One Night in America is Charles Musselwhite’s most interesting experiment to date. On this record, Musselwhite says he wanted to explain that blues is a feeling. In revisiting his past, he performs a variety of material, both old and new that reminded him of growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was coming up in life and about to hit the road. There are plenty of blues running cold and hot. But running true to form, Musselwhite is most engaging when detouring into a world we don’t always associate with Charles Musselwhite. The most surprising and adventuresome songs are Musselwhite singing and playing country tunes, which are a good reminder of where the country in country and western comes from and help prove the blues is to be found everywhere.
The early stirring of West Coast blues is greeted by the “Cold Grey Light of Dawn”. Written by Ivory Joe Hunter (his real name!), whose fame endures for his immortal love song “Since I Met You Baby” and his very country-sounding “Almost Lost My Mind”. Musselwhite’s impression of the “Cold Grey Light of Dawn” is a chilly C&W blues, and a rare glimpse into but one of the other 8,000 songs that Hunter composed during his lifetime. A boogie-woogie pianist, Ivory Joe Hunter started out with one foot in the country blues in Port Arthur, Texas, and began sneaking elements of country into his ballads and jump blues as early the ‘40s. A rhythm and blues sensation in California during the ‘50s, with a steady performance schedule at the Dew Drop Inn, Hunter sold just as many records to whites as blacks. Ray Charles in the early ‘60s combined the Nashville sound with blues, but in the late ‘40s Ivory Joe Hunter recorded his own “Empty Arms”, and that song has since been picked up and covered by a slough of C&W artists. Ivory Joe Hunter, described as “a big Texan with a cheshire-cat smile”, came back as a country singer in the late ‘60s and made regular appearances on Grand Old Opry.
“In a Town This Size” is a song written in the ‘90s by a rather obscure folkie named Kieran Kane. But the atmosphere of the wry lyrics reveals some of the small-mindedness inherent with small towns where everyone seems to know your business before you do. A duet between Musselwhite and Kelly Willis, the country atmosphere is enhanced by superb guitar weavings by G.E. Smith and Marty Stuart. Can’t really hold neighborly interest against anyone, but this is the kind of small town that doesn’t like being reminded that Grandmother used to carry home groceries from the store in a burlap field sack.
There are plenty of modern electric blues to keep Musselwhite fans happy, but there are also his versions of those spooky country blues, the intensely personal visions played in absolute solitude and loneliness, the kind you hear almost by accident and feel like you’re eavesdropping on a desperate soul wailing. “Rank Strangers to Me”, “In Your Darkest Hour”, and especially “Ain’t It Time” are lonely, lonely, scary country blues.
Musselwhite remembers his former neighbor Johnny Cash, who Musselwhite used to see driving his Thunderbird down the streets of Memphis, and tears up a churning version of “Big River”, as dark and twisty as the hidden snags of trees concealed just beneath the surface of the waters.
The song that is the centerpiece of the album is a killer cover of Los Lobos’s “One Time One Night”. A two-step that is spun out at the faster-pace that modern living requires, the song is a series of snapshots of the sorts of things that can impact and shape a soul. The high-pitched organ reminds us this is a pop song, and the electric guitar solo drives the song furiously, pedal straight down to the floorboards. The singing is understated because paying attention to the fast-clip vignettes of one heart-breaking reality after the next is giving the proper emphasis. Musselwhite is “A quiet voice / Singing something to me / An age old song about the home of the brave / And this land here of the free.”
When writing about the song’s composer Dave Hidalgo, critic Matthew Greenwald summarized “One Time One Night” effectively, “Lyrically, the song takes a good long look at what had become of the American dream by the terrifying mid-‘80s and is told in a literate and sober narrative.” If the world were at all a fair place, this version by Musselwhite is a song that would be played on C&W radio everywhere in America.
One Night in America will start everyone thinking about their past and begin wondering how it is that even newer songs can strike a resonance, reminding us of what we began learning early on in life. While some latter day attempts at wrestling with history may sound a false chord, Musselwhite’s memoir as told through music sounds completely genuine.