On his new album, Mississippi Son, the harmonica giant steps out on guitar, evoking the legends of country blues 6-string and earning his place among them.
For Charlie Musselwhite, the blues isn’t just a style of music. It’s a sacrament. And Musselwhite is one of its high priests. With a palmful of bent notes on the harmonica—the instrument on which he’s been an acknowledged master for more than a half-century—or the fat snap of a guitar string, he has the power to summon not only the blues’ great spirits, but the places they rose from. If you listen closely, you can envision the Mississippi Delta’s plantation lands, where the summer sun forms a shimmering belt on the low horizon and even a slight breeze can paint your face red with clay dust. It’s a place both old and eternal—full of mystery and history and magic. And the music from that place, as Musselwhite sings in his new song “Blues Gave Me a Ride,” “tells the truth in a world full of lies.”
“Blues is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to play,” says Musselwhite, who is 78. “It’s more than just another kind of music. Whatever life throws at you, blues is there for you. It’s your buddy when you’re up and your comforter when you’re down, and it’s got this depth and substance that a lot of other music just doesn’t have. So, in that way, it has a sort of spiritual quality, and it really can be your partner in life. It gives you a way to go.”
Although Musselwhite’s parents moved him to Memphis from his native Kosciusko, Mississippi, when he was 3, the blues has, indeed, seemed to be his guiding hand ever since. Most recently, it’s led him to record Mississippi Son, the first of his more than 40 albums that is built around his guitar playing—spare as a skeleton’s rib cage, but as beautiful as a fresh magnolia blossom with hints of dust on its petals.
Charlie Musselwhite - Mississippi Son (Full Album) 2022
Slowly, over the past few decades, Musselwhite has been incorporating guitar into his live performances—sometimes in duets with his longtime compadre Elvin Bishop, who he met in Chicago in the early ’60s, just before integrated blues bands like those they would join and form began making mainstream albums. “Charlie’s guitar playing is way good,” says Bishop. “I really love the way he nails the old deep blues, the country blues. He only plays what’s necessary, and every note has nuance. His tone is dark and deep. He can play slide like Robert Nighthawk, and what Charlie does on the guitar has a good emotional effect on his music. It’s perfect for his singing and harp playing.”
Musselwhite’s life with the guitar and harmonica began when he was around 13. With an acoustic Supertone in hand, he discovered the E7 chord and the old-school Delta sound and began to learn songs like Mississippi Son’s “Pea Vine Blues.” With lyrics that illuminate how the lonesome sound of a distant train whistle can torture the brokenhearted, the song is prime country blues, first recorded by Charley Patton in 1929.
“At some point I remember coming to the realization that every culture probably has its music of lament.”
Luckily, Musselwhite had more than old shellac 78s to learn from. During his teenage and young adult years in Memphis, legendary artists like Furry Lewis, who by then swept Beale Street for a living, and Will Shade, the leader of the Memphis Jug Band, became mentors, cementing his love of the rural blues sound.
“I learned more about slide and open tunings from Furry, and regular tuning and harmonica from Will Shade,” Musselwhite says. He also met harmonica legend Big Walter Horton—a fellow acolyte of Shade’s—in Memphis, and Musselwhite would continue to be under Horton’s sway when he moved to Chicago in the late 1950s. Lesser-known artists like Willie Borum and Earl Bell were also part of Musselwhite’s education in the Bluff City. “I had no idea I was preparing myself for a career,” he says, chuckling. “I would have paid a lot more attention. I was just having fun. And I loved the blues and had to play it, but I didn’t know it was going to become my life and put me on the road.”
Out in front of Clarksdale, Mississippi’s Shack Up Inn, Charlie Musselwhite displays his Harmony Bobkat and steel slide, worn tight on his pinky.
