The Living Traditions festival closes out its three-day stand of multicultural music, dance, food and fun with a headline show by Blues Hall of Fame honoree Charlie Musselwhite.
The Mississippi-born musician -- performing Sunday, May 20 -- is best known for his dynamic harmonica style, but he is no slouch as a singer, band leader and songsmith.
His most recent album, 2010's "The Well," features all-original material based on Musselwhite's experiences. Musselwhite released one solo acoustic album some years ago that featured all originals, but he said his latest is his first commercial, band-driven effort in which he has written or co-written all the songs.
It features something of a roots music supergroup, with guitarist Dave Gonzales (Paladins, Hacienda Brothers, Stone River Boys), bassist John Bazz (The Blasters) and drummer Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, Mavis Staples). Staples also lends her vocal talents to the song "Sad and Beautiful World," a somber cut about the murder of Musselwhite's 93-year-old mother during a robbery of her Memphis home.
Musselwhite said that producer Chris Goldsmith was the one who nudged him to use only his own work for the record, which went to No. 4 on the Billboard blues charts and garnered him Blues Music Awards in 2011 for Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year and Best Instrumentalist (for harmonica).
"That's what a good producer does, is get the best out of an artist," said Musselwhite, calling from his Mississippi home. "I had a lot of stuff sitting around in different stages, but he got me to finish them up. These songs are about something I know. I don't make up stuff about living in Hawaii or something. In some ways, it is an autobiography -- or at least autobiographical."
Out of the well
Musselwhite's title cut for "The Well" chronicles how he finally quit drinking back in 1987. The song, and the introduction on the album leading up to it, tells how he had cut down on his problematic drinking, but was still fearful of taking the stage without liquid reinforcement. But when 18-month-old Jessica McClure was rescued from a well in Midland, Texas, and the entire country was celebrating the fact, Musselwhite decided he would climb out of his own well by taking the stage sober.
"Everyone has hard times sooner or later, maybe some more than others," he said. "How you get through them is how you handle life, I guess. Like quitting drinking -- they have AA, which stands for Alcoholics Anonymous? Well, I was drunk in public, so it was kind of ridiculous to act like it never happened."
Musselwhite said he doesn't mind talking about his struggle to get sober.
"And I really like it when people come up to me and say I inspired them to change, and they are feeling good about life again," he laughed. "If I can do it, anybody can."
Songwriting is quite personal for Musselwhite, and a process in and of itself.
"It might be easier for some than others, but I find that they don't just pour out of me. It is not like improvising a solo. You have to go over it and over it, pare it down. Often, my songs are way too long, and way too wordy, and I usually have to condense it down until it is easier to take, and to deliver. Now a few songs go faster than others. Some just come to me like it's just waiting. But most you have to hone down, and take the edges off here and add the edges there -- sculpt it."
The blues essentials
Musselwhite had long been lauded for his harmonica style. He is not even certain at what age he actually took up the instrument.
"It probably was my first instrument, though," he said. "Seems like there were always harmonicas around. It was a common toy in the South when I was growing up -- maybe all over. They're small, and they used to be cheap, a common stocking stuffer and birthday present.
"As a kid, I was making stuff up on them, and one day it occurred to me: I have a harmonica and I love the way blues harp sounds, and I am familiar with it, how it works, and I would make up my own blues. Then I got to really listening to other people, and took licks, what I liked from this guy and that. And in the end, I got my own style."
Though virtuosic, Musselwhite is know for letting his playing serve the song, rather than the other way around.
According to Off Beat Magazine, "Musselwhite achieves an authoritative deep blues sound through spare understatement as only a master can."
Said Musselwhite: "I always thought you should play from your heart, not your head, so much," he said. "It is important to have technique. But with some people, it is all about technique. If that's the case, it is like listening to gymnastics -- great, but you ain't saying nothing. But some guys can take two or three notes and say everything. That is the spirit of the blues."