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Charlie McCoy: King of the Nashville Session Men

Updated: May 30, 2022

It was another one of those Nashville moments, when you are having a typical Sunday afternoon and you wind up a few feet away from a genuine music legend, playing songs and telling stories.

In this case it was Charlie McCoy, the legendary Nashville A-Team session man. The Country Music Hall of Fame presents weekly “musician spotlights,” and this was one of them.

Although McCoy is known as one of the best harmonica players in the world, with credits on thousands of country songs, he is a multi-instrumentalist. And I first heard him on Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” from Highway 61 Revisted. It was recorded in New York in 1965, and producer Bob Johnston invited McCoy to sit in. Before he started producing Dylan, Johnston had been a fixture on the Nashville recording scene, where McCoy had been working since 1961.

“Desolation Row” is memorable for two things – Dylan’s lyrics, at once obtuse and vivid; and McCoy’s simple and beautiful guitar fills, responding to every verse.

As the story goes, Dylan had been skeptical of using a Nashville musician, but was amazed at how well the session went, and how quickly McCoy learned his part. Johnston told him this was the way the Nashville pros work.

Eventually Dylan would record four albums in Nashville, opening a floodgate of non-country artists – from Peter Paul and Mary to the Byrds to Simon and Garfunkle - washing over the Music City.

McCoy didn’t bring a guitar to the show we saw. But he was joined on stage by Jason Coleman, a young Nashville piano player, and the grandson of another Nashville legend, Floyd Cramer.

“The very first session I played on, in 1961, Floyd Cramer played on that session,” McCoy said, noting the symmetry.

Although we were there to see McCoy, Coleman was a worthy addition. He’s a master of the “slip-note” country piano style – think of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" - made famous by his grandfather.

What the presence of Coleman also showcased was McCoy’s gift as an accompanist. A player of his stature in a setting like this could be excused for merely showing off his chops on the harp. But McCoy plays songs. Sometimes he was the lead, taking the melody. But other times he was the background, perfectly filling notes to sharpen the spotlight on Coleman. It was a master class in the musical craft.

He took some questions and I asked him about playing with Dylan. Although he has publicly credited Dylan with expanding the Nashville recording scene, he didn't have much to say about him personally.

"I played on five of his albums, and he never once knew the answer to 'hello,'" he told us.

Elvis, on the other hand, "was one of the nicest people I ever played with."

McCoy played on 13 Elvis albums.

He closed the set we saw with an impressive harmonica display on "Orange Blossom Special," on which he recreates the sound of a train by rapidly changing keys back and forth between two harmonicas.

But if you want to understand the true art of session work, give "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones a spin. Many consider it among the classic country music songs, and it features many of the A-team Nashville session players, from background singers to soaring strings. But when you catch McCoy's harmonica, it is the perfect accent to the moment. (For my money, they could have done away with the syrupy strings.) When you hear it, you don't think: "That is great harmonica." You think: "That is perfect, and not a note more than exactly what the song needs."

You can listen to it here:

We'll certainly keep an eye out for more Country Music Hall of Fame spotlights!

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