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A Town This Size

Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite explores his Memphis roots with One Night In America.



"In a town this size, there's no place to hide.

Everywhere you go, you meet someone you know.

You can't steal a kiss in a place like this.

How the rumors do fly in a town this size."

-- from "In a Town This Size" by Kieran Kane

Though he was born smack-dab in the middle of Mississippi, in Kosciusko, Charlie Musselwhite grew up in Memphis. So, while his voice is pure Delta -- words drip off his tongue like molasses -- Musselwhite is, by all accounts, a city boy. From Memphis, he migrated to Chicago as a teenager in 1962 -- "like thousands of others," he says, "after those big factory jobs" -- then, five years later, headed west to northern California.

In Chicago, he hooked up with Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson, dislocated Mississippians who'd also made the migration north. Musselwhite played harmonica, and he began sitting in on gigs with the bluesmen until, in his words, "it just got better and better. I decided I should start paying attention. This is my way out of the factory." He recorded an album in '67, Vanguard's Stand Back! Here Comes Charley [sic] Musselwhite's Southside Band, which -- gritty voice, brash harp, and all -- launched a career that has spanned more than three decades.

Musselwhite, however, maintains that those early days in Memphis influenced him the most, and he reinforces the sentiment on his latest album (his 26th), One Night In America. Here, he's taken 12 seemingly disparate songs and used them to build a story -- his story -- of childhood in Memphis. "All the tunes capture the feeling of the times I remember from the '40s and '50s," Musselwhite says. "It was all I knew."

While the album provides an aural snapshot, it helps to drive by his old house and really get a sense of the place. Musselwhite grew up on tiny Manhattan Avenue, a block off Summer Avenue in northeast Memphis. The run-down neighborhood behind Leahy's Trailer Court -- Baltic Street, Pacific Avenue, Gracewood Street -- still reeks of blue-collar life: crowded working-class bungalows surrounded by the seedy urban sprawl of secondhand furniture stores and acres of used-car lots. It's an area that, on the surface, hasn't changed much in the last 50 years, a neighborhood that exerts a tight hold over its people. It's hard to imagine a teenager here with big dreams of any sort.

Yet this is a town where poor boys are known for making their fantasies reality, and even in the neighborhood behind Leahy's, there were a few who made it: rockabillies like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who also resided on Manhattan Avenue, and Johnny Cash, who lived a block north on Tutwiler.

"Where I grew up," Musselwhite remembers, "music was everywhere" -- on the radio, at revival meetings, downtown on street corners, in houses and clubs. And just across Cypress Creek, there was a black neighborhood. Despite the prevalent racial divisions of that time, the area held an inexplicable fascination for Musselwhite.

One of Musselwhite's first friends was a black boy named Clydell who, like young Charlie, played the harmonica. It was difficult for the two to get together, and Musselwhite relates a story that, half a century later, still burns him: "One day I made the mistake of going into the grocery store where Clydell worked to talk with him. It never occurred to me that I was getting him into trouble or doing something wrong, but they called him in the back. The lady who owned the place marched up the aisle with her arms folded, and she really told me off: It wasn't right for me to be friendly with black people, and I've got my place and he's got his place. I was stunned. I sure didn't mean to get him into trouble," Musselwhite says softly, and suddenly his version of "In a Town This Size" takes on a whole new meaning.

Musselwhite still managed to learn some music from Clydell and from Furry Lewis and jug-band impresario Will Shade, who lived at the east end of Beale Street. "I'd ride the bus downtown, sit around someone's house drinking and playing music," Musselwhite recalls. "I'd get 78s from the Salvation Army and the used-furniture stores, and I naturally gravitated toward blues. It just seemed to make so much sense to me. It was how I felt. When I heard that, I understood it, that feeling."

"The beauty of the blues," he explains, "is how it can adapt itself to anything. Twelve bars and three chords is one of the most convenient ways to play, but that doesn't have to be the end of it."

It's no surprise, then, that Musselwhite samples blues, country, hillbilly, and rock-and-roll on One Night In America and effortlessly melds these styles, his own early musical education providing the common ground. He has help: Guitarists Robben Ford, G.E. Smith, and Marty Stuart, bassist T-Bone Wolk, and drummer Per Hanson work together to supply the rootsy base, while Christine Ohlman and Kelly Willis provide sweet accompaniment to Musselwhite's rust-coated vocals and acoustic harp riffs. Musselwhite's most famous childhood neighbor is represented here in a rousing rendition of "Big River."

"I used to see Cash driving by all the time in his Thunderbird," Musselwhite recalls. "Johnny seemed like he was one of us and was singing about the life we knew."

Ivory Joe Hunter is here, too, and Musselwhite's shuffling version of the local R&B star's country-soul weeper "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" is superb. Jaunty lyrics aside, it's one of many dark and lonely moments on the album. The solitary mood continues in the original numbers "In Your Darkest Hour" and "Ain't It Time?," songs that Musselwhite admits are about himself or friends he knew. The gospel standard "Rank Strangers to Me" also gets the lonesome touch. "I grew up feeling like that," Musselwhite says with a laugh, while his take on Jimmy Reed's "Ain't That Lovin' You Baby" provides a hard-rockin' finish.

"I saw Jimmy Reed at the Cadillac Club," Musselwhite recalls. He then exclaims, "You know, Memphis has destroyed more history than most places in America ever had. They almost destroyed Beale Street and would have if somebody hadn't thought about making money. They had not an ounce of compassion for the music or the people. That was a real wonderful neighborhood," he says, and then immediately corrects himself: "It was actually pretty awful -- poor and run down -- and I spent a lot of time down there and saw a lot of poverty. But, instead of tearing it all down, they could've fixed it. It didn't change the situation to tear it down."

Oddly enough, it's a cover of a Los Lobos song that best sums up his childhood memories: "A quiet voice is singing something to me," Musselwhite croons in a gravelly voice, "an age-old song about the home of the brave in this land here of the free." Its driving beat compromised by a blast of downhearted lyrics, the song captures all the ups and downs of the working-class neighborhood behind Leahy's -- "One Time One Night" in Charlie Musselwhite's Memphis.

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