Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite Burn in Hell
Had it not been Labor Day – and had we not been trying to hook up by phone for days already – perhaps I might have Googled Ben Harper for background. I’d have certainly discovered common ground. As it was, the guitarist squeezed in a 30-minute call from the airport between flights. Harper and harp great Charlie Musselwhite blow out Stubb’s Wednesday.
Austin Chronicle: You’re calling me and traveling to a gig. You’re obviously working on Labor Day.
Ben Harper: Uh, yeah – yeah. I’m coming in from the Res[ervation], Pine Ridge in South Dakota.
AC: Do you have a gig this evening?
BH: I don’t. My gig was skateboarding with some Native American kids.
AC: Are you the type that works every day – constantly working – or do you know how to step off and shut everything down?
BH: I’m learning how to pull back a little back as of late. It feels good. It feels right.
AC: What’s happened that you’ve decided to do this?
BH: I think my life was out of balance as far as how much time I was putting into.... You know you’ve crossed the line when social media causes you to be anti-social.
AC: What was your first paying job?
BH: My real first paying job was boxing groceries in junior high school and high school.
AC: Where was that?
BH: I went to high school at Claremont High, in the Inland Empire, class of 1987.
AC: Claremont, California?
BH: There’s two Claremonts, one towards San Diego and then one toward the California desert. I grew up in the one closer to the desert.
AC: Wow, no kidding. I went to Pomona College [in Claremont].
BH: [Laughs] You gotta be kidding. That’s just... too good.
AC: Do you remember a record store there in Claremont called Stoutboy?
BH: Yeah, I remember Stoutboy. I more know Rhino Records.
AC: I bought a lot of records and posters in both those places, what about you?
BH: Oh absolutely. My very first records, Rhino Records. My family owns a music store there in town called the Folk Music Center.
AC: I passed it many, many times.
BH: Yeah, it’s pretty much the coolest music store on the planet. It’s a certified music instrument museum as well as musical instrument artifacts. It’s a real cool place. There’s not another like it.
AC: What year did it open?
BH: Nineteen fifty-eight. And it’s still serving the community today.
AC: Should you have stuck around to run the family business?
BH: Well, I actually am in the family business in a satellite and sometimes not-so-far-out way. I’m hands on in the family business.
AC: Amazing. I walked by it all those years.
BH: That’s what’s great about the Claremont Colleges. The distance between [Pomona’s] Coop [Store] and the downtown area of Claremont is just a matter of a block.
AC: Did you spend much time on the Pomona campus?
BH: Oh, are you kidding me? There’s not a corridor of that campus I don’t know of. Not a parking lot. All through skateboarding and BMXing and then playing the open mics there as an older teenager. I traversed those halls. Actually, we used to see how long we could play “ditch” in the Pomona College indoor facilities before we’d get thrown out.
AC: Oh shit. Does that mean you’d go drink beer at the Wash?
BH: Oh yeah. We’d be at the Wash. [Laughs] I’ve been going to the Wash since I can remember. How ’bout that, the Wash. I can’t believe I’m talking to you about the Wash.
AC: Me either.... Was there any good music on the campus? I remember going to see Lucille Ball and Cary Grant, but not any concerts.
BH: I’ve seen everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Bridges Auditorium.
AC: I first saw you in Austin in the early Nineties – at Liberty Lunch – for your first album. There were more guitars onstage than people in the audience. Do you remember that?
BH: I remember it like it was yesterday. Liberty Lunch, that was actually the second time I played Austin. First time I played Austin was 1994, South by Southwest, opening up for Sam Phillips in the street.
AC: What do you remember of that experience? South by Southwest’s obviously become a much bigger deal since then.
BH: Yeah, what I remember is everyone running around the streets acting like they discovered Austin [laughs]. Like it hadn’t always been this cool. I also remember the locals going, “Oh shit.” I remember everyone being very excited about it. They could kinda see the future [of the event] in a really cool way. It worked. Everyone was in the streets, just carrying on. I had a special feeling about it that first time, where I said to myself, “Yeah, this is a cool thing.”
