Gary James' Interview With Super Session Musician
Charlie McCoy is a rare breed of studio musician. Just one look at his resume and it's easy to see why. He's worked on sessions with Elvis, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan just to name a few. He's won a Grammy. He was voted CMA's (Country Music Association) Instrumentalist Of The Year twice and the Academy Of Country Music's Specialty Instrument Award seven times. He's a member of the International Musician's Hall Of Fame. He served as the music director for the TV series Hee Haw for 18 years. He was in the house band for the TNN show Music City Tonight with Crook And Chase. He was given the Musician award from the Union Of Professional Entertainers in 1994, elected to the German - American Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1998, The Hall Of Fame Of The North American Country Music Association International in 2000, the International Musicians Hall Of Fame and The Old Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2007, and the West Virginia Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. He's regularly toured Europe and Japan since 1989 and has released albums in France, Denmark, Germany and the Czech Republic. On February 4th, 2009, it was announced he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame along with Roy Clark and Barbara Mandrell.
It's an honor to present an interview with the "Super Session" musician himself, Mr. Charlie McCoy.
Q - Charlie, your career is still going strong these days!
A - Yeah. For the past twenty years I've been going to Japan every year. I went overseas three times this year. I play a lot in Europe because, well, they don't care how old you are over there. I may be done with Japan though. I like the people. I like the venue. I'm comfortable once I get there. I know my way around. But man, I'll tell you, that trip is just a killer. No matter how you slice it.
Q - Do you bring your band with you?
A - No. There's a band in Japan. I have an amazing band in France. Absolutely amazing. So, no I'm not carrying bands.
Q - How many gigs are you doing a year?
A - Oh, I'm probably doing ten or fifteen overseas and maybe the same here (the U.S.).
Q - And you're still doing studio work?
A - Yeah. I'm still doing studio work. Obviously not at the rate I used to. (laughs) I don't think I could do that anymore.
Q - I don't even know how you did it then.
A - I don't either! (laughs) When I look back... I have a lot of my old session books. I look back at those books and I'm thinking "My gosh, I'm getting tired just looking at this!
Q - You were probably afraid to turn down work for fear you wouldn't be called again.
A - That's true. Back in those days, nobody turned down anything. Whatever you get called for, you went and did it.
Q - Did your playing ever suffer? You were expected to be in top form all the time.
A - I'll tell you what. I wondered about that when I first came here (Nashville) 'cause the "A" team guys, Grady Martin, Harold Bradley, Floyd Cramer, those guys had been going at that pace for a few years before I got here. I wondered how in the world do they do it? But once I started doing it, all it took was a great song and man, then you're right back in it. You go to a 10 PM session tired and the guy brings out a great song and all of a sudden you're fired up again.
Q - It's like somebody snapped their fingers, you wake up and you're in a different place.
A - Absolutely. Yeah. This town, it's a song driven business here. When you're in the studio and a guy brings in a song that you get a special feeling about... I know I had that feeling several times. "Pretty Woman" I had that feeling. "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today" by George Jones. When they were playin' that song for us, all the musicians were lookin' at each other and you could tell it was like, hey man, we're in for something big here.
Q - It's good to hear that you recognized that quality in a song. Not everyone does, first time out.
A - Sometimes it's hard to tell about an act, but a great song is a great song. Sometimes an act will get a great song and they don't really do anything about it. It's what's so frustrating about this business. There's no formula for it. There's no rhyme or reason why some of the things happen.
Q - I always wondered who was playing harmonica on Roy Orbison's "Candy Man" and that was you, correct?
A - That was me. That was my second session ever.
Q - Did you know who you inspired with that harmonica playing?
A - At the time, no. I was like twenty years old. I was just so excited to be doing a session. Years later I realized it was kind of a landmark recording, really.
Q - I've read that John Lennon was influenced and inspired by your harmonica playing on that song. Did you know that?
A - No, I didn't. That's nice.
Q - He used that style of harmonica playing on "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me". And you can hear your influence.
A - Yeah. I guess so. Like so many other people, when I came to town I fancied myself as a Blues player. I played Jimmy Reed and Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. The best thing that ever happened to me was that I realized, OK, Blues is a nice... it's a fad. People here are excited about it, but it won't last too long, I don't think. So, the best thing that happened to me is I got away from the Blues. I started playing with a more pure tone and started playing melodies. I was listening to fiddles, steel guitars, dobros. Although everyone loved to play the Blues, by getting away from it, it gave me a style that was my own.