Photo by Rory Doyle
Musselwhite left Memphis for practical reasons. “I’d been working around Memphis, doing construction work and different factory jobs and stuff, and the pay was so low, so I had done a little moonshining on the side, and one day I noticed the police were following me. I thought that was a bad sign. I’d been thinking about going to Chicago, because friends of mine had gone up and gotten jobs in these factories, and they’d come back to visit driving brand new cars ’cause they got paid so much better—and they had benefits. I’d never even heard of benefits before, so that’s why I went to Chicago—just like thousands of other people getting out of the South because it was economically depressed. I was looking for a better life.”
He found that, and a lot more. “I knew nothing about the blues scene there,” he continues. “I’d been told that anybody in the entertainment field either lived in Hollywood or New York City, and even though I had all these records that had Chicago written on ’em, with Vee-Jay and Chess labels, I thought, ‘Well, that’s just where they manufacture the records.’ I didn’t know that’s where all these guys lived. But lucky for me the first job I got in Chicago was as a driver for an exterminator, and I drove him all over Chicago, so I learned the city really well, really fast. Driving around, I started seeing posters and signs for guys like Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and I couldn’t believe it! All my heroes were right here in Chicago! So, I’d make a note of where these clubs were and at night I’d be hanging out listening to live blues right in front of my heroes that I only had records of before.”
For a spell, he lived in the basement of the now-historic Jazz Record Mart music shop, where he also occasionally worked, with the irascible 9-string-playing bluesman Big Joe Williams as his roommate. “Oh boy, you never knew what was going to happen,” Musselwhite offers. “We had a great time. I really wish I’d written down the stories that he told me. We’d go around town visiting friends and relatives, just like I did with Shakey—which is what they called Big Walter in Chicago—always looking for a little taste. That was kind of a common hobby among many of the older blues guys, and often we’d sit up late at night just drinking beer and Joe would be playing guitar and I would be playing harmonica with him, and he just seemed to enjoy doing that, so it was awful encouraging. I picked up little tips on his playing. Occasionally I’d pick up his guitar to try to play it, but, man, the strings were like cables. It was hard to even fret it, but he would play it like it was butter.”
Musselwhite and his manager and wife, Henrietta, have lived and learned in the court of blues royalty. The other gents in this photo are Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
Photo courtesy of Charlie Musselwhite
Williams’ guitar—albeit reduced to its original 6-string setup—makes a cameo on Mississippi Son, on “Remembering Big Joe,” an instrumental reflecting the savvy gutbucket style of the bluesman noted for the first recordings of “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Crawling King Snake.”
“I just played off the top of my head, thinking about Big Joe, and that’s what came out,” says Musselwhite. “That’s what I remember him sounding like.”
In Chicago, Mussselwhite also had access to the canonical harmonica players of electric blues: Horton, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and his fellow young trailblazer, Paul Butterfield. And by the mid-’60s, Musselwhite’s own mojo was working. In 1965, he met producer Samuel Charters, who was making his influential Chicago/The Blues/Today! trilogy of recordings. Billed as Memphis Charlie, Musselwhite appeared with the Big Walter Blues Harp Band on the third volume. Later that year, Musselwhite played on John Hammond Jr.’s So Many Roads album, and a session of his own with Charters yielded 1967’s Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band.
Charlie Musselwhite’s Gear on 'Mississippi Son':
Back home in the Delta, Charlie Musselwhite plucks a Harmony Bobkat as he sits on the porch of a former sharecropper’s residence at a Clarksdale, Mississippi, hotel compound called the Shack Up Inn, where his live 2012 Juke Joint Chapel album was recorded.
Photo by Rory Doyle
- Vintage Gibson L-4
- Harmony Bobkat
- 1967 Silvertone solidbody
- 1954 Gibson J-45
- Vintage Gibson L-7
- Laney A3012
Strings & Slide
- .011-gauge sets
- Steel slide
As luck, or, perhaps, the blues’ guiding hand, had it, the album arrived when freeform FM radio was an emergent force in American music and Musselwhite’s reputation spread throughout the country. Riding this acclaim, he relocated to San Francisco, where his bona fide sound was embraced by the rock counterculture scene anchored at the Fillmore West.
