Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite know something about the darkness that underlies the deepest of blues. Standing side by side on a small stage in Los Angeles in March, the duo ease into the haunted twang of a song called "No Mercy in This Land," with Harper on electric bottleneck guitar and his partner blowing a wounded melody into the harmonica in his cupped hands, eyes shut tight.
Most of the lyrics are sung by Harper, but it's the 74-year-old Musselwhite who leans into the mic for an anguished final verse: "Father left us down here all alone/My poor mother lies under a stone/With an aching heart and trembling hands/Is there no mercy in this land?"
It's the title song from Harper and Musselwhite's second album together, and the words are weighted with genuine tragedy as the harmonica legend sings on the Grammy Museum stage. Harper wrote the track, in part, about the 2005 murder of Musselwhite's mother in Memphis. They were the first lyrics written for the album.
"Some things just stay with you in a way that don't let go until you write them," Harper, 48, tells Rolling Stone before the set, recalling the crime that led to the world-weary tune. "I brought it to Charlie hesitantly, reverentially as something we could possibly duet on. Charlie didn't hesitate. I was honored and relieved."
Ruth Maxine Musselwhite was a lover of jazz and blues who still drove around town at age 93 and regularly sent biting letters to the editor of the local paper. Police found her little Casio keyboard and TV at a nearby pawnshop, and the killer was arrested soon after.
"I was an only child. She was a single mom, so we were really close, and it was hard to deal with," recalls Musselwhite. "I was sober at the time – I'm still sober – but my brain just started screaming at me: 'You gotta have a drink! You can't handle this without a drink!' But I just hung in there and dealt with it."
Years later, he welcomed the chance to express his lingering grief through the blues. "If you keep something buried down inside, it just festers and it has a bad effect on you," Musselwhite says. "This is a way of having the sun shine on it. It's a healing thing for me."
The 10-song No Mercy in This Land is a frequently bleaker follow-up to their 2013 debut as a recording duo, Get Up! That upbeat collection of Chicago and Delta blues won the Grammy for Best Blues Album. It was Harper's third Grammy win, but the first for Musselwhite, after 10 previous nominations. The blues vet keeps his many nomination medallions at home in a candy bowl, while treating the Grammy itself with a certain reverence.
"It's locked up when I'm away. When I'm home, I put it on the mantle," Musselwhite says with a grin. When wildfires last year threatened his home in Sonoma, California, the award was one of the few things he grabbed as he evacuated. It was a meaningful vote of confidence in the collaboration, he says. "It confirmed my suspicions. It was the cherry on the top."
The new album opens with "When I Go," a troubled hymn of electric blues, as Harper sings as a man both defiant and accepting of his fate: "I get older/But my troubles don't change/Work so hard/With nothing to show ... Gonna take you with me when I go."
The songs were recorded last summer during seven days at the Village Studios in Santa Monica with guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jimmy Paxson. "It's five of us in the same room, just going for it," says Harper. "Working with Charlie is like having a fucking blues superpower."
While Harper usually has his projects planned a couple of albums out, he says writing for No Mercy in This Land demanded all his attention. "This is the first time that's not the case. First time in 24 years. I unloaded on this one, man. I got nothing but this," Harper says. "Every ounce of my writing intuition and the creative process went into this material, cutting versus adding, just fine tuning. I didn't want to hear about any other songs."
Musselwhite has been a prolific recording artist since the 1960s, releasing more than two dozen studio albums. He has been a frequent guest on albums by the likes of Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Tom Waits, but considers his ongoing collaboration with Harper unique.
"Working with Charlie is like having a fucking blues superpower." –Ben Harper
"My name isn't just in the liner notes somewhere in the back somewhere. It's wonderful for me to be in front of Ben's audience, and to share the stage with Ben and promote these wonderful songs he's written and carry the blues forward to the 21st century," he says. "The excitement is consuming me. I'm rarin' to go."
Harper and Musselwhite were introduced two decades ago by the foot-stomping blues deity John Lee Hooker, who recruited both to perform on a stormy 1998 remake of his song "Burnin' Hell." As the track fades out to some eerie feedback, Hooker can be heard remarking: "What is that? Sounds like a freight train ..."
In the Nineties, Hooker experienced another chapter of fame and popularity late in life, with a fresh wave of young admirers. But Musselwhite says he remained committed to the same ominous sounds of lust and danger born in the Mississippi Delta, right up until his death in 2001.
"John Lee never changed. He was always John Lee," recalls Musselwhite of those days. They first met in Chicago, and remained close friends. Musselwhite was a regular visitor to Hooker's home in Redwood City, California, staying the night if he had too much to drink. "You couldn't impress John Lee. He had Madonna on the phone: She wanted him to be in a video, and he was going, 'Oh, yeah, I love your music. I'm just crazy about you! I'd love to be in your video.' He gets off the phone, says, 'I ain't doin' that.'"
Aside from their work with Hooker, both Harper and Musselwhite apprenticed with an older generation as young men obsessed with the blues. In 1962, the harmonica player left Memphis and arrived on the South Side of Chicago at age 18 in search of work, and spent his nights in the clubs with Muddy Waters, Junior Wells and Sonny Boy Williamson. Before long, Musselwhite was regularly brought up onstage.
"I didn't even know I was in school. I just was having fun," Musselwhite says of that time. "Everybody I heard, and everybody I met, and all the encouragement pushing me to do more and go out and do it – they're all in here somehow," he explains, tapping his chest. "It all comes out when I'm playing. Sometimes I'm playing, and I go, 'Huh, that's Little Walter's riff.' It just comes out by itself."
Harper discovered the blues masters in the record bins while growing up around his grandparents' music store in Claremont, California. At 20, be began seeking out and learning from bluesmen Louis Myers in Chicago, Blind Joe Hill in Los Angeles and Brownie McGhee in Oakland before finally joining Taj Mahal's touring band.
"Once I got bit, I started learning the songs note for note, licks and licks – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt," he says. "I remember being at the music store late one night, going, 'Oh, shit, these guys might still be alive! Or I might be too late.' That's when I started going on my exploration."
In 2013, Harper and Musselwhite came to the White House to perform as part of a day celebrating Memphis soul, with Booker T. Jones, Mavis Staples, Alabama Shakes and Justin Timberlake. While there, Harper was approached by veteran soul guitarist Steve Cropper, who wanted to talk about Musselwhite.
"He comes up to me at the White House," recalls Harper, "and steps up to me heavy and goes, 'Young man, do you know how lucky you are to play with Charlie Musselwhite?' I said, 'Yes, sir, I do.' He goes, 'OK, I believe you. Steve Cropper, nice to meet you,' and he walks away."
At the Grammy Museum, the duo's band are all dressed in black, and their short set unfolds with four more songs from the new album, including the fiery, hopeful love celebration "Found the One." Musselwhite's harp wheezes excitedly and Harper wails a soulful vocal: "I found hay in a stack of needles/Four-leaf clover in a mile of weeds."
For Musselwhite, the songs and performances are another step in his evolution of blues that began back in Memphis and the South Side of Chicago.
"When Muddy left Mississippi and got to Chicago, got an amp and electric guitar and plugged it in – it caused a lot of excitement because here's the guy who used to play an acoustic guitar on a plantation, now's he's in the big city and he's playing the same music, but now it's cookin' like mad.
"That kind of a new thing is what's happening here," Musselwhite says. "It's brand-new, 21st-century modern, accessible – today's blues. It's exciting. This isn't a rehash."