Track By Track: Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite ‘No Mercy In This Land’
No Mercy In This Land is the follow-up to Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s 2013 release Get Up!, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues chart and won a 2014 Grammy for Best Blues Album. That record had been a long time coming—John Lee Hooker first introduced the pair back in 1993 when they both played a benefit gig for Mill Valley, Calif.’s Sweetwater Music Hall, which had hit some hard economic times.
“I got the opening gig,” Harper remembers. “So I showed up backstage—it’s one big room back there—and, lo and behold, there was Charlie with John Lee. Charlie was sitting in that night. And the way those guys embraced me as family, I’ll never forget. John Lee was best man at Charlie’s wedding because they were already as close as it gets, but I became friends with both of them to the point where, in 1997, John Lee invited Charlie and I to be a part of what would be John Lee’s last studio recording, Best of Friends.
“John Lee didn’t waste words,” Harper continues. “He spoke real low, real soft and when he said something, he meant it—and that was it. So after we recorded, he looked at Charlie and I and
he said, ‘You two need to play together. You two need to do something together. You’ve got quite a sound.’ When we met at Sweetwater, I was nothing. I mean, right now, I’m nothing, so in ‘93, I was less than nothing. And the way those guys treated me as family, again, is a great reminder to always lend a hand to a traveler.”
As for the songs on No Mercy in This Land, Harper explains, “When I write, I aim as high I can, and I listen to a lot of Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters and Elmore James. I’ve got 5,000 vinyl records—I spin them all and half of them are blues. I inherited my grandparents’ collection of 500–1,000 78s. I’m a student of the blues, so the fact that I get to write for Charlie Musselwhite, when it passes his test, I know I’ve done something right. I write quite a bit, and it was more about pulling the best material out of what was there than writing to fill a record. And it’s been five years since Get Up!, so I had plenty of time to separate the good from the bad.”
WHEN I GO
“When I Go” opens up with the harmonies, and it’s a proclamation of picking up where we left off on Get Up! It’s like, “We’re moving right along; we’re ready for round two.” It just shoots up a flare. Game on!
“Bad Habits” lets you know that it is as much autobiographical as biographical—that there’s going to be different lyrical content and we’re gonna be pushing it in some different directions. And I think “Bad Habit” forecasts that unpredictability.
LOVE AND TRUST
I originally wrote “Love and Trust” for Mavis Staples. When my phone rings, if I don’t recognize the number, I can’t wait to pick it up. You wouldn’t believe who calls my ass. And I got the call to write a song for Mavis Staples. They said, “Hey, if you’ve got something, or if you would write something, we’ll run it up the hill.”
And you know, right then, that everybody else and their mom is trying to throw in on it, too. So I was like, “Alright, I’ll do my best” because you know the competition is steep. But I just put Mavis in my mind’s eye, and “Love and Trust” came straight out as if she was sitting in the room co-writing with me. I wrote it, turned it in and it made it on the record. But it’s been a couple of years since that record came out, and I got the green light to do a version of it myself.
THE BOTTLE WINS AGAIN
What can you say other than the title, right? The interesting point about “The Bottle Wins Again,” though, is that it really wins again because it’s triumphant. It’s triumphant for me in that writing that song and seeing those words clearly coming from myself is what got me to stop drinking. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol for 11 months and one day, and I don’t plan on going back. But I had to write that song to see it.
FOUND THE ONE
“Found the One” is a love song, straight up—just finding that happy place in the blues, that arrival of the heart’s fulfilledness, the completeness of love’s circle. And it’s fun; it was a great challenge. “Found the One” was the one song that came to life on this record. I had been working on “Found the One” with different music, and then the guys started coming up with this riff. It was between the break, and the guitar player and drummer, Jason Mozersky and Jimmy Paxson, started hammering this thing out. Everybody jumped on their instruments and it was one of those combustible moments where we just had to catch it and press record. It didn’t matter where the mics were—just press record and go. You can hear it’s really rough and raw and ready. I had the words put to other music but it fit too well with that setting and I was able to pull them from another blues tune, put them on top of what was going on in the moment and we ran with it.