‘Cause I had done the CMJ festival and a few other of those at that point, but South by Southwest had a very sincere musical agenda that I appreciated. It didn’t feel like you had to go and take a shower after it. You felt like you wanted to get back out in the street. That’s a real good thing.
AC: Beside appearing with Natalie Maines at it this past March, had you been back?
BH: Oh yeah, time and again. Probably a half-dozen times or so. It’s kind of like the Sundance Film Festival now, but it still has. . . . When you walk around, you see people sharing earbuds. No one looks miserable to be there. People still seem to be there for the music. That’s my outsider perspective anyway. Bands are still excited to get there, from Metallica to your upstarts.
It has meaning. I’ve never been disappointed being there, and I’ve seen everyone from Beck to Emmylou Harris to Alejandro Escovedo. I’ve seen some of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen at South by Southwest. Willie Nelson – I sat in with Willie! [Laughs] I’ve got no South by complaints. I love it!
AC: Whenever anyone mentions Willie, locals are charged with the follow-up question: Did you make it onto the bus?
BH: Oh yeah, I’ve been on the bus with Willie.
AC: And did you wobble off? Does he have the best weed of anyone, or what?
BH: Oddly, we just spent so much time talking that nobody even thought to light up, because we were just telling stories about other people. I’ve played poker with Willie. He’s a monster poker player. The man will take all your money.
AC: Well yeah, he’s got to pay for all that weed!
BH: [Laughs] At this point, I’m sure someone’s just giving it to him.
AC: Your new album with Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up!, that’s some deep stone blues. When was the first time you came across him in your musical education?
BH: It was probably when I was 12, working in my family’s music store. No, no – even before that. My mom and dad had his records. If your music has made it through my family’s filter, you’re probably really, really good.
My first introduction to Charlie, I don’t even know that I was 12 – 10 maybe, 9. I was stealing my parents’ records for years. What was happening was I was starting to wear grooves inside the grooves and scratch their records. ‘Cause when they would leave, I’d just play all their records.
I’ll never forget, Charlie had a record called Memphis Charlie, and it had a cartoon on the front. I was a kid, so I loved cartoons, but I also loved this illustrated, R. Cumb-looking cover. I played that record and remember just loving it. The first song on there is called “Talking Your Time” and it’s a 12-minute instrumental or something. I’ll never forget thinking to myself, “Is that a harmonica or a guitar?,” ‘cause I had never heard a harmonica sound like that.
In my family’s music store, people would come through, and it was the Rambling Jack Elliot school. Or the Bob Dylan sound. Charlie’s record was the first time I heard a harmonica amped up like that. Even before Little Walter, I heard Charlie as a kid, so it was a discovery for me.
AC: When did you first meet Charlie?
BH: John Lee Hooker was playing at a legendary club across the [Golden Gate] Bridge in Marin called the Sweetwater [Music Hall]. The club was struggling and John Lee Hooker was playing there for a week, I think, to raise funds for them. And John Lee and Charlie were best friends. John Lee was the best man at Charlie’s wedding.
So Charlie was sitting in, ‘cause Charlie’s a Northern California guy, and so’s John. Charlie introduced John to Northern California. Anyway, so Charlie’s sitting in on those shows, and John Lee invited me to open up two or three of them. He’d heard my first record and said, “Yeah, give this kid the opening gig.” ‘Cause John Lee was a big music lover – people would hip him to music.
I’ll never forget combing through John Lee Hooker’s music collection. He had Ry Cooder and John Fahey records in his collection. It was really cool. I got to know John and hang out with him.
So that’s where I first got to know Charlie, opening up for John. I was nobody. I mean, I was less than nobody – I was the opening act. And John Lee and Charlie were great to me, better than I deserve, letting me hang out backstage with them.
