Multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy has worked on thousands of Nashville sessions since the early 1960s, when he played harmonica on Roy Orbison's "Candy Man." Rock fans are most familiar with McCoy from his guitar and bass playing on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline; he's also played on albums by Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, Waylon Jennings, and Tanya Tucker, as well as making records as a solo artist, and as a member of Area Code 615.
When did you first record in Nashville?
I came here in 1960, and I did my first session in August of '61.
Was that the Roy Orbison session ("Candy Man")?
There were only a couple of major studios in Nashville--Owen Bradley's and Studio B--when you started playing sessions, right?
Yeah, this is true. They were the only two that were really doing anything. And it was pretty much the same group of guys that was doing all the sessions. So if the session went late at one place, they'd just wait for 'em, you know? Pretty much it was mostly the same musicians were doing most of the work, so therefore when people would be booking sessions, they would go for this group of musicians. If they were busy, they'd just book it at an alternate time.
How would you compare working at Owen Bradley's place to the RCA studio?
They were very similar. Everybody knew everybody. We all knew the engineer very well. They had fine engineers at both places. It was pretty much the same people playing, so there wasn't really a lot of difference.
What would you say were the main characteristics of the sound that developed in the '60s, when Nashville really became the center of country production, and a lot of rock and pop for that matter?
One of the neat things that happened here was that the fact that Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins were such great musicians in their own right, you know? I worked for a lot of producers out of New York and all who weren't really music people. They were more just like organizers. They just kind of kept the session moving, and kept time of the takes. Whereas Owen and Chet were both very, very fine musicians. So it really changed a lot. I think that the sound of the records reflect--hey, here's a musician in charge of this, because you can hear every instrument. The mixing was just really outstanding.
As a session player, what's the most important quality that someone like yourself or the regular crew you were working with brought to a session?
#1, the artist and the song was always the number one item. It was like check your egos at the door, and go in there and do what you can do to make this record the best it can be. That's the kind of attitude that you needed to become a studio musician.
Did the reliance upon a relatively small circle of session musicians affect how the music developed in the studio?
I think so, yeah. Because everyone was used to each other, and the people that were the session leaders, I mean, they really had a handle on what everybody could and could not do. It was so much familiarity. Mainly we'd just listen to the song and try to let the song dictate what was going on.
What were the main differences between working the sessions when you started out to the present, where there's tons of studios and it's a much bigger business?
No doubt about it. It's just huge. I would say the thing about it today is that there's so many musicians. Sometimes I'll work four or five sessions in a week and never see the same musicians twice any more. It was almost unheard of back in the old days. Everybody knew everybody. There are so many musicians now, and there's really a lot of great ones I must say, the one thing that I've seen, the one common thread that ties today's recordings with the old, is the pride. All these musicians today still have that fierce pride about, "Man, I want this session to be great, because I want to play on a hit." You still can feel that, no matter what the group of musicians are.
How would you compare the atmosphere of studios in Nashville to the ones in LA and New York, aside from what you've mentioned about Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley's musicianship?
In the early early days, everyone in New York and Los Angeles pretty much, it was all written music. Whereas it's almost always been what we call "head" sessions here, played by ear. I felt like the musicians here took much more of an interest in the song. I worked some sessions in New York and Los Angeles, and I just feel like the musicians here feel like they are more a part of the record than the people in New York and LA. A lot of that's changed. There's some very fine musicians in LA. Most of them have moved to Nashville (laughs).
You were doing some stuff as a solo artist when you started out, and you've made a lot of solo records, besides playing in bands like Area Code 615. Is a lot of humility necessary to be a session musician, where you have to adapt yourself to all kinds of other songs and artists?
The fact that I started as a studio musician, that was just the mentality we had. That's always been my first consideration, was the song and the artist. I think it makes me a better solo artist, because I kind of know what it takes to cut a good record, 'cause I've been involved in so many of them from the other side.
What was it that brought Dylan to Nashville in 1966? He had recorded everything in New York up to that point.
