If you're into blues music, you've probably read
and heard that Charlie Musselwhite is the greatest living blues
harmonica player. Before the famed blues player performs at Capitol
Oyster Bar on Thursday, we asked him about that statement, his long
career, how his music has changed and what listeners can expect from
his current show:
Q: It's been said that you are now the world's
greatest living blues harp player. Do you agree with that?
A: I just don't think like that, and I sure
wouldn't say it. There are just a whole bunch of great harmonica
players now, and everyone has something to offer. I'm just one of
them. It seems like there are more harp players now than ever. I just
don't pay much attention when people say that sort of stuff. I mean
it's nice for people to say it and all, but it's almost kind of
embarrassing. Your new album "Delta Hardware" has been called the
hardest rocking album you've ever done. That's what it has been
called. I guess that's an apt description. It's just actually how we
sound live. It's my regular band, my touring band. My last album had a
lot of guests and was sort of put together in the studio. It was a
sort of a dark, moody, laid-back CD. This time I wanted to go in an
entirely different direction and do it with my own band. This is
really a lot more representative of the way I sound on the road.
Q: So if people listen to your new CD, they
should get a pretty good idea of how you will sound when you play
A: Oh yeah. I'll be playing with the same band
that's on the CD, and we will be playing a lot from this CD as well as
other stuff too.
Q: Did you start out playing harmonica?
A: Yeah. When I was a kid, it was sort of a
common toy. Everyone seemed like they got a harmonica for a birthday
or something. Plus my dad played, so there were harps around. So as a
kid I would just play on it and make up stuff.
Q: Did you always want to play the blues?
A: I'd listened to music all my life --
especially country, gospel and blues -- and rockabilly was really
happening then when I was growing up in Memphis. But blues just seemed
to describe how I felt better than any other type of music. It wasn't
like I remember the first time I heard blues; it was always part of
the environment for me. I remember hearing people singing in the field
as they were working, and they were singing blues, and I just loved
that sound. I went around Memphis, seeking out old time blues singers
and learned from them. But I didn't know I was preparing myself for a
career or anything. I just knew I loved the music and loved playing
it, and that was all it was about as far as I was concerned. When you
moved from Memphis to Chicago, I heard that it wasn't the blues but
the chance of a factory job that convinced you to go. Yeah, I didn't
really know anything about Chicago. I didn't know all those guys lived
up there. I didn't know where they lived. To me Chicago was just a
place way up north where I heard there were a lot of factory jobs that
paid good and had good benefits and weren't that hard to get. Times
were hard in the South, so I went. The job I ended up getting was
driving for an exterminator, and that was really lucky for me because
it meant driving all around Chicago, and I learned the whole city real
fast. And driving all around town, I'd end up seeing these signs and
posters and things for people like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and
this was just amazing to me that all these guys were there in Chicago.
So I'd make a note where they were playing and then drive back out
that night to hear all these people I'd been listening to for years.
Q: When did you first realize you could make a
living playing the blues?
A: I guess it first really got my attention when
I was asked to make my own album. To me, that was sort of the real
beginning of my career. Before that I just thought I was sort of
having fun -- which I was (laughing) . But I was also preparing myself
for what came later. It's all paid off. It all worked out. It was just
like the blues overtook me. I didn't have a plan. It just worked out
that way. Listening to your early records and to your new albums, what
differences do you hear? I think I'm a little better, and I'm still
working at it. You know some people seem as if they sort of level off
and stay with a certain style. I like to think that I'm always
learning something because I'm investigating new ways to express
myself. I think my music is going to just be continually evolving. I
Q: Anything I haven't asked you about that
you'd like to mention?
A: I'm looking forward to the show in
Montgomery. We are going to have a great time and blow all the blues
away. A lot of people hear the term "blues" and think the music is
about being sad. It's not like that at all. It's to get rid of that.
It's to make things better, to have a good time, and that's what we
are here for.