Published on June 6th, 2023 | by Nature Humphries0
Blues Icon Charlie Musselwhite Joins the Hill Country Picnic Family
Musselwhite will perform Saturday, June 24, 2023 at 6:45 pm with guitarist Kirk Fletcher
Seventy-nine-year-old Charlie Musselwhite has been around the musical block for decades, sharing stages and studios with fellow artistic giants, winning fistfuls of awards, and generally epitomizing “cool.” I remember the buzz that ensued at the 2021 North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic when he was spotted backstage, hanging out and laughing with Kenny Brown and the gang of folks lounging around behind the barricades.
“Look, it’s Charlie Musselwhite! I bet he’s going to sit in!” I heard lots of excited voices predict. And he did. It’s one of countless memorable Picnic moments that make this one of the best weekends of the year in my book.
We spoke to Charlie on a Tuesday morning as he was preparing for a quick West Coast tour before returning home to Mississippi to play the Picnic. His schedule remains full for the rest of the year as well, and he shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
TLV: You have legendary status and have been doing this for a long time. What keeps you motivated and energetic and wanting to keep doing it?
Charlie Musselwhite: Well, I just love the music. And to me, Blues is more than just music. It has a lot of substance to it. It feeds the heart and soul, and it’s not a fad, you know. [Some] styles of music come and go. Blues is not a fad. It’s always here, always has been, and always will be. And it might not be the Top 40, but it’s here forever.
One of the most interesting things to me about Blues is how many sub genres there are within the overall genre of Blues. And since we’re talking about the Hill Country Picnic, can you talk a little bit about specifically the Hill Country subgenre?
Well, it’s just delightful music. And I like all the different styles, from urban to country to jazz Blues. If it’s got the feeling in it, that’s what it’s all about. And Hill Country Blues is loaded with feeling. In some instances, it’s almost like trance music. It just draws you in. It’s just a wonderful experience, and people feel drawn to it. When they hear it, they get hooked on it and they got to have more of it. That’s the beauty of it. People really resonate with it. Some people when they hear it for the first time, it’s like they’ve been waiting for this and finally they find something that speaks to them on a heart level.
We saw you sit in at the Hill Country Picnic a couple of years ago in 2021. Is that the only time you played [the Picnic]?
That was the only time I’ve been there, and I’m really looking forward to coming back. I have a real powerful memory of that. A nice time.
What do you think is different about the Hill Country Picnic? How does it stand out from other festivals?
Well, it didn’t have a commercial feel to it, and [there’s] a camaraderie. Everybody’s so happy to be there in front of the stage and backstage, the people working, the people playing there, the people that come to hear the music. It’s like they all come together to constitute one spirit.
This is your first time being on the bill and having your own set. Can you tell us what to expect and what musicians may be playing with you?
An old friend of mine, Kirk Fletcher, is a guitar player from California, but he lives in Nashville now. He’ll meet me there and we’ll play as a duo together. He’s played in my band and we’ve toured together before. He’s an old friend. He started out playing guitar in his dad’s church. So he has a gospel background, which is really good for Blues. I remember Muddy Waters once said, “If you want to learn how to sing, go to church.”
So Kirk has that background and he’s just a fabulous guitar player. I mean, amongst guitar players he is revered. A lot of the people out there might not know him yet, but he’s just a great guitar player and one of the nicest people you could ever meet in your life.
Kirk knows all the styles too, from not only gospel, but country Blues to city Blues to Chicago Blues to, you know, Delta Blues, whatever you want to name it. He knows it all.
And so you’re doing a duo. Will you have any special guests or anybody sitting in with you?
Well, if that if that happens, it hasn’t been planned yet, but you never know. And then Blues, it’s kind of open to that sort of thing, but we’re prepared to do a whole set just the two of us, and I’ll play some guitar too.
Let’s talk about Kenny Brown. When we saw you at the Picnic last time, it looked like you were pretty good friends, so I’m curious of what your relationship is with Kenny.
I was just trying to remember how long ago and where was it we first met. It’s been so long ago that I’m not clear on it now, but we must have known each other for at least twenty, maybe thirty years, something like that We all were immediate friends, like you didn’t have to get to know each other. We just felt like we knew each other immediately, and I’ve always liked his style of playing. His attitude toward music just makes sense to me. He and Sarah are just really fine folks. Henrietta and I really love those people. And enjoy working with them and being friends with them and seeing them anytime we can.
[The Picnic] is such a great thing they’re doing, and Sara is a real motivating force behind it, too. You know, it’s not just Kenny. He’s a musician, and she’s the business side of it. And they really are a great team. Just like me and Henrietta are a great team. I couldn’t get it done without her.
I was curious to know currently what you’re listening to? Let’s say you’re going on a road trip, and you need some jams. What would you be listening to right now?
Oh gosh, I listen to all kinds of stuff. This morning I was listening to Hank Crawford doing a tune called “Don’t Cry, Baby.” It’s an instrumental, but I was listening to it for ideas. I’d like to play something like that sometime. It’s not really Blues, but it’s jazz. To me, a good jazz player is playing Blues with different chord changes. I just love all kinds of stuff, you know, big bands from the 40s to RL Burnside, even hillbilly Blues. Anything with heart. Anything they’re playing from the heart, that’s for me.
You recently relocated back to Clarksdale. I’m curious to know, as an internationally renowned musician with a long career like yours, how has the identity of Mississippian affected your experience as a musician and interacting with other people?
There’s a lot to unpack there! [Laughs]
I ask because sometimes when I travel, I get mixed reactions from people finding out I’m from Mississippi, and a lot of times it can be negative. So I’m just curious what your experience is?
To me, it’s always seemed like anybody from Mississippi is always from Mississippi, no matter where they go. You’ll meet somebody and they’ll say, ohh I’m from Iowa or something, and then later you find out, well, actually they’re from Nebraska, but they just named the last place they lived or something. But somebody from Mississippi, that’s where they’re from, no matter where they go. They always say they’re from Mississippi because people from Mississippi have a kind of pride that other people don’t seem to have.
And people are curious about Mississippi. When I’m in other countries, they know the Blues comes from Mississippi, and a lot of them have these incorrect stereotypical views. I have to correct them over all that. Mississippi seems to have a mystique about it. People feel curious about it. They want to experience it. Last night I met a couple from England and two young ladies from Holland. They came to Mississippi to experience the Blues, to see where it came from. So that’s a wonderful thing. Mississippi has a powerful history in music and art unlike any other place. People here seem compelled to create, whether they’re trained or not, they just want to create with this painting or portrait or music or whatever they want to create.
Yeah, it’s in our blood. I think, you know, it’s something in the air we breathe.
Yeah, I know. I tell people you can feel the Blues just coming up out of the ground.
Oh, I like that. What other projects do you have going on?
I have an album in the can, as you say. I don’t know when I’m going to release it, but it’ll be my next band album. The last one [Mississippi Son] was just more of a solo thing. I was playing guitar and overdubbing my harmonica on it, but it won some kind of an award. [2023 Blues Music Award for Acoustic Album of the Year]
One of many!
I’m keeping busy, you know.
I just look forward to meeting you all and hope everybody will come to the Picnic. It’s just guaranteed a wonderful time and a memorable experience. And we’ll play some Blues for you, all right?