After 50 years of playing his harmonica everywhere from Mississippi to San Francisco, Charlie Musselwhite is no less blue than he was during his days performing with John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters on the south side of Chicago. It’s “a deep, indelible indigo blue,” according to his most recent musical partner, Ben Harper.
The pair are set to release their second album as a duo, No Mercy in This Land, on March 30, with a batch songs at once soaked in the earliest traditions of blues music and written for modern times. “It’s all there—nothing’s left out,” Musselwhite said during the duo’s performance this week at the Paste Studio in New York. “It’s the blues, it’s got the feeling, but it’s in a new package—brand new, 21st century, right-now, accessible to everybody.”
No Mercy in This Land, the follow-up to 2015’s Grammy-winning Get Up!, finds the 48-year Harper and the 74-year-old Musselwhite digging deeper into personal stories of loss and hope, with a title track that references the murder of Musselwhite’s mother in 2005 and a “love song” called “I Trust You to Dig My Grave.” Harper’s subtle slide guitar and Musselwhite’s aching harp are accentuated with a few roadhouse rhythms here and there, balancing the album on that thin line of sadness and exuberance that the best blues music evokes.
“The blues just ain’t sad,” Musselwhite said. “It’s your buddy when you’re up and your comforter when you’re down. It’s always there for you.”
Though Harper does most of the singing on the album, his crackling tenor still instantly recognizable, Musselwhite steals much of the show with his deep-worn, lived-in harp lines. At Paste, Harper turned the spotlight on his elder partner. “If anything,” he said, “my singing and my guitar-playing is the accompaniment to Charlie’s harmonica. Getting to play with Charlie is proof that dreams aren’t only for sleeping. It’s a dream realized for me during the day, wide awake. Charlie takes my blues and makes it indelible. Charlie’s an indelible blue. I’m more like a sky blue.”
Watch Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite perform at Paste, and find their upcoming tour dates here. Also, check out Paste’s vault of exclusive live blues recordings going back more than 50 years here.