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For Musselwhite, the healing blues

Nick Cristiano, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Friday, September 10, 2010, 2:05 AM

Charlie Musselwhite will be at the World Cafe Live on Wednesday. He wrote all the songs in his new album.

One of the many highlights of The Well, Charlie Musselwhite's stirring new album, is a song called "Sad and Beautiful World." Featuring his old friend Mavis Staples on guest vocals, it was inspired by the murder of his 93-year-old mother in her Memphis home in 2005.

The key line is: "Let the blues heal what's been torn apart."

For Musselwhite, the blues more than any other music is all about healing and survival.

"That's the nature of the blues," the 66-year-old singer, songwriter, guitarist and harmonica virtuoso says over the phone from a bus near Portland, Ore., while touring with Cyndi Lauper. "It's all about how to deal with life. It can get you through anything."

For example, he adds with a laugh, "a country and western song would be: 'My baby left me and I'm gonna jump off a bridge.' In the blues it's: 'My baby left me and I'm gonna find a new baby.' "

With The Well, Musselwhite shows how traditional, straight-up blues remains a powerful vehicle for deeply personal expression. He wrote all the songs, and they deal with various aspects of a life that has taken him from his birth in Mississippi on to Memphis and then to Chicago, where he learned the blues from giants such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter.

"Rambler's Blues" is about his undying urge to roam ("I practically live on the road," he says); "Where Hwy 61 Runs" stems from memories of the Mississippi Delta; and "Cook County Blues" recounts one of his arrests in Chicago.

"Dig the Pain" offers Musselwhite's philosophy for dealing with tough times. That leads into "The Well," which tells of a pivotal moment in his life: when he took control of his alcohol addiction. It started with the story of Jessica McClure, the young girl who fell into a well in Texas. Trapped in his own well of "trouble, worry, and fear," as he puts it in the song, Musselwhite was struck by the girl's courage and vowed not to take a drink until she was rescued. Three days later she was, and, as Musselwhite tells it, so was he. He hasn't had a drink in the 22 years since.

"It was amazing. Almost immediately every part of my life improved," says Musselwhite, who can appreciate the irony of now living in California's Sonoma Valley - "surrounded by vineyards."

At first it was uncomfortable to perform sober, he says, but that passed.

"Thinking about quitting was actually harder than quitting," he says. "If I can do it, anybody can do it."

Charlie Musselwhite, with the Zach Caruso Band, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. Tickets: $27 and $37 in advance; $30 and $40 day of show. Phone: 215-222-1400.

Nick Cristiano, Inquirer Staff Writer

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