There’s a moment in the title song of the new Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite album called No Mercy In This Land. A mere few seconds that powerfully capture the friendship and unique collaboration between the two sto-ried musicians. The music, a primal and intimate blues, stops with the exception for a sustained organ note. Musselwhite, survivor and harmonica virtuoso, co-hort of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter in the early sixties, life nearly ended by alcohol and other maladies, leans in and delivers the lines, “Fa-ther left us down here all alone, my poor mother is under a stone. With an aching heart and trembling hands, is there no mercy in this land.” And with those words, that weary voice, you can hear it all - the highs and lows, the adventures, the sadness and all the loss.
“I never asked Ben about the lyrics,” Charlie reflects, “but my mom was a single mom and I was an only child. And the line, ‘my poor mother is under a stone,’ well, she was murdered. So she's gone and she's under a stone. This is personal to me. It's the essence of blues. People talk about the blues from an academic standpoint, but to me it's about feeling. And that feeling there is pure. That song moves me every time.”
Ben says the two never discussed the meaning of the lyrics. “It's fragile territory what he went through with his mom,” Ben says. “I was scared to bring that to him, because I know what happened. And that line, it’s me being affect-ed by my friend and what happened to him. With Charlie, some things I pick up on are spoken and some are unspoken, but we know a lot about each other. But the deepest part of our friendship doesn't need to be said. “No Mercy In This Land,” that song is for Charlie. It’s gotta hurt sometimes. I take this shit seri-ously.”
No Mercy In This Land is a blues record. Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper were introduced to one another by John Lee Hooker. The legendary musician thought the two men should play together, so he brought them into the studio to record a song called simply “Burnin' Hell.” The two remained friends and their paths periodically crossed out there on the road. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the two met up in a studio to record what would be their Grammy-winning album Get Up!. And as good as that record was, it was just the beginning. They both agree that their friendship deepened in the many months of touring that followed. And it’s that bond, that closeness, that makes this new record something special.
“That first record happened in the studio,” Charlie says, “But then we toured together for nearly two years and it just kept getting better and better, the mu-sical rapport, the band, the two of us personally. When we finally headed back into the studio we were just charged, ready to go, the songs were jumping out like wild horses ready to run.”
“Everything I've ever done has had one foot in the blues,” Ben says. “There has never been any doubt in my mind that if Charlie and I are on the planet together, we are going to be making music. The last record kicked the door open, but it was just the beginning. At this moment, I don't think I could make a better record than this. I mean that.”
At first glance, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite might seem an unlikely pairing. While Ben grew up in in the tree lined Southern California college town of Claremont, a bastion of culture and liberalism just east of Los Angeles, Char-lie was raised in Memphis during the time of rockabilly and Sun Records.
But while the two might have come to their musical knowledge in differ-ent eras and places, as Charlie explains, “We were both searchers and we’re still seeking.” Each of them possess an enduring hunger for musical knowledge that came to them early. Charlie recounts a youth spent scavenging local junk stores for old 78 rpm blues records. “I would discover all this other music too,” he says. “Anything that would look interesting, I found all kinds of music that had a feeling that reminded me of the blues. Greek music, Arabic music, Flamenco and Gypsy music. I found out that every culture had its music of la-ment. The songs all have the same kinds of experiences that blues singers talk about.”
Decades later in Southern California, Ben grew up literally surrounded by music. His grandparents had opened the Folk Music Center in 1958 as a music store and impromptu gathering place for a thriving folk music scene. Artists like Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Doc Watson, John Fahey, The New Lost City Ramblers and others were known to drop by and play. Ben’s mother Ellen was a folk singer and his dad Leonard a talented musician as well. Ben worked at the family music store. He learned how to repair and build instruments, became masterful player and gifted songwriter, and eventually a Grammy-winning artist and producer of worldwide acclaim. And just like Charlie, Ben put in hours at lo-cal used record stores, scavenging for old blues, hip-hop and punk records. “I was raised around all those crazy instruments and records and people who could play at the highest level,” he says. “But I'm old enough to have been a record bin diver. And the fact that both Charlie and I were seeking, not only blues, but mu-sic with that same emotion and intensity, that is the thread right there.”