Charlie Mussselwhite
Charlie Mussselwhite Credit: Michael Weintrob

I can’t name a better living practitioner of blues harmonica than Charlie Musselwhite. Born in 1944 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, he moved to Memphis with his family in the late 40s, then came to Chicago in 1962 looking for a job. He got sucked in by the city’s thriving modern blues scene instead, and by the mid-60s he was leading his own band. In 1967 Musselwhite released his first album, Stand Back!, on Vanguard, and though he’d relocate to San Francisco within a few years, he never abandoned the music of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta. He’s made more than two dozen albums since then, amassing a discography that demonstrates a profound musical curiosity—his collaborators include the Blind Boys of Alabama, Cuban guaracha master Eliades Ochoa, and Tom Waits. His latest album is 2010’s The Well (Alligator). For this week’s Artist on Artist, Musselwhite is interviewed by Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, a Chicago guitarist 25 years his junior. Burgin made a big splash locally in the 90s, leading a band that revisited the classic, stripped-down sound of 60s blues. For most of the aughts he had little to do with music, focusing on working and raising a family, but now he’s back on the scene with a new album, Grim Reaper, his return to the Delmark label after more than a decade. Johnny Burgin plays a Chicago Blues Festival afterparty at Reggie’s Music Joint on Sat 6/9 and joins Mary Lane at the festival for her Crossroads Stage set on Sun 6/10. Charlie Musselwhite plays at SPACE in Evanston on Thu 6/7.Peter Margasak

To me, this CD [The Well] seems like a culmination of a really stellar career. It’s a really personal record. I think every song on there is excellent. Tell me a little bit about how The Well came to be as a collection. There’s what I call a producer’s project. Chris Goldsmith was the producer, and I’ve worked with him on lots of things in the past. And he’s always real good at getting the best out of me, which is the job of a producer. And it was his idea that I write out all the tunes. He knew that I had a lot of tunes that were in different stages of being written, and he pushed me to finish them all and get them done. And so that’s what happened. And everything—you marked it as personal—well, everything that I write about is something that I know about. I can’t write about something that I don’t know about and really feel comfortable with it. So it’s all about what I know, and that’s what makes it personal.

Sure, I mean, The Well is a personal story. It’s kind of an intimate story. I guess everyone can relate to it because you sort of have to step outside of yourself in order to overcome this problem. Well, you know, life ain’t easy all the time. So it’s a trick to get it right, you know. To keep working on it. And, maybe in the end, it will all be worth it.

I watched this video of you in your office, and remember you saying, when you came to Chicago, you found something you didn’t know you were looking for. And I guess this was when you were driving, like your first job with driving around an exterminator truck. And you got to see who was playing around and that sort of thing. Can you tell me what you mean by that statement, and what it was like for coming to Chicago in general? Well, first of all, I didn’t know anything about Chicago. All I knew, to me, it was just a big city up north. It had a lot of jobs. . . . As far as blues, somebody once told me that anybody in the music business or acting or anything like that, in the entertainment field, either lived in New York or Hollywood. So, I didn’t associate Chicago with a blues theme. I was sort of aware that Chess Records and Vee-Jay were in Chicago, but I didn’t know that all these people were playing there, regularly, every night. So it was a big surprise to me when I first got to town, and I get this job as a driver for this exterminator, and I went all over town. It was the perfect job to have because right away I learned the whole city. . . . I remember going on 43rd Street and going by Pepper’s Lounge, the big painting on the front, and Muddy Waters and everything. I just couldn’t believe it. It was like, Wow! This is great. Like a kid in a candy store. And I was right there, and all these addresses for where all these guys were playing. And when I got the chance, I’d go out and see them. And it was—like walking into Silvio’s for the first time to hear Howlin’ Wolf. I can still feel what it felt like. Just the power that was coming from him and the band. And just the whole feeling in the whole room. Everybody was just moved by this music. And it was like, really—I don’t even know if I can put it in words. It was very moving, very powerful. And it’s still with me. Maybe one day we’ll figure how you can download somebody’s brain, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Let me say this. When I was a kid growing up in Memphis, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I wanted to roam and ramble. I wanted to see the world. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I didn’t have any clue that anything in Chicago other than a factory job was waiting for me there. The south was so economically depressed back then, and I had been doing construction work and hard labor. It just didn’t suit me. . . . And I wanted to get up there and get one of those good factory jobs, and that was all I there for.

