You really do have to be a living legend—supposed harp heir to Sonny Boy Williamson I, inspiration for Elwood Blues, and last living remnant of the Chicago blues scene of the ’50s and ’60s—to get the kind of sweet deal Charlie Musselwhite has in his (far from) declining years. You might catch him spicing up INXS’ “Suicide Blonde,” lending his considerable cred to the Black Snake Moan soundtrack, or taking home Grammy gold with a Ben Harper duets album, but when Memphis Charlie wants to get back to the basics, he just uses his own Henrietta label and plays singer, songwriter, and master blues harp man all at once. The results are usually refreshing, and immediate.
Musselwhite doesn’t deliver on I Ain’t Lyin’… quite like he did on his last Henrietta releases, Juke Joint Chapel and Darkest Hour, but that’s because there’s not nearly as much on the line. Having finally conquered his demons (read: addiction), Charlie is just out for a sober good time, and except for Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong,” he provides the subtext himself, nine originals that carom between endless variations of the I-IV-V, including smooth St. Louis strolls, Texas shuffles, Delta laments, and at least one genuine two-step in “My Kinda Gal.”
No surprises here at all, in other words, just a master at work—and Charlie’s harmonica sounds hotter than ever, perhaps because of his new focus. This may also be why he revisits what is arguably his signature song, a closing take on the track that first got him noticed in 1967, a version of Donald Byrd’s “Cristo Redentor.” It’s a little slower but even more self-assured, his tone stronger than ever but tempered by lessons hard won. The juke joint was always a chapel for Charlie, but as he enters his seventies, his confessionals feel more like feast days. Good for him.