“When I quit drinking it was in ’87 and everything in my life got instantly better. It was interesting because I didn’t know how to quit, it seemed like, but when I did quit it was, ‘wow, what was that all about? This is a piece of cake!’”
A modern master of electric blues harmonica, Charlie Musselwhite plays at the Chevron Festival Gardens on Monday, March 2. SHANE PINNEGAR caught the man who inspired Dan Ackroyd’s Blues Brother character at home in Tennessee.
If you know the blues, you know Charlie Musselwhite. A legend of modern blues, he came up in the ‘60s, sitting in with the likes of Big Joe Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters at night whilst he worked day jobs like driving for a pest exterminator and a short stint running moonshine.
Playing with those cats, he says, taught him the ropes.
“Well, they were real encouraging. They gave me a lot of faith in myself and they were really pushing me to play, so I appreciate their support. They were intimidating in a way but they didn’t mean to be! But they insisted I sit in, they’d pat me on the back and tell me to keep playing, keep it up, and keep coming back. It was very friendly. And they could be very charismatic,” he reflects. “There were some rough characters too. You wouldn’t want to mess with them.”
With his 29th album due later this year, Musselwhite says he never stopped working, even during the ‘80s when he only released two records.
“I think a lot of live music suffered during the disco era – I think that’s when that was,” he recalls. “A lot of clubs quit having live music. They’d just hire a DJ to come in and spin records and the whole live music industry had a big dip in it there. But I kept working. I just kept rolling along and trying to have as much fun as possible and do the best work I could, and it’s paid off.”
Musselwhite cites quitting drinking in the ‘80s as a pivotal turning point in his career, saying, “When I quit drinking it was in ’87 and everything in my life got instantly better. It was interesting because I didn’t know how to quit, it seemed like, but when I did quit it was, ‘wow, what was that all about? This is a piece of cake!’”
He’s not a blues purist either, and has been happy to team up with some unlikely musical collaborators over the years. It’s Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica you can hear all over INXS’s Suicide Blonde, and he went out on tour with Cyndi Lauper when she took a left turn with her Memphis Blues album of 2011, even helping to rearrange her signature hit song, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. He says he finds it easy to adapt his style to less traditional blues.
“Sure, and it’s fun too. Whatever setting I’m in where you might not consider it blues but what I play is blues. To me it’s interesting how I can apply blues to another situation and make it better.”
Musselwhite teamed up with Ben Harper for the 2013 album, Get Up!, a record that won them a Grammy Award for ‘Best Blues Album’. He says the award has pride of place on his mantelpiece at home.
“You betcha. Right in the living room. And I’m nominated for another one that’s called Juke Joint Chapel, my latest CD. We’ll know in February if it wins or not.”
At 70, he continues to work hard and love what he does, with two more releases already being prepared for release.
“I have a new album that’ll be ready when I come to Australia,” he reveals, “and Ben Harper and I have one in the can, as they say. It’ll probably be a year before it comes out. You never know. There’s all kinds of irons in the fire. We’ll see what happens.”
It seems Charlie Musselwhite doesn’t feel like slowing down and retiring and putting his feet up on the porch just yet.
“Oh, sometimes I do,” he laughs gently again, “but I’m having too much fun to quit.”
So, heading to Australia to play at the Perth International Arts Festival – we bet you didn’t see that coming when you were running moonshine as a young pup?
“I sure didn’t,” he laughs. “It wasn’t anywhere in my mind at all. I didn’t even know I was going to have a career in music. I just liked music. I can’t wait to get there – we love Australia. We always have a great time and can’t wait to get there and have some more good times.”