Roadhouse Album Review: Charlie Musselwhite shares his eloquent blues history on “Mississippi Son”

Charlie Musselwhite — “Mississippi Son” — Alligator Records (June 3)

Charlie Musselwhite is indeed a Mississippi son. He was born there, but his family took him to Memphis when he was three.

That move put him in just the right place for his teen genes to soak up the hormonal surge of vital American music simmering through Memphis in the ’50s. There was rockabilly, R&B, western swing, blues and the adolescent stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll.

One of the results of that experience was the fine singer, songwriter, harp and guitar player here, who graces this album with his rich blues heritage.

Charlie is back in Mississippi now, having moved from northern California, and he recorded these deep blues sides in Clarksdale. And they feel just like that’s where they belong.

Eight of the 14 acoustic tracks here are original gems that kick off with the smooth, loping “Blues Up the River,” and of course he’s singing about the Mississippi. Musselwhite creates an intimate, back-porch feel with just his smooth vocals, harp and guitar, with a few assists from Ricky “Quicksand” Martin on drums and Barry Bays on standup bass. You can almost feel the big river flow and smell the muddy water.

“In Your Darkest Hour” is a hypnotic little lost-love song filled with poignant lyricism and sweetly melodic harp refrains.

“When The Frisco Left The Shed” is another “daydream put to words,” as Charlie calls it, and it reflects that dreamy quality that underlies all the blues storytelling on this excellent album. “The Dark” is another moody blues from a late-night back-porch setting.

Another standout is the traditional “Crawling King Snake,” which gets Musselwhite’s laconic treatment as well, his finely aged voice crawling with feeling.

Another lyrical standout, “Blues Gave Me A Ride,” adds this fine line to the pantheon of blues lyrics: “Blues tells the truth in a world that’s full of lies….” You could easily make the case for that sentiment being the foundation for every song on this excellent album.

Those are a just a few of my favorite cuts. Musselwhite has pulled all of his deep, rich blues history into this eloquently crafted and elegantly performed collection. Serve it up with some whiskey neat for maximum late-night blues pleasure.

“Blues Gave Me a Ride”

Tracklist with notes from Charlie:

All the tunes I wrote on Mississippi Son are based on things I think about and/or witnessed. They all somehow are extensions of me. 

Blues Up the River: Growing up by the Mississippi I spent a lot of time watching that ol’ river flow and thinking. 

Hobo Blues & Crawling King Snake: At night on my little clock radio I would listen to WLAC because they played a lot of great blues. Hearing John Lee Hooker with just his foot tapping and guitar and singing Hobo Blues and Crawling King Snake late in the night had this sinister sound that appealed to me so much that I just had to learn those tunes.

In Your Darkest Hour: is an eight-bar blues I just made up one day.

Stingaree: is about a girl I was thinking about.

When The Frisco Left The Shed: I often make up a song based on a vision I have and this is one. Like a daydream put to words.

Remembering Big Joe: I roomed with Big Joe Williams in Chicago; it was only natural that we spent a LOT of time together. Sometimes just talking and other times jamming together, I became fascinated with his stories and the way he played which I picked up from watching him, and that’s where Remembering Big Joe comes from. I played one of his old guitars on this song.

The Dark: I heard Guy Clark do The Dark and loved the words, but he did it in a folk style. I changed it to a blues because that just seemed to make sense to me. I met Guy a couple of times and he was a real likable fellow.

Pea Vine Blues: I had an uncle who worked on the Pea Vine railroad and I remember him talking about it when I was a kid. Once when he’d come up from Clarksdale to Memphis to visit, I played Pea Vine for him on guitar and that’s when he told me he’d worked on that train. I wish I’d written down what he said about the Pea Vine.

Blues Gave Me A Ride: I made this up thinking about how blues can affect people.

My Road Lies In Darkness: This tune is played in an open tuning I call Spanish.

Drifting From Town To Town: Since most of my life I have drifted from town to town, it just makes sense to write about something I know.

Rank Strangers: Besides blues, I’ve always been a fan of all music that seems to me to be “from the heart.” For this reason I’ve long been a fan of The Stanley Brothers. Their version of Rank Strangers resonated with me so much I felt like I had to play it for myself. I love the lyrics. I’ve Blues’d it up for y’all.

A Voice Foretold: I’ve performed A Voice Foretold many times with The Blind Boys of Alabama. This seems like a good place to share that song. I use the same guitar style as with Rank Strangers playing the melody on the bass strings along with the chords. I don’t know where I got this style from and maybe I made it up.

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