A native Mississippian, Charlie Musselwhite soaked up the music and culture of Memphis before diving headfirst into the Chicago blues scene of the 1960s and becoming one of the irrefutable young white bluesmen of the time there. Born early 1944, Musselwhite plays the blues on “Mississippi Son” like a same-year Chevy pickup, all rounded shoulders and paint faded a bit, but powerful and rumbling, carrying the weight with unassuming class. Nine of his new album’s 14 tracks — eight originals and six covers — feature just Musselwhite singing expressively, blowing fragrant gusts of patented harp, and playing agile, engaging guitar — the latter a skill he’s not generally known for.
Musselwhite, drummer Ricky “Quicksand” Martin, and bassist Barry Bays tumble into the original “Blues Up the River” and Yank Rachell’s “Hobo Blues” to open the album, the former carefree despite its melancholy character, the latter full of intense thought. Both appropriately roll, and rock. But as they do, Musselwhite’s harp, and the knowing edge in his voice are comfortable and soothing. That, ultimately, is the purpose and power of the blues. Later, when Musselwhite very delicately picks at his guitar in “Remembering Big Joe,” he pays tribute to fellow Mississippi blues man Big Joe Williams through guitar notes alone, that same power of the blues not wavering at all.
The most accomplished blues performers write stellar songs — as Musselwhite demonstrates here — but also take others’ best to their limit in surprising, often definitive renditions. Musselwhite displays that knack with the centerpiece of “Mississippi Son,” Guy Clark’s “The Dark.” Reciting Clark’s allegorical snippets more than singing them, with strummed guitar but without the added emphasis of his harp, Musselwhite connects on a visceral level. What happens in “The Dark?” “The house settles down after holding itself up all day,” and “The wind gets lost,” among other things. What happens in listening to it is an awareness that we’re all really in the dark.
Charlie Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” raises the heat, the band clickety-clacking happily. “Drifting from Town to Town” feels exactly like that, Musselwhite’s harp blasts like signposts on a jaunt. And what a little jaunt Musselwhite continues to enjoy, touched on in the upbeat and thankful “Blues Gave Me a Ride.” The old phrase that includes fine wine is no cliché when it comes to Charlie Musselwhite. “Mississippi Son” reveals him to be an artist as spirited as ever, armed with everything needed to perform a real, textured, completely enthralling blues experience.
Label: Alligator Records
Release: June 3, 2022