Q - And you don't just play the harmonica, do you? You play other instruments.
A - Yeah. That's been a key to how I've been able to keep doing this. You know, harmonica is a fad instrument. It's hot for awhile and then it isn't. So, it's been a real blessing to play other things.
Q - What Elvis recordings did you play on?
A - The first was a movie soundtrack, Harum Scarum. There were six more movie soundtracks after that. Then there were five other albums. There was a Christmas album, a Gospel, a straight ahead Country and a couple of others I'm not sure of. I don't remember exactly what all of them were.
Q - Do you remember any individual songs you played on?
A - Yeah, "Big Boss Man", "High Heel Sneakers". I played harp on it. He did a song called "The Next Step Is Love". I played organ on that. Then I played a lot on those movie soundtracks, like an acoustic guitar rhythm.
Q - Were you a fan of Elvis and Roy Orbison?
A - Absolutely.
Q - So, when they would walk into the studio, were you in awe of them or would you just concentrate on what it is you had to do? What was the feeling like in the studio?
A - I didn't work with Elvis 'til '66. By that time I had worked with almost everyone in Country music. Lots of big stars. It was funny the effect it had on me. I thought, Oh, I'm really happy I'm gonna work with Elvis. He's another artist. I was amazed that the guy had a charisma that I had never witnessed before.
Q - I've heard that said before about Elvis. Tell me about it.
A - It was like when he walked in the room, he absolutely commanded your attention. The only other artist I really ever felt that with was Johnny Cash, and not in the degree with Elvis. You know what? He was the nicest guy. The reason I and some of my mates were booked on Harum Scarum was because the movie studio decided to do the soundtrack kind of at the last minute. All the guys Elvis usually used were busy. They couldn't work for him. So, with Scotty Moore's advice, they hired an alternate band. Of course, in Nashville it's not a problem getting a good band. So, we were all in there first time to work with Elvis and we all felt like, gee, how is he going to react to this, because he's used to those guys that have played with him in the beginning. He was great. He walked around to every music stand, shook everybody's hand and said "Hey, I really appreciate you coming here to help tonight." To me, that was really big.
Q - I take it that most of the people you worked with didn't do what Elvis did?
A - No. Most of 'em were very, very nice, but nobody to the degree Elvis was. I mean, he did this time after time when I worked for him. Most everyone, especially everyone who has their base in this town, are very, very nice.
Q - When Elvis walked into the studio, did he get down to business right away or did he sing Gospel songs to begin with?
A - Well, that first time we kind of got right into it. I think the movie company, they kind of boxed themselves into a corner. I don't know why, but for some reason they got themselves into a situation where they had a deadline that was really tight, so the representative of the movie company was really pushing. So yeah, we jumped right into it. Now on later recordings there were times when an hour or two hours we're doing nothing, but he's over there at the piano. The Jordanaires are around and they're singing Gospel songs.
Q - And what are you doing when he's doing that?
A - We're listening or we're outside having a break.
Q - That didn't bother you?
A - No, not at all because we understood he worked that way quite often. Nobody had a problem with it.
Q - When was the last time you worked with Elvis?
A - I think we got into the early '70s with him. In fact, I have their photo, it's been seen in a lot of places, it's the photo with Elvis and the studio engineer, the producer and the band that's floated around for quite some time. Somebody told me the other day they thought this photo might have been '70 or '71.
Q - What was it like working with Bob Dylan in the studio?
A - Well, it was quite the opposite. He really had nothing to say. He just sang his songs and we played and that was about it. (laughs)
Q - You played harmonica on his album?
A - I played on one song. I played on the song "Obviously Five Believers" from "Blonde On Blonde". On the rest of "Blonde On Blonde" I played pretty much acoustic guitar except for one song, the song called "Rainy Day Women Number 12 And 35" (Everybody Must Get Stoned) I played trumpet on that song. And then on "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline" I played bass on those records.
Q - You are a diversified musician!
A - Yeah, like I said, that's really been a blessing to me to do other things.
