Four years ago, Henrietta Musselwhite was snorkeling at her favorite spot in Maui when a kayaker noticed the telltale gray mass of a large shark emerging, diving, breaking surface again, then going down for a second attack.
She screamed for help.
Ron Bass was able to pull Musselwhite onto his kayak and paddle her to shore, where he used everything in his first-aid kit to stop the massive bleeding from two large tiger shark bites-one in the leg, one in the back.
Two days later, Musselwhite was released from Maui Memorial Hospital. A year later, she went "right back to the same place," says her husband Charlie. "Absolutely she goes out there-she goes divin' with a tank now."
Charlie Musselwhite understands how not to let a near-death experience ruin a good thing. A year prior, the bluesman was on tour in Cancun, Mexico when he was broadsided by an 18-wheeler. He suffered broken ribs, bruised organs and some internal bleeding. Eighteen days later, he sat down on stage at the B.G.P. auditorium in San Francisco for a New Year's Eve show and blew his blues harp alongside Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Lee Lewis.
"We're thinkin' of goin' to Indionesia," jokes the 60-year-old with a worn, leisurely chuckle that sounds more like a gussied-up breath. "Nah, we're doin' better-we're doin' real well. We kind of live on the edge, so we're sort of used to that sort of thing, although that was way out on the far side of the edge."
The Mississippi native hasn't lived in the South for a long time, but his drawl is thick as spit. His family moved to Memphis when he was young, where the teenager had Elvis' personal phone number as his social guide.
"I'd just call him up and say, "Where's the party at tonight?' And whoever answered would tell me, and I'd go. Usually he didn't answer-usually a girl'd answer," he says, clarifying with another good-natured snort that "those parties had very little to do with music."
At 18, Musselwhite moved to Chicago to be closer to his idols. For a short time he ran moonshine for "$50 a run," but it wasn't long before the thin white kid from Kosciusko, Miss. was sittin' in with Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
He released his debut album in 1966, and four decades later, Stand Back is still considered one of the best harmonica-blues albums a person can find. Thanks to a smoky voice, his pocket-sized instrument and breath control that a Yogi would envy, he's since won 12 W.C. Handy Blues Awards and become the type of icon young musicians wanna move closer to.
It's easy to understand why music fans dig what he does. But as for the theory that people are drawn to those who remind them of themselves, Musselwhite is either colorblind or reluctant to admit that he, like contemporaries Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, attracted white people to the blues.
"I never really thought about it, but I could imagine that would happen," he says. "Whatever it takes, y'know?"
Part of what it's taken is his wife managing his career. Under Henri's guidance, they travel in satisfying circles-cities, festivals, clubs, even the same sharky vacation spot. It's in that occupational loop that he kept bumping into Ben Harper, who he'd played with as John Lee Hooker's backup on the song "Burn in Hell."
They clicked. Musselwhite dug the young musician's "blues, gospel and rootsy approach. Every time we saw each other after that, we said, "Man, we gotta get back in the studio together.'"
And they finally did-along with gospel elders the Blind Boys of Alabama and Bob Dylan's guitarist Charlie Sexton-for Musselwhite's newest album, Sanctuary. It's got Musselwhite originals and covers of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Randy Newman and Sonny Landreth, among others. And it's his best LP in years, a slow-burn blues jam he says is "a reflection of the dark times that we're in."
"I think [Bush] may be the worst president we've ever had. If not, he's right up there next to the worst," he says. "And the quicker people start waking up, the quicker we can get beyond this. But I'm really disappointed in the American people for not catching on sooner. They're being suckered."
Musselwhite, who's said more than once that his heart stays on Route 19 in Mississippi-a state so red it's bleeding-must be embarrassed by his place of birth, no?
"Yeah, sure," he admits. "But there are a lot of good people there, too. It's a long subject-a whole 'nother interview."
He pulls back: "I don't ordinarily say anything. I'm sort of surprising myself right now."
It was a momentary lapse of the manners he's learned on stage. He's an entertainer, not a lobbyist. Plus, he's spent too much time convincing people the blues aren't depressing and ain't about to bring 'em down now.
"[This dark time for America is] like blues is-it's about getting beyond that, a place to rest. Some people let that term "blues' fool 'em. It's not about feelin' bad-it is about gettin' rid of that feelin'. It's time to have a good time and let yer hair down."
He thinks back to what he felt back in Chicago, jamming with Wolf and Waters.
"It wasn't about wallowin' in yer misery or anythin' like that. That was the last thing on anyone's mind. Oh, it was a hell of a good time," he laughs. "A hell of a good time."
Charlie Musselwhite plays with James Cotton and Kim Wilson as part of Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout at 4th & B, 8 p.m. on Jan. 11. $19.50-$23. 619-231-4343.