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There’s a moment in the title song of the new Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite album called No Mercy In This Land. A mere few seconds that powerfully capture the friendship and unique collaboration between the two storied musicians. The music, a primal and intimate blues, stops with the exception for a sustained organ note. Musselwhite, survivor and harmonica virtuoso, cohort of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter in the early sixties, life nearly ended by alcohol and other maladies, leans in and delivers the lines, “Father left us down here all alone, my poor mother is under a stone. With an aching heart and trembling hands, is there no mercy in this land.” And with those words, that weary voice, you can hear it all – the highs and lows, the adventures, the sadness and all the loss.
“I never asked Ben about the lyrics,” Charlie reflects, “but my mom was a single mom and I was an only child. And the line, ‘my poor mother is under a stone,’ well, she was murdered. So she's gone and she's under a stone. This is personal to me. It's the essence of blues. People talk about the blues from an academic standpoint, but to me it's about feeling. And that feeling there is pure. That song moves me every time.”
Ben says the two never discussed the meaning of the lyrics. “It's fragile territory what he went through with his mom,” Ben says. “I was scared to bring that to him, because I know what happened. And that line, it’s me being affected by my friend and what happened to him. With Charlie, some things I pick up on are spoken and some are unspoken, but we know a lot about each other. But the deepest part of our friendship doesn't need to be said. “No Mercy In This Land,” that song is for Charlie. It’s gotta hurt sometimes. I take this shit seriously.”
No Mercy In This Land is a blues record. Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper were introduced to one another by John Lee Hooker. The legendary musician thought the two men should play together, so he brought them into the studio to record a song called simply “Burnin' Hell.” The two remained friends and their paths periodically crossed out there on the road. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the two met up in a studio to record what would be their Grammy-winning album Get Up!. And as good as that record was, it was just the beginning. They both agree that their friendship deepened in the many months of touring that followed. And it’s that bond, that closeness, that makes this new record something special. “That first record happened in the studio,” Charlie says, “But then we toured together for nearly two years and it just kept getting better and better, the musical rapport, the band, the two of us personally. When we finally headed back into the studio we were just charged, ready to go, the songs were jumping out like wild horses ready to run.”
“Everything I've ever done has had one foot in the blues,” Ben says. “There has never been any doubt in my mind that if Charlie and I are on the planet together, we are going to be making music. The last record kicked the door open, but it was just the beginning. At this moment, I don't think I could make a better record than this. I mean that.” At first glance, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite might seem an unlikely pairing. While Ben grew up in in the tree lined Southern California college town of Claremont, a bastion of culture and liberalism just east of Los Angeles, Charlie was raised in Memphis during the time of rockabilly and Sun Records.
But while the two might have come to their musical knowledge in different eras and places, as Charlie explains, “We were both searchers and we’re still seeking.” Each of them possess an enduring hunger for musical knowledge that came to them early. Charlie recounts a youth spent scavenging local junk stores for old 78 rpm blues records. “I would discover all this other music too,” he says. “Anything that would look interesting, I found all kinds of music that had a feeling that reminded me of the blues. Greek music, Arabic music, Flamenco and Gypsy music. I found out that every culture had its music of lament. The songs all have the same kinds of experiences that blues singers talk about.”
With an induction into the Blues Music Hall of Fame, 35 Blues Music Awards (including three wins in 2014!) and 11 Grammy nominations (including a 2014 win!), American electric blues harmonica player and bandleader Charlie Musselwhite has truly earned legendary status as one of blues music¹s most important artists.
One of the non-black bluesmen who came to prominence in the early 1960s (alongside Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, among others), Musselwhite was reportedly the inspiration for Dan Aykroyd's character in The Blues Brothers. He was born in Mississippi but spent his formative years in Memphis, TN during the period when rockabilly, western swing, electric blues and other forms of African American music were combining to give birth to rock and roll. Musselwhite supported himself by digging ditches, laying concrete and running moonshine in a 1950 Lincoln automobile. This environment was Musselwhite¹s school for music, as well as life, and where he acquired the nickname "Memphis Charlie."
In true bluesman fashion, Musselwhite then took off to Chicago, where he continued his education on the South Side, making the acquaintance of even more legends including Lew Soloff, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Big Walter Horton. Musselwhite immersed himself completely in the musical life, living in the basement of Big Joe Williams and forging a lifelong friendship with JohnLee Hooker. In time, Musselwhite led his own blues band and in 1966 released the legendary Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band. Since then, Musselwhite has released over 25 albums, as well as guesting on albums by many other notable musicians including Bonnie Raitt, INXS, Tom Waits and The Blind Boys of Alabama, among others. Musselwhite recently teamed up with Ben Harper on Get Up! — the long time coming collaboration that took home the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2014.