Q - Now, did you set out to be a musician? Was there a point in your life when you could have gone in a different direction?
A - Well no, I wanted to be in music from the start. I went to the University Of Maine for one year studying Music Education. However, I had a chance, when I was 18, to come to Nashville and audition as a singer. I used to sing Rock 'n' Roll, Chuck Berry kind of songs. I met Mel Tillis one night. I was playing at a big barn dance in Florida and Mel came in. He heard me play and sing and said "Boy, you go to Nashville and we'll get you on records tomorrow." Well, that was like showing a steak to a wolf. So I arranged to come up here and his manager was a guy named Jim Denny. When I got to town, Mel actually wasn't here. He told his manager about me. He got me auditions with Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley as a singer. So I went into their office and played "Johnny B. Goode". Well, needless to say I was turned down. They were both very, very nice. What I was doing was not what they were doing here. It just wasn't their thing.
Q - What didn't they like? Your voice? Your material? Why couldn't they see through it?
A - It was the style, Rock 'n' Roll, Rhythm And Blues style. They just weren't recording any of that here. After Owen Bradley turned me down, he invited me to watch a session. I had never seen a session before with real musicians. I went to his studio and watched thirteen year old Brenda Lee record her first hit record. When I watched that session and watched those musicians work, it was a life changing experience. At that moment I said "I don't want to sing, I want to do this." That was it. I went back to Florida, went to the university and lasted almost a year, dropped out, went back to Nashville to stay.
Q - As a singer with those bands in Florida, were you also playing an instrument?
A - I was playing guitar mainly, but I played a little harmonica from time to time.
Q - What was the name of your group?
A - I didn't have a group. I was playing at a barn dance called the Old South Jamboree. They hired me to play two or three Rock 'n' Roll songs each hour for the young people.
Q - Do you remember the year?
A - It was a long time ago, like '58, '59.
Q - You were inducted into The Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2009. Was that a big deal for you?
A - It was a very big deal. It's one of the things I've never even thought about because I never even thought it was possible. The morning of the announcement, I walked through The Hall Of Fame counting the two artists that were inducted with me. I had played on records with fifty-three of the people in The Hall Of Fame. Now, counting this year's inductees, I have now played with fifty-seven of them. To me, to just play with those people was all I ever wanted to do. I just wanted to be a studio musician, and I was very, very happy. But seven years ago, The Country Music Hall Of Fame decided that every third year they would induct a studio musician. So that's where it started. The first inducted was Floyd Cramer. And then three years later Harold Bradley, who was the brother of Owen Bradley and one of the very, very first of the mainstays of the studio musicians here. Then three years later it was my turn. There's now one hundred and twelve people and / or acts in The Hall Of Fame
Q - I am rather surprised you would be content being a studio musician rather than going on to be a big star yourself.
A - It's funny about that. Being an artist kind of came after me 'cause once I started doing sessions I said "Hey, this is what I want to do." I'm very happy. A friend of mine and me, well three of us, wrote a song. It was kind of a Rock 'n' Roll song. We made a demo of the song and they said "Why don't you sing it? It's not either of our style." I said "OK, I'll sing it." A couple of months later I get a call from the publisher and he said "Hey, I just got a call from Archie Bleyer with Cadence Records. He wants to record you." I said "Really?" He said "Yeah. He wants you to sing that song, that demo." I said "OK, I'll try it." I made a record in 1961. It was called "Cherry Berry Wine". The record actually got in the Pop charts. Number 99 for one week and dropped out. So, I have been in the Pop charts.
Q - They probably didn't do any promotion for you.
A - No, no, no, no. They did a great job. They were one of the top independent labels in America. For my money, the three top independent labels back then were Casablanca, Sun and Monument. They were the best I ever saw at discovering talent. You think about the people Archie Bleyer discovered. It's incredible. Think about the people Sam Phillips discovered.
Q - That's really incredible!
A - And think about the people Fred Foster discovered at Monument... Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Boots Randolph, Roy Orbison, The Gatlin Brothers and it goes on and on and on. So those three guys for my money were the top finders of talent, unique talent.
Q - So, if Mel Tillis hadn't walked into that barn dance that night, what do you think would've happened to you?
A - I might've been a school teacher, teaching high school chorus. (laughs)