For Charlie Musselwhite, the blues has been a companion, a kindred spirit that has been his love and livelihood for the last 50 years.
"I've always said that blues is your comforter when you're down and it's your buddy when you're up," says the veteran harmonica stylist, guitarist and vocalist, 71, who performs Monday for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "It's there for you however you feel. It just accompanies you in life.
"You can't say that about all other music. It's a part of life, it's a reflection of life. It can be healing. It can be joyful. It can join you in your grief. The music is an extension of life and can be an extension of you, too, if you're playing it."
A Mississippi native who migrated to two of the country's most roots-music-rich cities, Memphis and Chicago, Musselwhite emerged as a recording artist in the midst of a dramatic electric blues boom with his 1967 debut album Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band, a record so caught up in the music of the moment that his record label misspelled the artist's name in the title.
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"I don't worry about stuff like that," Musselwhite says. "I just play what I feel and I play from the heart. I realized at some point early on that you can't please everybody. So hopefully, if you please yourself, there will be some other people that will like what you're doing, too. That seems to have worked out pretty good for me."
Though a highly capable guitarist, Musselwhite's primary instrument in establishing his blues voice has been the harmonica. His tone is sweet, lyrical and often jazz-like in its range and improvisatory reach. That might explain why one of his signature tunes remains the luscious instrumental Cristo Redentor, penned by the neglected jazz pianist Duke Pearson but transformed into a moody slow blues epic decades ago by Musselwhite. The tune has been such a staple of live shows through the years that the bluesman has featured it on his two newest albums, a pair of independently issued concert recordings — 2013's Juke Joint Chapel and 2015's I Ain't Lyin'.
"I don't know of another song like it," Musselwhite says. "For awhile there, I was thinking, 'People must be getting bored with this. I'm going to quit playing it.' Then they would come up to me at the end of the night angry saying, 'I waited all night to hear Cristo Redentor and you didn't play it.'
"That happened enough that I knew people really did want to keep hearing it.' So every night I end with Cristo and it always seems different somehow every time I play it. I can't explain it. It has its own life. I just start playing the first few notes of it and it's like the spirit of that song just shows up and takes me where it wants to go."
Musselwhite's solemnly soulful harmonica sound has been captured numerous times through the decades on recordings other than his own. Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Tom Waits are just a few of the artists who have sought out Musselwhite for their music.
"It's always interesting for me to play what I play in a different setting with a different style or add blues to some kind of music that's not really blues but still has feeling," Musselwhite says.
"It's like Tom Waits would tell me. 'Charlie, why don't you come over and see if you can gussy up this tune I got.' So that's what I like to do — go in and gussy things up."