Running moonshine down the back roads of Memphis isn’t a job that most musicians have on their resume, but it jump-started Charlie Musselwhite’s career. “I didn’t make the stuff, I just was paid by guys who made it to move it from one place to another,” the harpist said in a recent interview from his Northern California home. “I would put these five-gallon cans of homebrew that they had made in my trunk and I’d move it to another guy and he’d bottle it up.” Musselwhite says the actual hauling of the stuff wasn’t nearly as flamboyant as Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of a bootlegger in the movie Thunder Road–barreling along country roads in a souped-up hot-rod with the law on his tail trying to run him off the road.
“I was 16, and had a 1950 Lincoln with a big old trunk on it and I could get on down the road and make myself a little money,” Musselwhite recalls. Things went smoothly for awhile, and the moonshine business supplemented the money Musselwhite made in clubs around his hometown of Memphis. But the youngster’s nocturnal outings eventually attracted some unwanted attention, which encouraged him to try a change of venue. “One time, I got trailed by the police, and I had been thinking about going to Chicago, and when that happened I thought ‘well, it’s probably about time for me to go on up there.’”
Though he’s known as a harp player, Musselwhite says he’s been playing guitar since he was a kid. “But when I got to Chicago from Memphis, there were tons of guitar players, weren’t that many harp players, so I just gravitated toward that, ’cause I got a lot of work as a harmonica player. And the guitar playing sort of leveled off at the style I had when I left Memphis.”
Musselwhite has resurrected that style over the years, recently playing guitar in The Front Porch Blues tour with Elvin Bishop and Corey Harris. “I just usually have a band with me, and there’s a guy out there I pay to play guitar, so I’m known for being a harp player. I don’t often play guitar in public,” Musslewhite explains. “But as time goes by, more people who have heard me play keep urging me to play. I enjoy doing it, and I’m glad to be able to do it, and I’m glad people like hearing it, so it’s fun for me.”
But harp is Musselwhite’s main business, and it keeps him busy with his own projects and as a hired man for others. The Blind Boys of Alabama used him on their 2001 release, Spirit Of the Century, which featured contemporary works by secular artists including Tom Waits (“Jesus Gonna Be Here”), the Rolling Stones (“Just Wanna See His Face”) and a version of “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” Musselwhite toured with the band and says they have been friends a long time. “Their music is so moving. On several occasions when I’ve just been playing harmonica with ’em on stage, I’ll watch the crowd, and I’ll see people get all teared up just from the emotion of the music. It’s really something to experience that–they get so touched by the music.” (Musselwhite opens for the Blind Boys of Alabama at Duke and will appear with them during their part of the show as well.)
Although Musselwhite is known primarily as a country blues enthusiast, his musical interests are global. As a kid, he haunted Memphis junk stores, to search for old blues records. “I would find all kinds of interesting records from around the world,” he says. A lot of ’em I didn’t care for, but every now and then I’d find something that really had this feel to it, like blues has this feel–music from the heart. And this got me more interested in finding music that had feeling to it.”
Musselwhite says that he discovered that almost every culture has a music of lament, because it’s just the nature of life that you have ups and downs, and it comes out in music. “I’ve also discovered that this kind of music isn’t the popular music of the place–you won’t hear it on the radio. You have to really look for it.”
To that end, Musselwhite traveled to Cuba in ’99 to record what he called “Cuban country music,” for his album Continental Drifter. But he discovered harp players in Cuba have a problem. “They got the old cars down there that they keep running, but a harmonica you can only fix so many times and you just gotta throw it away.” As a result, harmonica parts had disappeared from the music. Musslewhite gathered up a group of traditional players he described as “real down home–they wear cowboy boots,” and added harp. “I didn’t know if I was putting anything back, I was just adding myself to it,” he says, laughing. His idea was to see how they sounded playing blues, but since they didn’t know how, Musselwhite improvised. “I said ‘Look, do this tune. I got my own lyrics for it.’ So they would do a tune that they knew, and I would sing my own words to it and play harmonica with ’em.”
His last release, One Night In America puts him back in touch with American blues from Jimmy Reed to Johnny Cash to Ivory Joe Hunter. And if the material isn’t blues before Musselwhite gets it, it will be by the time he gets through with it. The harpist recalls a conversation he was having with his friend Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and Keb Mo about a song the trio was working on. “It wasn’t a blues tune, might have even been a Hank Williams tune, and I said, ‘well, I kinda play it like a blues.’ And Mac says ‘Charlie, everything you play comes out blues.’”
Musselwhite says that his dabblings in other kinds of music still comes out blues because “the way I look at it, blues is a feeling. It doesn’t have to be the 1-4-5 chord change, or the 12 bars or all that,” the harpist believes. “It’s a convenient way to express this feeling, but more than anything, it’s feeling.” And with Charlie Musselwhite along as an ambassador and translator, you can take that feeling anywhere in the world and be understood.