The description “living legend” is tossed around quite a bit, often indiscriminately.
However, in the case of a prodigious session musician such as Charlie McCoy, the man who played a role in recording some of the most important albums in popular music, the term easily applies. His ability to play a multitude of instruments — harmonica, bass and guitar, among them — has made McCoy one of the most prolific session musicians of all time. He’s still part of Nashville’s so-called “A Team,” the go-to group that’s called upon whenever major artists record in town. He also was a member of the all-star ensembles Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry, super groups composed of Nashville’s finest.
Then again, the list of stars McCoy worked with offers more than enough cause to establish his credence — Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, George Jones, Leonard Cohen, Loretta Lynn, Ringo Starr, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins and Waylon Jennings among them. By his own estimate, he did 300 sessions a year at one point.
Nevertheless, McCoy’s claim to fame isn’t based only on his efforts with others. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, he’s released more than three dozen albums under his own aegis and can claim 13 singles that made their way to the top of the country charts. He also served as musical director for the hit TV show “Hee Haw,” a job he held for 19 years. Along the way, he garnered a Grammy, a pair of Country Music Association Awards and a No. 1 album.
For all his accomplishments, McCoy comes across as a genuinely unassuming fellow. When it’s suggested that he likely played a role in shaping the evolution of popular music, he demurs.
“What I am is the most blessed man in America,” he said. “There’s something to be said about being in the right place at the right time. That was me.”
McCoy said he arrived in Nashville in 1960 at age 19. A former student at the University of Miami’s School of Music, he first visited the city the year before, invited by country star Mel Tillis.
“I knew what I wanted,” McCoy said. “I had seen a Brenda Lee session up there and when I watched those musicians and heard the first playback, I said ‘Oh my gosh. This is what I want to do.’ So I came back in May 1960. A year later, Chet Atkins called and told me they were recording an unknown singer from Sweden named Ann-Margaret.
“He had heard me play harmonica on a demo and he wanted me to play exactly what I had played on that song before. So I knew exactly what to play. But needless to say, I was distracted. Here was the Nashville A Team, the Anita Kerr singer and a a 20 year-old Ann-Margaret. It was unreal.”
That session led to another, this time with Roy Orbison, with whom he recorded the hit “Candy Man.”
“When that song hit the radio, my phone started ringing,” McCoy said. “And 58 years later, it’s still ringing.”
McCoy admits he can be somewhat nostalgic, and even now, decades later, he remembers the specifics of many of his sessions, even recalling exactly where he was situated in the studio.
“It’s real special to look back,” he said. “It was great to be a part of musical history, and I was so proud to be there. I’ve done something my whole life that I love to do. That’s a dream many people have that they never get to live.”
It’s little surprise then that he’s able to relate specific impressions of the famous individuals he worked with. He said that when he first started working with Dylan in 1964, he wasn’t all that enamored of the young folk singer, and that he was mostly unaware of his work. Nevertheless, he took charge of the sessions and played on several of Dylan’s landmark recordings, including “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde,” “John Wesley Harding” and of course, “Nashville Skyline.”
Asked about the former Robert Zimmerman, McCoy said Dylan was characteristically quiet and withdrawn. However when he asked him to pick up a guitar for a run-through of a new song called “Desolation Row,” McCoy naturally obliged.
“That’s about all he said for the four albums we did together, even when we were face to face,” McCoy said. “I heard someone once say he didn’t have an answer for hello.”
McCoy first worked with Elvis on the soundtrack to his film “Harum Scarum.” It came about almost by accident after the dates for the recording session had to be switched and Presley’s regular players were unavailable due to commitments elsewhere.
“They hired an entire alternative band, of which I was proud to be a part,” McCoy recalls. “All of us were wondering, what’s this going to be like? He’s used to these other guys and here’s a bunch of strangers. But when we got to the studio that first day, he immediately walked up to every musician, shakes their hands and says, ‘Thank you for helping me.’ From that moment on, it was fantastic. He was so nice. The studio was his safe place. The fans couldn’t get in. He was there with people he respects and he likes, and doing what he likes to do. You could feel that.”
McCoy said the sessions with Ringo “were very cool.”
“He said ‘I love country music and I wanted to make a country album. This is the only place in the world I wanted to make it.’ He was great, so friendly. He talked to everybody like he had known them his whole life.”
Of all the recordings he was involved with, he says Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Loretta Lynn’s tune “Every Tingle Becomes a Chill” and “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel. are among his favorites.
“Every once in awhile you go to the studio and they start playing a song that every musician in the room knows is going to be a hit,” he said. “‘Pretty Woman’ was one. When we started laying that song down, everyone could feel it and knew it was going to be special.”
Considering his legacy, McCoy’s two shows at The Station ought to be pretty special as well. He’ll be accompanied by Jason Coleman, grandson of the legendary guitarist Floyd Cramer.
“The music will be all over the map,” McCoy said. “And of course, after my years on ‘Hee Haw,’ I’m also a frustrated comedian.”