Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite: ‘Even with almost 31 years, it still feels new’

Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite: 'Even with almost 31 years, it still feels new'

While a number of celebrities and musicians avoid discussing their sobriety in interviews, bluesman Charlie Musselwhite has a different take.

“I was drunk in public for so long, why should I act like it didn’t happen?” he tells The Ties That Bind Us with an easygoing chuckle. “It’s OK to talk about it. You don’t have to hide it.”

Sobriety, after all, has given him more than he ever expected when he gave up booze more than three decades ago. So closely identified with the blues that he was the inspiration for Dan Aykroyd’s character Elwood in the classic “Blues Brothers” film (Aykroyd told Musselwhite as much), he continues to enjoy a career resurgence well into his 70s. He recently released “No Mercy In This Land,” his second collaboration with roots-rocker Ben Harper after 2013’s “Get Up!,” which won a Grammy for Best Blues Album. His tasteful harmonica chops dance a mean tango with Harper’s guitar work, and there’s even a track on the new record that’s a moaning lamentation of the battle he once fought: “The Bottle Wins Again.”

“I got up to where I was drinking two quarts of liquor a day, and it didn’t make any difference,” Musselwhite says. “I never could get back to the rosy, wonderful high that alcohol used to give me. I was just drinking to keep from getting sick. Every minute I was awake, I was drinking, and I kept a quart by the bed, to have a hit so I could get back to sleep. That’s when I had this feeling of, ‘This is really crazy. This is not gonna have a good ending.’

“I knew I had to get out of it, but I didn’t know how to stop. I just felt so trapped in this nightmare of being drunk but not feeling good, drinking just to keep from getting sick. It was just a real horrible nightmare.”

From Memphis to Chicago

The Ties That Bind UsAs with every alcoholic, it wasn’t always so. He started drinking as a teen, but alcohol was a part of his family life during childhood. His mother wasn’t an alcoholic, but she made wine, and Musselwhite remembers gathering elderberries in the woods around his Memphis home, bringing her paper bags full of the berries, which she would ferment. At night, he’d fall asleep to the sound of popping corks as the bottles settled, and a few sips here and there gave him a taste for it. As a teen, he and his buddies played poker and knocked back quarts, all of it in good fun, and once he struck out on his own, he started cutting his teeth in River City blues clubs. He worked manual labor jobs and ran moonshine before relocating to Chicago, where he began to make a name for himself on the South Side as a cat who knew his way around a harmonica.

“When I got to Chicago and started getting on stage to play, I noticed I felt a lot more comfortable on stage if I was drinking than if I was sober,” he says. “I didn’t really have a goal to be a musician, even though I loved music and learning how to play it. I just didn’t have an interest in being in the spotlight. It made me real uncomfortable, but if I was drunk, it was all OK.”

At first, he said, he never thought about making a living playing music; once he started getting paid, however, he began to focus on getting better, and he soon found himself playing alongside titans of the genre who were all making their bones around the same time: Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams, who dubbed him “Memphis Charlie.” He and the late John Lee Hooker grew so close that Hooker served as the best man at Musselwhite’s 1981 wedding to his wife, Henrietta. By then, he had moved to San Francisco after releasing the 1966 gem “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” and alcohol was beginning to cause more problems than it eased worries, he says.

“It was interesting, because I could be just as drunk one night, and someone I was talking to wouldn’t know I was drinking at all, and then the next night, I might be sloppy and slurring my words and stumbling around,” he says. “I would finish a tune and then call that tune again because I didn’t realize I had just done it. Or I would be in the middle of a tune taking a solo and realize, ‘I don’t know what this tune is!’ I’d have to lean over and ask the bass player what we were playing.”

Sobriety on the West Coast

In 1987, he made the decision to quit, but he knew that going cold turkey could lead to a medical crisis. He made a plan to cut back and stuck to it, he adds.

“I would wake up in the morning and wait another hour before having that first drink,” he says. “I remember getting all the way to noon and it being a really big deal, and I eventually got to where I wasn’t drinking at all before I got up on stage. That was the last hurdle. I had to get to where I could feel OK getting on stage and not having to get drunk.”

Around the same time, he and his family moved from a rough neighborhood in Richmond, Calif., to Santa Rosa; across the street from the new house they rented, a group of sober alcoholics held meetings, and Musselwhite took the proximity as a sign. He started attending, and while he seldom spoke up, he listened. He’s always been a good listener; that trait has made him one of the most respected bluesmen still playing, because he knows when to jump in and when to fade back. He put those listening skills to work in the rooms and found inspiration in the stories of other alcoholics who had found a new way to live.

Between meetings and abstinence, his life began to get better. On the West Coast, he was an honorary blues figurehead, and as the lines began to blur between various forms of popular music, both his contemporaries and younger musicians began to seek his input on their own projects. Bonnie Raitt and the Blind Boys of Alabama won Grammys for albums that featured Musselwhite’s playing, and his harmonica can be heard on everything from Tom Waits’ esoteric “Mule Variations” to the frantically mean intro to “Suicide Blonde” by the Australian rock band INXS. After a lengthy career with Alligator Records, he and his wife now run Henrietta Records, on which he’s put out four albums, and he’s continued to push the boundaries of the blues as well as explore other forms of music.

Through it all, he’s never forgotten where he came from, he adds.

“After I got sober, I was traveling so much that I didn’t go to meetings much — occasionally, for an anniversary or something, or sometimes I might go if somebody had invited me, but it’s reassuring to know that it’s always there if I need to go,” he says. “I’m always on my own case all the time anyhow! There’s a meeting all the time going on in my head, and I can never forget how awful I used to feel, and how much better everything is now.

'It just keeps getting better'

Ben Harper (left) and Charlie Musselwhite | courtesy of Dan Monick

“And it just keeps getting better. Everything in my life got better as soon as I quit drinking. It was like God said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be good now? Well here’s a few good things for you!’”

The principles by which he lives are still being preached in the rooms of 12 Step programs around the country, and that’s as good a place to start for a newly sober alcoholic as any, he says. While he never went to rehab, he doesn't knock it; when a recovering alcoholic gets out, however, he hopes they keep in mind that the meetings are what worked for him. He encourages them to try out different meetings in order to find the one that resonates, and above all, to remain grateful and never forget the misery at the bottom of the bottle.

“I don’t forget how awful it was; that memory is vivid, and I think it’s good not to bury that and forget about it,” he says. “I want to remember, so I can appreciate and be grateful for how great it is now. I’m incredibly grateful, and even with almost 31 years, it still feels new.”




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