Then, about a year later, Charlie and I were both booked on an Australian festival called the Byron Bay Blues Festival, which has become a world famous flashpoint for great music. And he and I really hit it off. That’s when we became friends and started exchanging stories.
About six months – a year – after that, John Lee Hooker invited Charlie and I to play on what would be his last studio record. From that collaboration, John Lee pulled both of us aside and said, “You guys sound really good together. You should do that. That’s something you two should look into.”
That’s how this record was born. We talked about it for freakin’ 15 years until we were actually able to do it.
AC: Fifteen years is a long gestation period. Where you thinking it was never gonna happen and finally the clouds parted and it did?
BH: Just the opposite, other than the clouds parting. We just always knew it would. When you’ve got two core working musicians that just rarely, if ever, look over their shoulders, it took that long for both of our schedules to clear and that proverbial cloud to part. And they cleared and we did as well.
AC: For a guitarist, what are the dynamics of dueting with a harmonica.
BH: There’s a great intersecting point for guitar and harmonica, and if you’re aware of that tradition and where those two meet, you can get right to it and it’s seamless. I’ve studied and played the blues and Charlie is the blues. Period. I’ve gone a lot of different places, but blues is the foundation of everything I’ve done, so I think that was a bridge just waiting to be completed as far as the two of us intersecting in this way. Neither one of us had to tell the other what to play or where to put our instrument. It was just there. I think that’s what John Lee – to bring it full circle – heard and felt from us on the track we did for him, called “Burn in Hell.” It was just waiting to happen.
AC: Speaking of just waiting to happen, you played on the KLRU Lloyd Maines tribute in May. Where did you come in contact with his work?
BH: First time I heard Lloyd Maines was in listening to early Joe Ely records. Once again, if you make it into my family’s record collection, you doing something real right, ‘cause they’re not purists, but if they have Bruce Springsteen, of course they’d have The River, but they’d also have Nebraska. They had Clash records. They had Blind Willie Johnson records [laughs]. My family’s very core in what they love, musically, so that’s when I first came in contact with him.
Lloyd was the first pedal steel player that had Duane Allman tendencies. It was more than the bends. It was the sense of melody and the richness in tone. He really bridged that gap for me when I started working backwards, from learning the instrument to researching and listening to the great players. Among steel players, everybody knows Lloyd – David Lindley, Ry Cooder – everybody. He’s one of the pillars of that instrument.
AC: When did you first meet Lloyd?
BH: I first met him with Natalie [Maines]. Here’s a crazy story. My family’s music store, the Folk Music Center, has concerts every weekend. Joe Ely was playing there with Lloyd, but I missed them by a day, because I had to run off on tour, so I left just my greetings and salutations for them. They recorded the show for me, so when I came back from tour, they had done a video of Joe and Lloyd playing in my family’s music store. There was just a very thin layer between us at that point, so we were kind of on a crash course.
Once I started working with Nat – and it was great getting to work with Nat – but boy, as a steel player, getting to work with her dad was just one of the great honors. It’s funny, when I first met Nat, one of the first things I said to her was, “Hey, you think you could introduce me to your dad?” You think I’d be, “Hey, can you introduce me to the other [Dixie] Chicks?” It was like, no, “Think you could introduce me to your dad?”
AC: Where did you and Natalie meet?
BH: We met in the neighborhood. We had a mutual friend in Southern California. I was friends with a dear friend of Nat’s, and our kids would meet at that mutual friend’s house, because they had kids. All our kids would convene at that house.
AC: Thanks for your time today, Ben. Never thought I’d say the words “the Wash” to a musician.
BH: [Laughs] You know, my dad used to be the Dean of Student Activities at Pitzer College [one of the five Claremont Colleges]. He put on the very first concert at the Wash.
AC: Pitzer, all the right hippie values!
BH: [Laughs] Exactly. Where everyone from Pomona went to party.