When Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won the ‘Best Blues Album’ Grammy Award in 2014 for their first collaboration, Get Up!, Harper was ready to get on the ride all over again.
“I’d go into the studio tonight!” he said in his acceptance. Thus began the stirrings of the duo’s recently released second album, No Mercy In This Land.
“Winning that award was such a huge thing,” Harper says down the line from Washington. “I was in such disbelief. I guess what I meant when I said that is that Charlie and I, at that very moment, had only just begun… and what a beginning it was (laughs).
“The songwriting process began straight away, in as far as any song that was remotely blues-based I would stash away for Charlie, with the exception of one I wrote for Mavis Staples called Love And Trust, which actually did make it on this album but only after I gave it to Mavis years ago. The songwriting process was done post-haste, straight out of the shoot. I just figured that if Charlie and I were going to get back in the studio that I better put out a blues song on any other record but one we did together. But that gave me something to aim for.”
Several songs led the way, with Harper writing tunes that paid heed to Musselwhite’s standing as an iconic blues harmonica player and an old friend.
“The title track, No Mercy In This Land, and The Bottle Wins Again led the way for sure,” Harper notes. “I could’ve put out a blues album with those two songs and a bunch of filler on it. Of course, I’d never do that, but just with those two I knew we were onto something.
“Charlie is the reinforcement in this band. He plants the flag, the blues flag firmly in the ground. So when you hear that harmonica you know the blues is going to be coming at you – fast and furious or slow and deep.”
The Bottle Wins Again, written about one’s battle with said bottle, resonates widely but is deeply personal, given Musselwhite’s own struggles with alcoholism in the past. Upon hearing the track for the first time, his wife Henrietta commented, ‘That song was written by an alcoholic’.
Shortly after recording the song Harper himself stopped drinking. That he could write of the other party’s circumstance and then have it alter his own, says much of the friendship
“Very much so,” Harper notes. “If there’s friendship, there’s trust. And if there’s trust you can go out on a limb with that person; you know they’re not gonna bend the limb down but help balance it out.”
Harper has described the album as ‘a commitment to true blues’ and remembers well when the blues first called his name.
“Yeah, the blues jumped up and bit me when I was in my late teens and there was no turning back,” he says, revelling in the memory. “I heard Mississippi John Hurt for the first time as a young adult and it was all over. All over.”
Harper has previously pointed out that these days many people talk about the blues from an academic standpoint, but to him it's about feeling. Perhaps there’s too much talk about what is and isn’t blues?
“I think there is a lot of talk about it, but even that kind of talk helps define and clarify what is blues and what isn’t,” Harper considers. “There’s traditional blues and there’s modern blues and as long as there’s both and room to be both there’s gonna be purists and academics on both ends of it.
“I would imagine the early delta guys, some of them went kicking and screaming into the Chicago style and some of them couldn’t wait to get into the Chicago style. At that point imagine how the delta blues guys were reacting when Muddy and Wolf plugged in and upped the wattage. The guys paying Mississippi delta blues must’ve been freaking out going, ‘what is going on?’ And that’s okay but I love that blues is the stuff, and the ‘what-is-and-what-isn’t-blues? Do you have to feel the blues to be able to play it and do you have to be a certain colour to play it?’ All these conversations, purists and academia they’re all a part of the texture that’s in the conversation of blues but at the end of the day man, you press play and you can’t fool the blues. Regardless of where you fit or what your leanings are.”
Harper and Musselwhite first met at a show in 1993 and were introduced by none other than the late blues legend, John Lee Hooker. It seems the moment still gives him chills.
“It was heavy,” Harper recalls. “I walked in and put my guitars down. I was hoping to get a soundcheck and I looked over in the corner and there was John Lee and Charlie. I knew John Lee was going to be there, but I did not know that Charlie would be. The two of them together was more than I could take. You have to remember that at that point I had made it my life’s work to go out into the field and meet any blues legend that would have me. My life at that point was based solely around all things blues. My record collection, my playing my songwriting, the covers I was selecting.
“I met Blind Joe Hill, a famous LA blues musician; I met Brownie McGhee from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, I just went up and knocked on his door. I went and hung out with Louis Myers from The Four Aces and stayed with him in Chicago for a month in the wintertime. Taj Mahal was my first professional gig when I was 22.
“My whole life was this, so to walk in to two architects, one of the originators and one of the first inheritors, but both architects in their own right, it was a profound moment.”
It was the start of an incredible musical friendship borne of experience, ability and respect. The lessons have been fruitful.
“What have we taught each other, man?” Harper ponders. “I think we’ve taught each other that the blues is still able to expand. And remain blue. I guess Charlie and I figured that people seemed resigned that blues had arrived in its full evolution and I like to think that Charlie and I showed each other that the blues still had room to grow into the 21st century. One foot in tradition and one foot in the future.”
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite perform at the Perth Concert Hall on Monday, July 16. Tickets via perthconcerthall.com.au.