Bob Dylan started to record with the producer Bob Johnston, who I had a real good relationship with. Bob Johnston came to Nashville as a songwriter from Texas, and he had heard some records that me and some of my buddies had played on, and he decided that we might be just what we needed to do his demos, because he wanted to do some demos a little bit out of the ordinary, straight-ahead country thing. He was writing a little bit of country-rock, plus he had a connection to Elvis to the movies. He hired me to lead his sessions, and we got a group of musicians together.
When he got his job with CBS, they assigned him Bob Dylan. He went to New York and kept telling Bob, "Boy, I'd sure like for you to come to Nashville to record." One time I was in New York to go to the World's Fair, and he called me up and invited me to a session, just to come over and meet Bob Dylan. So I went over and he said, "Hey, why don't you play on this song?" And I said, "What do you want me to play?" And he said, "Oh, grab a guitar over there." So we established some kind of a rapport over there, and then after that, it went real easy. He was pretty happy with what happened, and so after that Bob Johnston talked him into coming down here to try it once.
Was it comfortable with Bob and the Nashville guys in the studio?
Not at first. He came in and didn't have his song finished. He said, "You guys just be patient while I finish this song." We came in at two, and he started to write on the song, and 4am the next morning he said, "Okay, I'm ready to record."
Was that "Sad-Eyed Lady"?
Yeah. After you've tried to stay awake til 4 o'clock in the morning, to play something so slow and long was really, really tough. The whole Blonde on Blonde experience, I felt like he was a little, maybe just a little uncomfortable. But the next time he came back, for John Wesley Harding,it was like totally different. He was like a different person. I understand that something had happened...I guess he'd had, what, a wreck...
A motorcycle accident.
I'm not sure that that had anything to do with his recording attitude, but I noticed a really marked difference in his whole demeanor the second time around.
More relaxed, I assume?
Oh yeah. The time that it took us to record--we did John Wesley Hardingin nine-and-a-half hours, the whole record!
Even by the standards of that time, it was quick.
It wasn't [quick] for normal Nashville country music, [but for someone like Dylan] it was quite a different way of doing it. For us that were used to the four songs a session, we thought, how in the world can these people [like the Beatles] spend this much time? Of course, we couldn't identify with these monstrous recording budgets, because nobody in Nashville at the time had a monstrous recording budget.
Even Roy Orbison?
No, uh-uh. They were very efficient with Roy Orbison.
Fred Foster, or Roy, or the combination got a really good sound. Was there any technique involved in getting such a good balance between his vocals and the orchestration that was on a lot of the records?
Roy was one of those guys that, he didn't believe in overdub. It just wasn't in his vocabulary. In fact, that was a technique that was really not used much back then. So it took him a long time to warm his voice up. He would sing and sing until he got his take. It was like old-time recording. Here's a singer that is going to get it on the session and he's gonna sing til he gets it right. It took him a long time to get his voice loose and warmed up, so his recordings went on for...they would spend an hour-and-a-half on one song, which was kind of unusual for here at the time. But that was the way they did it. And the whole orchestra was there, the background singers were there--it was all done at once. There was never anything added.
In a space like RCA Studio B, that's a lot of people to fit into one session.
Oh yeah. It was very crowded!
After Dylan had made albums in Nashville, did that draw a lot of other non-country acts into the studios there?
Absolutely. It was like the floodgates opened after he came. People started coming like the Byrds, Buffy St Marie, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen--it was almost like, oh, okay, if Dylan went there, then it must be okay.
You've gotten a lot of attention for your work with Dylan, Orbison, and stars like Paul Simon. Are there any sessions that people don't ask you about that you're particularly proud of?
There's some really neat records probably most people would never be aware of. I think one of the finest records that Owen Bradley ever did--he had a singer called Wilma Burgess. He did a record, the title was "Baby." They came in with a song and it was like he totally took the song apart and put it back together. And when he put it back together, it was a whole different song, and it was a big hit for her--the only hit she ever had. But it was really his expertise--the way he dissected the song and then put it back together as a totally different thing, it was really one of my favorite records I ever played on.
Anything else you want to add?
I still believe the key to Nashville's success is that people here really care. I think the studio musicians here have a way that, when they're in a session with somebody, for these three hours, Joe Blow is just as important as Garth Brooks. I really think that's the key to Nashville's success.
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