The Real Charlie McCoy, A Musical Quarterback Of 1960s Nashville McCoy is best known as a harmonica player, but the studio veteran also played a big role in the pivotal moment when counter-cultural folk-rock came to Music City.

The Real Charlie McCoy, A Musical Quarterback Of 1960s Nashville

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Charlie McCoy has been a fixture in the Nashville studio scene for nearly half a century. He's best known as a virtuoso country harmonica player, but he's played a ton of other styles - rock 'n' roll, R&B, pop, even Celtic music. An exhibition currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame tells the story of a pivotal moment in the late 1960s when counter-cultural folk-rock came to Music City. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN reports that Charlie McCoy played a big role.

JEWLY HIGHT: Charlie McCoy was vacationing in New York City in 1965 when he called a producer friend for theater tickets.

CHARLIE MCCOY: He said come over, I want you to meet Bob Dylan. So I went over to Columbia studio in New York, and he introduced me to Bob Dylan.

HIGHT: Dylan was in the middle of making of an album.

MCCOY: And he said I'm going to do a song. There's another guitar. Why don't you get that and play along? (Playing guitar) And the song was "Desolation Row."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESOLATION ROW")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) They're selling postcards of the hanging. They're painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor's filled with sailors. The circus is in town.

HIGHT: That's Charlie McCoy playing those filigreed guitar fills. As a kid, he harbored dreams of being a hotshot rock 'n' roller. He learned delta blues licks on a harmonica he bought for .50 cents and a box top and played rock guitar at South Florida dances. That's where Mel Tillis heard McCoy and told him to come to Nashville. McCoy auditioned for the biggest producers in town - Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. While the young musician didn't get a record deal, he did get an invitation to watch the pros play on a session.

MCCOY: To be honest, I wasn't sure what a session was. But when I heard the first playback, my whole life changed because I said I don't want to sing - I want to do this. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

HIGHT: And soon McCoy was a part of it. A couple of years later, his songwriter roommate was working on a new tune, and McCoy chimed in on harmonica.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND")

HIGHT: The improvised part fit the song so well that it wound up on a record...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND")

HIGHT: ...By Ann-Margret.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND")

ANN-MARGRET: (Singing) Well, you call me your baby when you're holding my hand.

MCCOY: The best part of the story is I'm 20 years old, and I'm with the Nashville A-Team. It was like I had died and went to heaven. And then when the session was over, Bob Moore, the bass player, walked over to me and said you free Friday? Hey, I was free the rest of my life, you know? I said yeah, and he said come back to this studio. I'm recording Roy Orbison.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDY MAN")

ROY ORBISON: (Singing) Come on, baby, let me take you by the hand.

HIGHT: The Orbison song became a pop hit, and McCoy became the youngest member of the Nashville A-Team, the group that got the prime studio work. That same year, he joined a Nashville R&B band with a bunch of musicians his own age.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPOON MAN")

CHARLIE MCCOY AND THE ESCORTS: (Singing) There's a place down on the corner where we go Saturday night. It's called the (unintelligible) and the band is out of sight. They've got a guy that's 6-foot-5 and weighs 300 pounds. When he played his harpoon, all the people gathered around. And he played now...

HIGHT: One of the guitarists in the group was Mac Gayden, who says McCoy was the band's equivalent of a star NFL quarterback.

MAC GAYDEN: He just came in and took over and put us all together and kind of got us all going in one direction. He was an organizer, you know? He was able to do that intuitively, I think. He was able to see talent and think on his feet. He would have been an amazing politician.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARPOON MAN")

HIGHT: But McCoy also had a tendency to play a few too many notes, as legendary guitarist Grady Martin pointed out to him after a session.

MCCOY: Grady took me out back and set me straight. He said if you can't hear and understand every word, you're playing too much. And that was like the light went off, you know?

HIGHT: He took the criticism to heart. And one of his proudest performances was a grand total of four plunging melancholic notes thrown in as an afterthought by the producer.

MCCOY: He'd forgotten he'd hired me on this session. And he stopped and he looked at me and he said get something on the second verse. That was it. That was all he said. And yeah, that was probably the least I've ever played that was the most.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY")

GEORGE JONES: (Singing) He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then. But he still loved her through it all. Hoping she'd come back again.

HIGHT: George Jones, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan - the list of names goes on and plenty of them are written down in McCoy's date book, currently on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as part of the exhibition Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.

MCCOY: Let me see, what do I have in it? Down on Wednesday March 11 - Bob Dylan. And up above, there's Charlie Louvin and some people you've never heard of.

HIGHT: By the late 1960s, McCoy was splitting his time between the Charlie Louvins and Johnny Cashes and the folk-rockers who discovered that Nashville musicians made recording a breeze.

MCCOY: And that's what started the influx of folk-rock people - Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel - a lot of people showed up because of that.

HIGHT: Guitarist Wayne Moss recorded with Dylan, too. And he says McCoy had a way of winning over these new arrivals. On top of that, McCoy could play virtually anything a song needed.

WAYNE MOSS: He played tuba on "Rainy Day Women," for instance. There's very little he can't play. He's not a good fiddle player, and he's not a good steel guitar player. But everything else he can play - reeds, brass, guitar, vibes. He's really good at what he does, and he's not scared to try anything.

HIGHT: At the age of 74, Charlie McCoy still enjoys putting himself out there for hire and does 50 or so sessions a year.

MCCOY: The thing I always appreciated about recording here is that it was always OK if you had an idea to bring it up. And it was OK also if they said no. Nobody got offended by that. Some of the greatest things that ever happened on records here happened on the spur of the moment.

HIGHT: And Charlie McCoy had a hand in a lot of them. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

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