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.”
Calling this retrospective by Charlie Musselwhite a "deluxe edition" may be a little misleading. Twelve of the album's 14 tracks come from three albums he recorded for Alligator in the early '90s. There are four each from Ace of Harps (1990), Signature (1991), and In My Time (1993). The sequencing is beautifully done and representative. The true curiosities are two unissued cuts. The first is "Lotsa Poppa," an outtake from the In My Time sessions. The cut itself isn't such a revelation, but Musselwhite's harp playing and singing is. His delivery is signature in that he is always slow and relaxed yet just underneath. There in the grain of his voice is something else, something that smolders. The final cut here is from Musselwhite's private collection of tapes and it was recorded at home in the early '60s. It features the legendary Will Shade instructing a very young Musselwhite on guitar and singing with him. This is priceless archival blues history and is a fine bookend.
Drummer/label head Pat Ford reunited with Charlie Musselwhite and brought along brother Robben Ford on guitar, producing this return to form. Musselwhite is up to the task in all departments – singing, playing (great tone), and especially songwriting (the title tune and "Seemed Like the Whole World Was Crying," inspired by Muddy Waters' death) – but it had been a while since Robben Ford had played low-down blues (touring with Joni Mitchell, putting in countless hours in L.A. studios), and it may have been wiser to give the guitar chair to Tim Kaihatsu, who by this time had seniority in terms of hours on the bandstand with Musselwhite, above any other Musselwhite alumnus. Pianist Clay Cotton is in fine form. This time out, the deviations (to be expected by now) include Don & Dewey's "Stretching Out," an impressive chromatic harp rendering of "Exodus," and Musselwhite's solo guitar outing, "Baby-O." Easily Musselwhite's best-engineered album yet (nice job, Greg Goodwin).
Harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite falls between the more obvious generations of blues players, younger than its elder statesmen but considerably senior to young hot-shots like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. How, then, can he find a fresh hook to his music without resorting to attention-grabbing gimmicks? Except for two songs featuring producer/guitarist Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Charlie Musselwhite's 1997 album, Rough News, doesn't have any famous guests, but it stands out from the harmonica whiz's long and deep discography nonetheless. Musselwhite has pared down his sound so radically that every instrument has become a rhythm instrument. When these lean, groove-based arrangements are applied to tunes as simple and catchy as "Both Sides of Fence," "I Sat & Cried" and "Natural Born Lover," the results jump at the listener with the bare-basics excitement of early rock & roll.
Charlie Musselwhite continues his prolific four-decade career jumping over to Telarc for his first album of the millennium after spending the '90s recording for Alligator and Virgin. A recap of his formative Memphis roots, Musselwhite receives substantial assistance from guests Robben Ford on guitar (Musselwhite provided Ford with his first gigs when the guitarist was in his late teens), Texas vocalist Kelly Willis, and guitarist/mandolin player Marty Stuart; the last two bring a rootsy, laid back country feel to the album that effectively fuses the swampy C&W, R&B, and blues of Memphis into a cohesive statement. Musselwhite blows unamplified harp on every track, but it's his weathered, understated vocals that infuse these songs with down-home charm. Covers from Jimmy Reed, Los Lobos (the album takes its title from their "One Time One Night"), Ivory Joe Hunter, and Kieran Kane flow beautifully into each other as the artist masterfully blurs the lines between genres.
Charlie Musselwhite takes four different approaches on this Alligator release. On two tracks, he turns to guitar, proving a competent instrumentalist and convincing singer in a vintage Delta style. He also does two gospel numbers backed by the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama, which are heartfelt, but not exactly triumphs. Musselwhite reveals his jazz influence on three tracks, making them entertaining harmonica workouts. But for blues fans, Musselwhite's biting licks and spiraling riffs are best featured on such numbers as "If I Should Have Bad Luck" and "Leaving Blues." Despite the diverse strains, Musselwhite retains credibility throughout while displaying the wide range of sources from which he's forged his distinctive style.