Now I recognize that someone might say that the blues and love are antithetical, but I would then recite a dozen blues songs that are optimistic in the name of love. Blues doesn’t necessarily mean pessimism. You can also say, “Get your kicks on Route 66”—you can spin it any number of ways. And even so, it is all the more challenging to find a new voice in the blues and have an optimistic spin with love in the name of blues.
WHEN LOVE IS NOT ENOUGH
“Love Is Not Enough” was the first song for the record. We were in the studio sitting around—I had actually finished recording Childhood Home, a record I made with my mom—and we had gotten a call that we had been nominated for a Grammy for Get Up! So we were all sitting around excited and high fiving and decided to just keep recording. And that song came out.
“Love Is Not Enough” is weird. It came out of nowhere. We were high from finishing my mom’s record, we were high from getting the Grammy nod, and it just came like it entered the room. The more you speak in metaphysical terms, the more I wanna run out the backdoor. It’s a touchy subject. So when I do, you better believe that I mean it because something entered the room. We all picked up our instruments and it entered through all of us.
We started playing it and, once again, I’ve always got pen to paper so I’m always ready—you could start strumming a banjo and I’d have lyrics for you right now because that’s what I do. My full-time gig is a lyricist. Everything else comes underneath that. So I was ready and I had been working on “Love Is Not Enough” in poem form, really, and it just entered the room. And I’d never sung like that. In fact, I’m worried about singing like that again every night. I don’t know if I can sing like that again. It was a strange moment.
TRUST YOU TO DIG MY GRAVE
“Trust You to Dig My Grave” is one of those songs that I wrote in between the recording of Get Up! and the recording of No Mercy in This Land, and I knew straight away that song was aimed toward No Mercy in This Land. I wrote it in one sitting. It sounded cool tuning on my 12-string, sat down, wrote the song and said, “This one’s for Charlie.”
It’s really a love song. If you trust somebody to dig your grave, you trust them a lot. You trust that it’s gonna be six-feet true, not three. If you trust somebody to do that, it’s a metaphor for trusting them with everything else and what’s most important. So, for me, it’s a love song.
NO MERCY IN THIS LAND
I wrote “No Mercy in This Land” between the two records and set it aside because I knew I couldn’t record it with anyone else other than Charlie. It wasn’t gonna make the last Innocent Criminals record—it was written with Charlie in mind. Especially that last verse, which sums it up. It was nerve-wracking bringing it to Charlie because, with Charlie and I, after 200 shows and a couple of million miles on the road, there’s camaraderie, brotherhood, kinship and a friendship that is in stone. It’s carved in the walls. Me bringing that song to him, with the last verse being about his mom, was a big moment not only for us musically, but also for our friendship. And the way he embraced it and let it through the door, that was a special moment, and it’s a special song. As a matter of fact, bringing that song to him may be the most special moment as a songwriter that I’ve ever had. I’ve brought songs to Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples and Taj Mahal, and they all got accepted by them, but bringing this song to Charlie was the finest songwriter’s moment in my life.
“Movin’ On” is just as it says—“Alright, let’s throw down.” It’s funny because someone might say, “How could you have a long song in the blues, but also how could you have a blues song that sounds so happy?” Those two play off one another in that way because, with “Moving On,” the music is happy, just like with “Found the One,” the music is kind of happy, too. Blues can be upbeat and up-spirited; not all blues is gloom and doom.
With “Movin’ On” I found a new approach to the steel guitar as well. I approached the solo in “Movin’ On” as a horn player might. The solo pulled something out of my steel-guitar playing I didn’t expect. So that was surprising, and that one is gonna kill a lot. I can’t wait to play it. It’s gonna lend itself in a huge way to the live show.
NOTHING AT ALL
“Nothing at All,” on the contrary, is gonna be a beast. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to stay sane and play that song every night. It’s a hard song to play—super emotional. I have been trying to reach for that song for a long time and it took Charlie to pull it out of me. Charlie’s harmonica playing in that song, to me, is some of the most important harmonica playing I’ve ever heard. It really redefines the instrument in a unique way.
It’s also a tough one to play and a tough one to sing, but they’re supposed to be tough if they’re gonna stand the test of time; so I’ll have to man up and get after it. But that one’s an emotional roller coaster for me, personally, to sing and I love the way it closes the record.
This article originally appears in the April/May 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.