Since then, Musselwhite’s star has burned. At times more brightly than others, but he has consistently toured and recorded and remained not only in the eyes and ears of blues fans, but in the general music loving public’s. It’s not just a matter of his excellence—his ability to blow pure soul through his main axe’s tiny reeds. Musselwhite, despite his devotion to bone-deep blues, is no purist. Over the decades he’s collaborated and made albums with Bonnie Raitt, Flaco Jiménez, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Lee Hooker, and Ben Harper, exploring jazz, gospel, Tex-Mex, Cuban, and other world musics.
“I discovered that a lot of music—flamenco, Greek, Arabic—has a sound or feel that reminds me of blues,” Musselwhite observes. “It’s got the same kind of heart— especially flamenco. If it ain’t blues, I don’t know what it is. It has that spirit, that same energy. At some point I remember coming to the realization that every culture probably has its music of lament. And there’s a guy on the corner singing about ‘my baby left me’ wherever you go in the world.”
“Every now and then I’d sneak in a track on an album where I was playing guitar. A lot of people never even realized it was me.”
Musselwhite has also hosted a series of world-class guitar players in his bands, from Harvey Mandel and Robben Ford in the ’60s, to Matthew Stubbs and Kirk Fletcher in recent years. “Every now and then I’d sneak in a track on an album where I was playing guitar,” Musselwhite says. “A lot of people never even realized it was me.”
Now, with Mississippi Son, the feline is out of the flour sack. And Musselwhite is back in his native state. He and his wife and manager, Henrietta, purchased a home in the blues mecca of Clarksdale, Mississippi, some years ago, but in 2021 they departed the West Coast to take up permanent residence in the small Delta burg with a downtown that looks frozen in 1966. In Clarksdale, Musselwhite befriended guitarist, songwriter, and producer Gary Vincent, and in 2012 Vincent produced Musselwhite’s live Juke Joint Chapel, at the hip local venue bearing that name.
This time, they regrouped in Vincent’s downtown studio, Clarksdale Soundstage. “With the pandemic, I had all this time on my hands, and Gary’s studio is three blocks from me. He’s got a ton of guitars, so I spent a lot of time over there playing them. At one point, he said, ‘Ya know, we should tape some of these.’ I said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ So, the album started spontaneously. We were just recording tunes for posterity.”
With a borrowed white Stratocaster, Musselwhite evokes the old school onstage at the Blues Cazorla Festival on July 22, 2011, in Cazorla, Spain.
Photo by Jordi Vidal
Posterity should be pleased. Mississippi Son’s 14 songs add up to one of the best new albums of country blues recorded in decades—since the early ’90s titles cut by Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside for the Fat Possum label. But Musselwhite’s proclivity for acoustic and clean but lightly hairy electric guitars takes the sound back even earlier, to the days when Chess, Vee-Jay, and Sun were cutting records by artists straight out of the cotton fields. His repeated sliding chords and up-picking on the tunes “Hobo Blues” and “Crawling King Snake” evoke the spirit of John Lee Hooker, who cut their most famous versions. But many of the songs are Musselwhite originals with lyrics that also conjure visions of the Delta of yore, alluding to the ’Frisco (the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway), the itinerant bluesman’s life (the semi-autobiographical “Drifting from Town to Town”), and the endless flow of the Mississippi River.
Musselwhite is joined on five songs by drummer Ricky Martin and upright bassist Barry Bays, and he overdubbed his own harmonica. But some of the album’s most profound performances are just Musselwhite and his guitar. The heart-squeezer “The Dark,” a Guy Clark number, is especially hypnotic. As he lays out lightly surging riffs on the Gibson L-4 acoustic archtop that’s one of the album’s MVP 6-strings, he gently intones the lyrics in a way that transforms the small elements of a fading day—a June bug on a window screen, a dripping kitchen faucet, the Earth turning its back on the sun—into something existential. “One way or another,” Musselwhite observes in the third verse, “we’re all in the dark.”