So, back then, who were your favorite bands and the places to play? Gosh, of all the places—I don’t even remember the names of them now. Sometimes in the summertime I’d drive around, if I wasn’t working. And I just listened for a band come out of some place. There are so many blues bands. And I mean, sometimes, I’d go in to a place, and it would be a little trio from Arkansas or something. And they’d be gone, and I’d never see them again. They’d sound great. That wasn’t uncommon. Just run across some group like that, and you’d never see them again. But I of course liked Peppers Lounge, and Silvio’s, and Rose and Kelly’s where I worked, they had a lot. And Turner’s Blues Lounge—it was down the street from Rose and Kelly’s on Indiana. Right under the el tracks.

Are you ever going to write a book, Charlie? I keep threatening to. People keep asking me to do that. I don’t know where to begin, though. But I guess you begin at the beginning. One of these days I’m going to do that.

Because there is a whole history of Chicago there that, when that’s gone, that’s gone, you know. Yeah, just like Maxwell Street is gone. I just can’t believe what a wonderful place it was. And a historic place, too. Gosh. I just I miss that so much.

What would have happened to your career if you had stayed in Chicago? That’s a good question. I often wonder that myself. I don’t know. I don’t know if it would have worked out as well because when I got up to California, the reason I stayed—I didn’t really want to leave Chicago to start off with. I kept getting offers to go different places, and I wouldn’t go. Finally, somebody offered me a whole month of work in California, and I fully expected just to go out and do that, make that money and come back home, as soon as I could. I really had no interest in California. To me, it was just some place far, far away, and I didn’t know anything about it, didn’t care about it. And all the people I knew, my friends, were all there in Chicago. Well, I went out and did that month of work, and while I was out here, I realized that all up and down the west coast was a lot of work, and they paid really good money. And those old blues bars in Chicago, you couldn’t really make much money. They didn’t hold enough people to make any money. . . . And here you have these ballrooms and stuff, and all these hippies, and to them, it was like, blues is something exciting. They didn’t know about blues, but they wanted to. And they were paying me real good money, enough money to actually not have a day job. And that was real appealing. So, I just didn’t, you know, didn’t see any point in coming back.

But I still love Chicago. I really do. I miss it a lot.

Is there any advice you’d give to younger musicians starting out? I’ve noticed there seems to be a really good crop of talented and serious players about every ten years. What would you tell this new crop of guys to do? Well, I always tell people to follow your heart—don’t follow your head, follow your heart. Pay attention to your instincts, and I think that will take you where you want to go.

Did you ever see Earl Hooker? I always ask everyone this. Oh, yeah, I knew Earl. When I first met Earl, I didn’t know he was Earl. He was introduced to me as Zeb, and everybody was calling him Zeb. And I was thinking, damn, this guy really can play. What a great guitar player this Zeb guy is.

That’s because he’s Earl Hooker. He was disguising himself. I just knew him, thought he was a guy named Zeb. And then I went to see Earl Hooker one night, and it was Zeb. And I remember one night, it especially stands out in my mind, it was a club, I think it was on Roosevelt Road. And Buddy Guy was in there. I think he didn’t have a gig that night or something. And I remember Buddy standing in front of Earl, like jumping up and down, and yelling. And Earl just played this solo, chorus after chorus, and just kept getting better and better, and you couldn’t believe it. It was like your head was going to explode. How can he keep taking it higher and higher and higher, and getting better? People would just be yelling. The whole place was just eating out of the palm of his hand. He was just, this—like a, I don’t know, some kind of magician or something. It was really incredible. There were those lights. It was just like, you felt like you were dreaming.