Bluesman Charlie Musselwhite bringing his legendary sound to Napa's Uptown Theatre

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IN CONCERT

What: Charlie Musselwhite and the North Mississippi All-Stars

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 19

Where: Uptown Theatre, 1350 Third St., Napa

Admission: $40-$60

Information: 259-0123, uptowntheatrenapa.com

There’s a soft, sweet hint of Memphis in every word Charlie Musselwhite murmurs, and a long, rich lifetime’s worth of blues in every harmonica note he plays, but don’t be sad for him.

“The blues don’t make you feel bad,” said Musselwhite, who turned 72 on Jan. 31. “The blues lift you up. The blues help get rid of that bad feeling. Life can be hard, but in the meantime, let’s party.”

Musselwhite, who broke into the Chicago blues scene as a teen-ager and eventually settled in Sonoma County in 1986, travels the world to perform, but every year he still makes time to play closer to home.

The grey-maned bluesman made a guest appearance on KRSH Radio in Santa Rosa just last week and will play live Friday, Feb. 19, at the Uptown Theatre in Napa with the North Mississippi All-Stars.

The veteran bluesman pulled in a whole new generation of fans with “Get Up,” his duo CD with 46-year-old singer-songwriter Ben Harper, which won a Grammy Award for blues album in 2014. Musselwhite had long since won over the baby boomer audience, starting with his “Stand Back!” album with the Southside Band, released in 1966 by Vanguard. The blues came naturally to Musselwhite, growing up as the only child of a single mother in Memphis, and although he’s also an accomplished singer and guitarist, the harmonica was his instrument of choice from the start.

“It seems like there was always a harmonica around the house,” he recalled. “It was a common toy. Every kid had a harmonica.”

Musselwhite started haunting music stores and buying sheet music. He recalls that “I accidentally taught myself how to read music” because he worked out a code for translating music for other instruments to versions he could play on the harmonica.

The blues came just as naturally as the harmonica. “Blues music was all around in Memphis, and on the radio,” he said. “I notice now in my travels around the world there’s always local music that is like blues, about good times and hard times. For some reason, there’s a lot great girl harmonica players in Brazil.”

When Musselwhite migrated north to Chicago, his love of the blues naturally led him to some of the most famous blues players of all time.

“At first, I was going to all of the clubs just as a blues fan, and I wasn’t asking to sit in. I didn’t tell anybody I played. I was happy just to be there. These guys ­— like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson — just thought of me as a fan, because I’d request tunes,” Musselwhite recalled.

“But one night in this club called Pepper’s Lounge, Muddy’s home club, this waitress I’d gotten to know real well told Muddy, ‘You oughta hear Charlie play harmonica.’ That changed everything. He insisted I sit in. A lot of musicians hung out at Pepper’s, and they heard me playing with Muddy, and they started offering me gigs. I was about 18.”

Settling down into an easy chair for an interview on the sun porch of his Victorian-style house in Geyserville, Musselwhite had dressed for the occasion in fresh jeans and a brand-new shirt, which he wore at the urging of his wife of 35 years, Henrietta.

IN CONCERT

What: Charlie Musselwhite and the North Mississippi All-Stars

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 19

Where: Uptown Theatre, 1350 Third St., Napa

Admission: $40-$60

Information: 259-0123, uptowntheatrenapa.com

“You’re looking good, Charlie,” Henrietta — “Henri” to everyone — told her husband as he rose to pose for a photograph.

“That’s the hardest part,” Charlie replied with a lazy grin.

Lanky and six feet tall, Musselwhite always seems affable and at ease. At his sold-out opening concert at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival two years ago, he and his pal, Oklahoma picker and grinner Elvin Bishop sat on stage trading jokes and stories as if the full-house audience of nearly 800 were just a group of friends who had dropped by Charlie’s living room for the evening.

But Musselwhite freely admits he was a bit of wild man in his younger days.

“I had a career in alcohol that I had to give up,” he said simply. “I quit drinking in 1987. I don’t have a problem going into a bar now to hear the music, and just have a big mug of club soda.”

Musselwhite explained his longevity as a musician, and as a man, with a similarly simple summation.

“I’m lucky and I’m healthy, and I always show up,” he said. “I think doing work that means something to you is way better than working at some job you hate. That’ll kill you.”

Musselwhite doesn’t espouse a particular religion but has maintained a lifelong interest in spirituality in general.

“I wasn’t raised in any one particular church,” he said. “We’d go to a Baptist church. We’d go to a synagogue. Anything around Memphis, my mom was just interested in all of them. I used to like the tent meetings later on. In the summertime, there’d be an empty lot somewhere, and they’d put up a tent and roll up the sides, because it was too hot. I would drive up right next to it and drink cold beer and listen to the music. It would be rockin’ great music.”

On the table next to Musselwhite’s chair stands a photo of the Dalai Lama. The musician said he’s never met the spiritual leader, but once shared an airplane with him.

“He was across the aisle and a couple of rows up from us, and I told Henri, ‘At least we know this plane isn’t going down.’”

Musselwhite’s understated personal style can backfire at times. In 2013, when he showed up to perform at the first BottleRock music festival in Napa, he was actually turned away at the front gate by a security guest who didn’t see his name on the list. The veteran musician’s response was typically relaxed.

“We just went to another gate,” he said.

You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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