Charlie Musselwhite Serves Up Ageless Joyful Blues On ‘Mississippi Son’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Charlie Musselwhite’s public profile rose dramatically during the period he collaborated in the studio and on the road with Ben Harper. But he had already established a respectable solo career prior to touring behind 2013’s Get Up and, five years later, No Mercy in This Land. Now, after a mutually-inspiring project with Elvin Bishop in 2020, 100 Years of Blues, the veteran harpist/songwriter/vocalist continues to elevate his visibility on Mississippi Son.

Musselwhite nurtures that process in a most authentic way, displaying as much style as soul throughout the proceedings. And if brevity is the soul of wit, there may be no musician wrier than Charlie as he ambles his way into this forty minutes via “Blues Up The River.” On that first cut of fourteen, the Mississippi- born, Memphis-raised musician imbues the otherwise well-trodden image of ‘drinking muddy water,’ with a purposeful ambiguity that in turn becomes a tacit nod to the familiarity of Joe Lee Williams’ “Crawling King Snake:” appearing half-a-dozen tracks later,  the Yank Rachel cover is infused with no less heartfelt a passion.

One of six selections of outside material here interspersed with originals, it’s of a piece with Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues,” itself effectively juxtaposed with Guy Clark’s “The Dark;” uttered via stirring spoken words, the song written by the late Texan uncovers the fundamental connection between country music and the blues. It’s a link further fortified through the simplicity of arrangements on this Alligator Records title featuring Ricky ‘Quicksand” Martin on drums and Barry Bays on acoustic stand-up bass. Yet the rhythm section is present on only a handful of these tracks: Musselwhite goes it alone on the rest, armed with but guitar and harmonica to accompany his singing. 

The man doesn’t show off his technical skill anywhere though. Instead, as he fingers the archetypal changes of an instrumental titled “Remembering Big Joe,” he simply plays in a quietly straightforward fashion, intent on (re)emphasizing the beauty in the basic chords and how easily the changes can lend themselves to interesting improvisation(s). Meanwhile, on his self-composed “Stingaree,” Musselwhite keeps his voice comparably low: almost whispering as he sings, it’s as if Charlie means to impart precious secrets with his hushed delivery. 

In fact, on three compositions of his own that form something of an autobiographical triptych–“Blues Gave Me A Ride,” “My Road Lies in Darkness” and “Drifting From Town to Town”–the author would seem to be proffering some now deeply-ingrained life lessons. He’s nothing if not his good-natured self during such edification, though, a subtlety he then punctuates with rightful emphasis through the inclusion of”Rank Strangers” (most famously performed by those icons of the bluegrass genre, the Stanley Brothers). And, as if to reinforce his intent, still without overstating it, Musselwhite then presents a prescient closer in the form of “A Voice Foretold.” 

Whatever truths may lie within this material, however, Charlie’s means of expressing them is totally bereft of pontificating or preaching. On the contrary, he injects profundity into the very sound of the performances as much as the choice of songs. Little wonder then that, in the back cover photo of this LP, one of the truly great bluesmen of our time sports such a beatific grin on his face: Charlie Musselwhite’s smiling visage sums up the very air of modest, joyful generosity that permeates Mississippi Son. 

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