Charlie Musselwhite

Released 12 October 2003

  1. Homeless Child
  2. My Road Lies In Darkness
  3. Burn Down The Cornfield
  4. Train To Nowhere
  5. Shootin' For The Moon
  6. Shadow People
  7. Snake Song
  8. The Neighbourhood
  9. Alicia
  10. Sanctuary
  11. I Had Trouble
  12. Route 19 (Attala County, Mississippi)

Liner notes

On this musical excursion — his debut release with Real World Records — American blues legend Charlie Musselwhite explores the themes that have always charged the potency of the blues: loneliness, despair, evil, and dying. He casts a steady light on these shadowy topics, re-connecting the blues idiom to the haunting emotions that resonated so powerfully in its earliest incarnations. Ironically he draws inspiration for this blues from its most notorious offspring, rock and roll.

Through his own autobiographical originals, and on tunes by such artists as Ben Harper, Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman, Musselwhite looks to the deepest of humanity’s struggles. Savoy Brown’s “Train to Nowhere” describes a man headed to hell and so numb with despair that he doesn’t even care, despite the Blind Boys of Alabama exhorting “don’t you ride that train!” With Ben Harper he laments, “what is left for the homeless child”, while a Charlie Sexton original contributes “it’s raining pain and thundering fright in my neighborhood tonight.”

Sanctuary finds Charlie coming farther forward as a vocalist, with the warm but spooky qualities of his natural timbre bringing comfort to unsettling subjects. His deep voice and calm delivery evoke Leonard Cohen or the late Lou Reed, but with enough tinge of a drawl to never stray far from — or let the listener forget — Charlie’s strong Southern roots and Memphis influences.

The album’s instrumentals also contribute to this journey. The short, starkly beautiful “Route 19” — fittingly the final selection — is about the Mississippi rural highway along which lies the Musselwhite Cemetery. This and two other tunes, including Eddie Harris’ beautiful “Alicia,” help sustain the album’s melancholy ambience.

But even in this dark musical underworld there is refuge and redemption to be found, if bittersweet. On the title track, Charlie takes a song from the Obie-winning musical The Gospel at Colonus and shows that a blues song can help light the path to salvation, where “unending pain ends for me.” Another original, “I Had Trouble,” resounds not with lament but with celebration.

The Sanctuary Band, assembled for the first time for these sessions, was a legend in the making. Led by Austin guitar ace Charlie Sexton (ex-teen phenomenon, and then on the road with Dylan and in countless sessions), the ensemble features the rhythm section of Jared Michael Nickerson (leader of New York collective Burnt Sugar, who has toured with Bernie Worrall, The The and the Yohimbe Brothers), and Michael Jerome (currently with the Pleasure Club, and who has recorded and toured with Richard Thompson and the Blind Boys of Alabama). The dialogue going on between Charlie Musselwhite and this world-class trio, captured by producer John Chelew (Blind Boys of Alabama, John Hiatt) at Capitol’s legendary Studio B — one of Hollywood’s most storied studios — is one of the most fascinating and palpable sub-plots of this great recording.

In an era where even the blues seems affected by the feel-good fluff of the 1990s, Sanctuary is refreshingly real. In the same way that the early blues of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, or Muddy Waters was not afraid to moan and wail, this CD tries to find comfort in the expression of pain and struggle, instead of diluting it with sweetened optimism. Sanctuary, through its stories of real emotion, provides the kind of comfort that comes from the honesty of the telling.


Further Listening

  • Delta Hardware

    Charlie Musselwhite

    Released 01 May 2006

    The songs on Delta Hardware feel rough-hewn and tough, just as they should for a guy ‘born in Mississippi and raised up in Tennessee.’ Charlie cuts loose a good time in Clarksdale, pipes up for the downtrodden, and gives a lover the ol' heave-ho. This is raw, passionate music from a howlin' blues legend.
  • Champagne and Grits

    Little Axe

    Released 19 September 2004

    Little Axe is the project Ohio musician Skip McDonald started in the early 1990s to reconnect himself with the blues of his childhood. His dad, a bluesman and steel mill worker, taught him blues guitar before he was ten years old.

Further reading

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Tree is set for release on vinyl, CD and digitally via Real World Records on 22 September 2023.

Sheila Chandra companion listening release: Out in the Real World

Out in the Real World, is a digital-only collection of remixes, demo recordings and outlier tracks.

Track of the day: ‘Steal’ by Bob Holroyd. Remixed by Luca Bacchetti

Originally released as part of the Mangled Pianos single last summer, ‘Steal’ has been reworked...

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