Charlie Musselwhite’s romance with the blues was just about inevitable. He was born in Kosciusko, Miss., he grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and he can hardly remember a time when the music wasn’t part of his life. “I just gravitated toward it,” says the well-regarded harmonica player and vocalist, who comes to the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on Saturday as part of the “Celebrating the Blues” tour. “I was always listening to the radio and playing records, and I got to know a lot of the musicians around Memphis,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a professional – I just loved the music. It felt so good to listen to it, and it felt even better to play it.”
Musselwhite, 60, is among the most respected blues artists around. His albums for such blues labels as Alligator and Blind Pig established his reputation, and at this point a lesser musician might be content to coast. But Musselwhite remains a musical explorer, as anyone who’s heard his latest release, “Sanctuary,” can attest. With its intriguingly atmospheric studio sound, it’s not surprising that the disc is Musselwhite’s debut on Real World, the world-music label established by art-rocker Peter Gabriel.
Not that musical categories matter that much to Musselwhite. “In my travels, I’ve discovered that every culture has its own music of lament,” he says. “Which is the music of the heart. And it seems like when I meet musicians from these cultures that play that kind of music, we can play together effortlessly.”
Charlie Musselwhite “Sanctuary” is a different kind of blues disc: traditional at its core, yet open to a wide range of influences. “With a strictly blues label, they probably would be scratching their heads over a lot of this stuff – which I’ve run into in other situations,” Musselwhite says. “I’ve heard comments like, ‘You’ll confuse the audience,’ or, ‘I just don’t get that.’ But with Real World, it’s like, do what you do. There are people who say it has to be 12 or eight bars and three chords – and if it doesn’t have those ingredients, it’s not blues. But I’ve always thought of the blues as a feeling more than anything else.”
The album’s opening tune, “Homeless Child,” has the sort of rough-hewn grandeur that’s only to be expected from the blues. It’s easy to imagine Musselwhite kicking back in front of a shack down South and watching the world go by. “Train to Nowhere” is the sort of song that Johnny Cash might have sung, and not just because it involves a locomotive. It’s a meditation on the arbitrariness of life, and Musselwhite strikes just the right note of ennui. It doesn’t hurt that he gets a stirring vocal assist from the Blind Boys of Alabama, who also back him up on the thumping, gospel-drenched “I Had Trouble.”
True to his open-eared aesthetic, Musselwhite covers the Randy Newman song “Burn Down the Cornfield.” Although the satirical Newman is about …