McDowell Mountain Music Festival

Charlie Musselwhite on Ben Harper: "Every Time We Play Is Like Playing for the First Time"

Charlie Musselwhite is no stranger to the blues. In fact, that's where the harmonica master spent most of his career, from Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago to Northern California, where he makes his home -- Musselwhite's career in the blues has spanned 50 years. Along the way, however, he's also performed with a who's who of musicians, including Tom Waits and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

More recently, Musselwhite joined forces with guitarist Ben Harper. The two had collaborated on and off for more than a decade, and after years spent trying to find enough time in busy schedules to record together, the inspired duo churned out Get Up! in just a couple days.

Released a little more than one year ago, Harper and Musselwhite -- with Harper's band, the Relentless 7 -- are touring behind the blues- and soul-drenched album that sounds straight out of 1960s, and positively now. The pair are the featured headliners on Sunday, March 30, at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

Up on the Sun caught up with Musselwhite by phone recently as he was relaxing at home. Forthright and amiable, Musselwhite shared his thoughts on making Get Up! with Harper, performing at the White House, the early influence of the label he's now recording on (Stax), and a brief history of his life blowing the blues.

I wanted to start with Get Up!, the album you made with Ben Harper, whom you're performing with at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. I think this is a great album. It's diverse but centered as well. In your eyes, is it a soul album or a blues album?

I think you'd you call it blues. I remember telling Ben it sounded like a new way of being traditional. It's traditional, but so modern at the same time. It's really interesting. It has all the elements of blues, but it feels fresh and new and up to date.

It's interesting you say that, because a lot of reviews, including one I did for Relix magazine, say it sounds classic, like an old record that just happens to have been made today. Is this what you mean, or how would you say it's modern?

[Laughs] It just has the elements that make it real by using the substance in the genre of blues, but it has the feeling of being . . . the energy of it is very real and moving and right now! It's a modern energy with traditional background or base.

The album's on Stax and back in the 1960s, the place this album feels like it's from, that label was a hotbed for soul and even blues with Albert King, for example. It got me wondering since you grew up in Memphis, how much of that original Stax sound might have influenced what you were doing at the time?

It's hard to say example, but Estelle Axton, one of the owners of Stax -- it was her and her brother, Jeff Stewart, which is how they got the name Stax -- she was a friend of my mothers. She used to come over to the house often and give her the latest releases. I was really close to what was going on with Stax in a way, so it's really fitting to be recording for Stax now. That music was so powerful it went around the world. It really affected everybody. It really left its mark. "Green Onions" is still a great song today, and those songs sound as good today as the first time you heard them.

That's what makes a classic album, and some of the cuts on Get Up! can be considered in that same light.

It doesn't matter when it was recorded because it is timeless. It will always be fresh.

How did this album come about? I know you and Harper have collaborated together over the years, but what was it that finally allowed you to sit down together and record?

It was timing. We've been talking about it for years and years. I've played on some tunes of his, and he's played on some tunes of mine. But we just never has enough time really because we were both just touring all the time. We were too busy. It finally came about that we both had the time off at the same time.

We got into the studio and all that music was like horses just trying to bust out of the corral. It poured out of us it had been pent up so long. It was just a magical session. It was hardly anything more than one or two takes, and no overdubs at all except for the girl singing. It was just ready to happen [laughs], and it happened! It was natural and spontaneous.

Both of you seem to have equal rolls on the record, and you're been around a long time -- longer than Harper. But in many ways you're again the sideman. The titling on the album reads "Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite." Yet, your influence in shaping much the album seems vital. Do you think perhaps you're not getting fair recognition here? Or does it even matter?

It never even occurred to me whether I got fair recognition. I feel like I got plenty of recognition -- more than I had coming. It was just such a pleasure to be a part of this event, and then go on the road and tour with Ben and the Relentless 7. What a great band. We all get along so well, there's no ego problems or anything. We have so much fun playing together it comes right off the stage. People feel it too. They can't help but have fun witnessing us having so much fun. [Laughs]

In fact, that's where my next question was heading. I've seen some videos of you guys performing and it really does seem like you're having fun -- even after having performed these songs now for more than a year.

Every night, every time we play is like playing for the first time again. There's a lot of improvisation going on. It keeps it really alive. We look forward to it. We can't wait to have fun again -- and the audiences pull right into it as well.

Since you've been together and touring so extensively over the last year, have you also been working on new music together, songs we might hear at the festival?

Oh yeah. There's new tunes. We've been trying out new material. There will be another one (album) coming doing the line. I can't say when we'll get in the studio, but it will happen.

I suppose it won't take as long as the last one.

[Laughs] It won't take as long to get too. But when we recorded (Get Up!) it only took a couple days. Some people spend months in the studio. We play from that point where it's real spontaneous.

And how about for you? You've put out plenty of albums over the years as a bandleader. Do you have anything new going on right now?

I have an album out right now called Juke Joint Chapel (Henrietta, 2012). It was recorded live in Clarksdale, Mississippi at a place called Juke Joint Chapel. It's just with my own band.

Isn't Clarksdale considered the birthplace of the blues? It must have been fun playing there?

I'm very familiar with the area around Clarksdale. Spent a lot of time there as a kid; have relatives in the area. I have cousins there I haven't even met. I have property there now. Some of my earliest memories are of Clarksdale.

I mentioned I saw videos of you and Ben performing, and one of them was in the White House as part of a celebration of Memphis soul music. Have you played there before? How cool was that?

(Laughs) That was grand. Just to be in the White House and be treated so nicely. All our friends were there; everybody knew each other. It was like old home week. It was like a family reunion. It was a tribute to Memphis music and Mavis (Staples) was there. It was just wonderful. It was just great to be there. It's such an historic place, all the artwork and paintings. It's the heart of America. So much history. It's just an honor to be there.

So, I have to ask this. I've been to the White House and we were served refreshments. I still have the cup with the presidential seal on it. Did you take anything as a reminder?

I have a napkin. (Laughs). It has the stamp on it. I didn't know I could take cups. Next time I go back I'll take a pillowcase and fill it up. I'll know better next time.

Looking back at your career, making it as blues harp player isn't the easiest thing in the world. You don't get the acclaim a singer or guitarist might, and often fill sideman roles. But you've done well with lots of albums out, played with some big names in many genres. Are you pretty satisfied with where you've landed?

Yes, it's been quite a story and it worked out pretty good. Life it good; I'm doing good. Things could always be better. I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone. It could have been another way, but I'm comfortable. I own my home (laughs); I'm not in debt to anybody. It just keeps getting better.

You're played with a who's who or musicians over the years, and not just blues guys like Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf, but also Tom Waits and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. In your 50-plus year career, is there any one thing that stands out -- good or bad -- that's indelibly stamped on your brain?

Well, it's not one, there's just so many. Even just conversations with people. Just knowing Big Joe Williams and hanging out with him. Walking down the street with him and him talking about Charlie Patton because he knew him -- and Robert Johnson. And walking down Beale Street back in the '50s when it was really Beale Street and hearing blues played right on the corner. Being in Chicago and playing on Maxwell Street for tips; passing around the cigar box. It was rough times, but what a memorable time and informative time too.

I have to write my book someday and put it all in there. There's so much I can't pick one thing. Playing at the White House is at the top of all the special things that have happened, but it's a long, long list. I can't even remember them all at one time.

We'll have to look forward to the book then.

OK. (Laughs) I'll get started on it this afternoon.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite are scheduled to perform during McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014 on Sunday, March 30, at Margaret T. Hance Park.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver