Anyone who’s surprised at the stylistic diversity of the latest offering from Charlie Musselwhite hasn’t been paying close attention to the blues icon’s path. On Rough News, from ’97, he slipped in some Brazilian street music, and on 1999′s inspired Continental Drifter he teamed with the Buena Vista Social Club’s Eliades Ochoa. But as far back as his 1967 debut, Stand Back!, when he put his stamp on trumpeter Donald Byrd’s jazz hymn “Cristo Redentor,” Musselwhite has repeatedly shown that he is first and last a bluesman, but one interested in growing artistically.
“Blues is a feeling, and not confined to a theoretical musical structure,” he writes in the liner notes. And on One Night he injects that feeling into an eclectic mix of straight blues, country, and Americana, resulting in one of his most creative, most satisfying ventures yet.
At 58, Musselwhite is the premier blues harpist working today. Now, before you say, “What about . . .” – and start listing players whose main qualification is that they can play a lot of notes, let me ask you this: Can they make you well up and cry from just one bent note? Can they play something so unexpected it makes you smile? Can they make you afraid to walk into a darkened room, or make you want to stop what you’re doing and call your mother? Well, Musselwhite can. Call it depth, or soul, or mileage; he’s got it all – in abundance.
The CD’s theme, Charlie explains, is his experience growing up in Memphis – although the thread that ties the songs together is atmospheric, a feeling; this is not a nostalgic ride on the Wayback Machine. Guitarist G.E. Smith and bassist T-Bone Wolk (yes, those versatile alumni of Hall & Oates and countless others) are the two constants throughout the dozen tracks, and provide stellar, tasteful support with alternating drummers Per Hanson (of Ronnie Earl’s band) and Michael Jerome (with whom Charlie played on the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit Of America). Charlie plows into Johnny Cash’s “Big River” as though it were recorded in Excello Records’ chicken coup, eliciting G.E.’s most spirited solo, while “Trail of Tears” gets a funkier second-line feel than Nick Lowe’s version – this time with in-the-pocket solos from Musselwhite, Smith, and Charlie’s sideman from 30 years ago, guitar great Robben Ford.
The blues/country axis is perhaps best illustrated by “Cold Grey Light of Dawn,” which sounds about as country as you can get, even though it was written by ’50s rhythm & blues star Ivory Joe Hunter. Whatever it is, Charlie & Co. sound totally at home here, as they do on a killer reworking of Los Lobos’ “One Time One Night” – the East Angelinos’ jangly root-fifth feel replaced by T-Bone’s pumping, on-the-one eighth-notes and G.E.’s fine Chuck Berry licks.
In an album without a weak spot, other highlights include the dark, spooky gospel original “Ain’t It Time;” Ford’s biting solo on Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby” – which follows his (and Charlie’s) jazzier forays on the instrumental “I’ll Meet You Over There” – and Marty Stuart’s simple but snaky twang on “In a Town This Size.” The latter is a melodic country duet by Charlie and Austin’s Kelly Willis, who sounds more relaxed, less self-conscious than on her own recordings.
“I took a dark road, ’til I found the sun,” Charlie sings on “In Your Darkest Hour,” his voice and acoustic harp backed by nothing but T-Bone’s bass. It has indeed been a long, often hard road for Musselwhite, but today he is at the peak of his powers and on a creative roll. Run out and buy this CD so you’ll have something for him to autograph when he comes to your town. Not to be missed.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.