The album’s other guitars were a 1967 Silvertone solidbody electric borrowed from the Clarksdale guitar shop Bluestown Music, a 1954 Gibson J-45, and the Gibson L-7 that belonged to Big Joe Williams. A tube-driven Laney A3012 was the amp Vincent used for Musselwhite’s guitar and harmonica. This model amplifier was made in the ’80s and ’90s and has four 12AX7 preamp tubes and two 6V6 power tubes, but in Musselwhite’s control it sounds like a vintage tweed Fender or a Valco Sears special—an old man of a soundbox with more than a hint of experience in its voice. Vincent recorded the amp with a Neumann U 87.
"I really love the way he nails the old deep blues, the country blues. He only plays what’s necessary, and every note has nuance.”—Elvin Bishop
Musselwhite’s tunings, besides standard, were textbook Delta blues. “Furry Lewis taught me Spanish and Vestapol,” he says, using the terms typically used to describe the open G (Spanish, or cross-tuning for minor-key variations á la Skip James) and open D/E families of tunings. After he plugs in, “I turn the treble all the way off and the bass all the way up, the mids about half-way, and I’m ready to go.” Pedals? Of course not.
When we spoke, Musselwhite had some dates on his schedule with Elvin Bishop, and both artists were looking forward to playing country blues—and especially some country blues guitar—together again, as they have intermittently since meeting in the music’s ultra-fertile ’60s Chicago scene.
“I loved the sound of Chicago blues and where it took the electric guitar, but I’ve always been a big fan of country blues guitar,” says Musselwhite. “There are so many subtleties in it. That’s where the real beauty of the blues is—in those subtleties … just listening to the way those guys accompanied themselves. One guy with a guitar: whether it’s John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins or Charley Patton. I love that stuff and so I guess that’s why I play like I do. I also knew a lot of the old-timers, and they weren’t shredders by any stretch of the imagination. That sound captivated me when I was a kid, and it still does.”
Charlie Musselwhite - Blues Up The River
The green machine that haunted the pedalboards of mid-’00s experimentalists is back—better and smaller.
Loads of delay voices. Easy to jump in and get great sounds. Looper function is a classic.
Tweak and tweez functionalities leave a lot to memorize. Reverb functions could benefit from their own controls
Line 6 DL4 MkII
Many guitarists reach a crossroads where they have to decide to either totally embrace their influences or shun them and find a new path. That applies to gear as well as playing style. Back in the mid ’00s, the Line 6 DL4 started popping up on pedalboards and I ran away. Sure, its extensive array of delay options and cool looper function were tempting. But while forward-thinking artists like Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorson, Battles, Lightning Bolt, and Reggie Watts used this green beast to create the most compelling sounds, the DL4 became ubiquitous. For whatever reason, I—and plenty of players like me—avoided the pedal in an odd attempt to stay clear of a trend.
Fast forward to the present and the DL4 is a modern classic. Its ubiquity diminished as new fleets of modern digital pedals came along offering endless delay-based possibilities. And yet some players still hang onto their trusty green pedals, despite their clunky, anachronistic, pedalboard real estate-hogging enclosures. There must be something special there, right? Luckily for all of us—those who are new to the DL4 or those devotees who want some upgrades—Line 6 has delivered the thoroughly modern DL4 MkII, with all the sounds and functionality of the original and plenty more.
Most reissues of old classics come with some kind of caveat—maybe they lack the essential capacitors of the original, tape has been replaced with DSP, or it’s a PCB version of a hand-wired circuit. A fun thing about the DL4 MkII is it’s just an updated version of the original, so there’s no compromising.
The MkII is immediately recognizable as a DL4, but it’s a little slimmer and sleeker, and its matte finish seems to boast about its modernity. Of course, it still takes up a lot more space on a pedalboard than lots of delay units that perform similar functions. With only six knobs and four switches, plenty of other pedal designers would choose to squish things up into a smaller enclosure. There’s a lot going on around back—stereo ins/outs, a mic in and level control, expression pedal out, MIDI in/out, micro SD slot (for saving loops and extending loop time), USB in, and power—so maybe that’s why they need all that space. I prefer to think that the folks at Line 6 decided that players simply need more space to think. As soon as I got started, I noticed how luxurious it feels to step on the MkII’s switches and not risk hitting another one by mistake. And grabbing the inset knobs doesn’t require a lot of precision or dexterity, so on-the-fly changes are as smooth as can be.
