I had a long drive yesterday, so I went through my car CD collection looking for something to pass the miles, and came across Charlie Musselwhite’s In My Time. This recording was released in 1994, and I haven’t listened to it for at least 10 years.
Well, better late than never, especially in the case of this terrific recording. There are two bands on the record, one of which is Charlie’s early-90s touring band with Felton Crews on bass, Andrew “Junior Boy” Jones on guitar, and Tommy Hill on drums. Some consider this to be Musselwhite’s greatest touring band, which is saying a lot considering how many excellent bands he’s had over the years. I especially love Jones’s work on this record–he sounds like Charlie might sound if he played lead guitar, mixing jazz and blues in a very personal and compelling way. The other band includes Junior Watson on guitar and the great Larry Taylor, who has played knockout bass behind Canned Heat, Leo Kottke, and many others, and Gene Taylor on piano. It’s always a pleasure to hear a solid piano player behind Musselwhite, like Skip Rose in the 1960s and 1970s, though Taylor’s sleek, fast runs are very different from the studied simplicity of Rose. The Blind Boys of Alabama make an appearance on one cut too.
Musselwhite’s playing on this record is as good as anything he’s ever recorded, which is to say totally killer. Whether playing solo slide guitar or with either of the bands, amped up or acoustic, his sound is wonderful, full of beautifully played details, dripping with soul. He changes up between chromatic and diatonic harps, first, second, and third position, sometimes in the same tune. His lines are full of surprises, with lots of little rhythmic turns that force you to pay attention, and he’s always twisting the pitches on his notes in unexpected directions. It’s blue and primitive and sophisticated all at once, and it sounds like no one else.
And in a word, that’s what I love most about Musselwhite: he sounds utterly like himself. Blues mavens tell you that the blues is all about playing your own thing. Charlie is one guy who takes that seriously. One listen to his singing is enough to tell you that he’s an original. Is he a great singer? Not the way Sinatra was. But he’s a totally unique singer and a tremendously emotive one, and when he’s singing you know whose story the band is telling for sure.
I wore out three copies of Charlie’s Takin’ My Time in the early 1970s. That was a great record, and this one is in that class. It’s great to see Charlie making serious inroads into the rock and pop worlds now with artists like Cyndi Lauper. This record is one of the big milestones on the path.