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.
What: Charlie Musselwhite and the North Mississippi All-Stars
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 19
Where: Uptown Theatre, 1350 Third St., Napa
Information: 259-0123, uptowntheatrenapa.com