In a world of complex pedals, the DL4 design seems simple. A single knob controls a menu of 30 delay sounds. 15 of these are new, and a “legacy” button switches the function of that knob so you can access the original 15 options. There is also, of course, a looper function. The time, repeats, and mix knobs function as advertised, while the tweak and tweez knobs change function depending upon the selected delay voice. With so many delay-voice options, there is a lot to internalize in those latter two knobs, and I found myself consulting the enclosed paper guide more than I’d like. I’m sure that over the course of continued use and a few gigs I’d memorize some settings for easier control. But the three preset switches offer good starting points that get you close to where you want to be. That should get you going with minimal tweaking/tweezing.
Instant Tones and More
As an inexperienced DL4 user, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find the sounds I associate with the pedal. I’m mostly talking about the looper function that is utilitarian by today’s standards. Start/stop and overdubbing is simple, and the half-speed/reverse switch gave me insight into some of the most classic Frisell looping tricks.
I couldn’t find a bad delay sound in the bunch. The glitch voice would fit nicely within a Daniel Lanois production and feels reminiscent of the underrated DL4 contemporary, the Boss Slicer (albeit with simpler controls). The tunable harmony voice is of the same milieu and I felt encouraged to attempt my best Terry Riley-on-guitar impression. The auto-vol voice is an approximation of a Slow Gear-style effect and delivers the same sort of kosmische-like bliss, but also found me attempting faux-pedal-steel things that are candy for my ears.
Those are some of the MkII’s more experimental voices. Elsewhere, more straight-ahead delay tones such as the digital/vintage digital, analog mod, and lo res delay deliver exactly what they promise. Each is a unique voice that is easy to access and sounds solid across its settings.
I’m a purist when it comes to pedal design. And I prefer a pedal’s functions to be visible and relatively easy to manipulate. When a pedal has a secret function, it can feel like a cute Easter-egg bonus feature rather than a practical one. The surprise here is that the MkII comes loaded with 15 secret reverb sounds, which is a lot of hidden functionality. While a big part of the charm of the pedal is its simple control set, an extra knob or two would make access to these reverb voices much easier. There are a lot of reverb sounds here to explore, and I was drawn to the ducking, particle verb, and searchlights settings, But, again, the hidden functionality meant I mostly used the delay functions I could see.
The DL4 MkII is a fine update of a classic pedal. All the classic sounds are easily discoverable, as are all the new ones. The design is simple and easy to use. The hidden reverb function is a nice bonus, but it sounds so good that I’d like to use it more easily on the fly. That said, it’s hard to fault this pedal for that one flaw. The MkII offers a load of functionality in one unit that will appeal to experimenters and those with simpler delay cravings. This green machine is a classic for a reason and the MkII is going to keep it that way.
A compact pedal format preamp designed to offer classic, natural bass tone with increased tonal control and extended headroom.
The BX1 begins with a boutique flat response, then Carvin added extensive tone control allowing you to carve out your signature sound. Harmonic content increases as you turn up the INPUT GAIN control, producing the rich harmonics you desire from your preamp. The BX1 was designed to offer lightweight, compact design, bullet-proof construction and a list of indispensable features. Now shipping worldwide.
- Preamp GAIN and master VOLUME controls
- BLEND control adjusts the EQ/dry mix
- Mid sweep semi-parametric EQ
- COMPRESSOR: Threshold and Strength controls
- Effects Loop
- True Bypass
- 9-volt power – can use external power supply or internal battery
- Switchable MUTE
- -12dB Attenuation switch
- DIRECT OUT balanced XLR and 1/4-inch
Carvin BX1 Bass Preamp Pedal
The BX1 is available on the Carvin website for a $239 street price. Order now at www.carvinaudio.com.