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Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite comes to Beaver Creek Sunday

Brenda Himelfarb
Special to the Daily
Charlie Musselwhite worked as ditch digger, concrete layer and moonshine runner before he started hsi carrer as a musician.
Special to the Daily |

If you go ...

Who: Charlie Musselwhite.

Where: Vilar Performing Arts Center, Beaver Creek.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: $38.

More information: Visit http://www.vilarpac.org.

BEAVER CREEK — The Blues Hall of Fame Tour, hitting the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Sunday night, will feature the genre’s giant — Charlie Musselwhite who, along with John Hammond, were just part of a handful of white blues musicians who were on the scene at the beginning of a blues renaissance of the mid-’60s, brought on by renewed interest in fold music around the United States.

A harmonica master, Musselwhite was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, where the sounds of blues, hillbilly and gospel music reverberated throughout his neighborhood. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Musselwhite worked as ditch digger, concrete layer and moonshine runner. Yet, the blues fascinated him and in his spare time, he began playing guitar and harmonica.

“I learned from hanging around guys in Memphis that played, and street singers,” he said. “I’d watch them, their fingers, and go home and figure out what they were doing.”

SITTING WITH THE BIG BOYS

It was a time when Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis and Johnny Cash were on the scene. However, Musselwhite sought out veteran bluesmen like Furry Lewis, Will Shade and Gus Cannon.

Eventually, Musselwhite, like so many musicians, moved to Chicago to get better gigs. To stay afloat, he worked as an exterminator. But, at night, he hung out in blues clubs and developed close friendships with such blues icons as Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Soon he was sitting in with the big boys, building a solid, impressive reputation — and getting paid, although not much.

Looking back at that time in Chicago, Musselwhite once told Digital Interviews, “It was interesting, for several reasons. First of all, I was thrust into the music business. In Chicago, nobody had contracts [in the clubs]. They didn’t watch their time — 45 minutes and then you take a break. Although, there was one club where we played seven sets a night, 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off, till 4 in the morning.”

Musselwhite’s first recording, under the name of “Memphis Charlie,” with Big Walter Horton, brought an audience of young, white rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts who considered him cool and hip.

‘PLAY WHAT I FEEL’

Soon, the growing youth counter-culture on the West Coast embraced Musselwhite and he relocated to San Francisco, where he often played at the famed Fillmore Auditorium — winning fans from every music genre. Over the years, he has released albums in which he’s mixed elements from blues, jazz, gospel to all types of world music.

“I think almost every culture has its own music of lament, of loss, of lost love, of lost youth, of the meaning of life,” Musselwhite said. “It’s all right from the heart, and it’s a human condition. I look for that music. It’s interesting how, being a blues player, when I hear that music, I can play right along with those guys, even though we might not be able to speak.

“I heard it in Istanbul one time, at a flea market. I heard this music, and I thought, ‘What is that?’ I’d wade through this crowd, and here’s these two blind guys. One of them had some kind of weird stringed instrument, and the other one had this drum. They were playing this gut-wrenching music. I don’t know what they were singing about, but it had to be about hard times. They had a hundred people there in the palm of their hands. There it was.”

With 27 Blues Music Awards to his credit and eight Grammy nominations, Musselwhite has earned his status as one of blues music’s most important artists.

“How do you play so many styles and emotions on an instrument that most people use as a rhythm instrument,” Digital Interviews asked Musselwhite.

“I just try to play what I feel, and what I believe in,” he said. “Any song I do, on some level, means something to me. I know that there are artists always trying to think of ‘the hit,’ what’ll hit, what people want. I think you can never figure that out. I just play what I like to play and I figure if I’m having fun and enjoying it and doing it, and the band is enjoying it, then the audience will enjoy it. Just to keep it honest.

“Blues is a feeling. B.B. King could sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and it would be blues,” he said.

Sunday night’s Blues Hall of Fame Tour was to have also featured the legendary John Hammond but, unfortunately, Hammond had a family emergency and will not appear. Musselwhite, solo, will open the show playing celebrated, southern “rural blues,” and will bring on his band for the second set.


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