|Charlie McCoy Interview with Richie Unterberger
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
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
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
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.
contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2003