnny Cash classic "Big River," and featured guest appearances by Kelly Willis and Marty Stuart. Sanctuary, released in 2004, was Musselwhite's first record for Real World. After extensive touring globally, he returned to the studio for its follow-up, the back-to-basics Delta Hardware, recorded in Mississippi. The set was hard-edged and raw blues and featured one live track, the hip-shaking "Clarksdale Boogie," recorded in front of a small but enthusiastic audience at Red's Juke Joint in that very town. Musselwhite returned to Alligator in 2009 and got down to business and cut The Well in Chicago, an all-original program that featured a guest duet appearance from Mavis Staples on the track "Sad Beautiful World." The song references the murder of his 93-year-old mother during a burglary in her home.
Musselwhite met guitarist and songwriter Ben Harper, a lifelong fan, during a tour playing harmonica for John Lee Hooker; Harper's band opened those gigs. The pair got on exceptionally well — the elder bluesman knew Harper's work. Hooker felt strongly that the two men should work together and brought them into the studio to record "Burnin' Hell" with him. The two became friends as their paths periodically crossed on the road. Ultimately, they collaborated on 2013's Get Up!; the album won the following year's Grammy for Best Blues Album. That same year, Musselwhite and his own band released the raw, kinetic Juke Joint Chapel, a collection of five originals and seven covers that many critics argued should have won the Grammy. Musselwhite followed it with the live I Ain't Lyin' in 2015. Given the success of their first collaborative effort and an ever-deepening friendship, the pair teamed again for 2018's No Mercy in This Land for Anti. Produced by Harper, its ten tracks recount both men's personal stories. The title track single appeared in January of 2018, followed by second single "The Bottle Wins Again" and the full-length in March. ~ Dan Forte & Al Campbell