The West Virginia Musician Who Helped Draw Bob Dylan to Nashville

West Virginia native Charlie McCoy (at right) is seen here recording with Bob Dylan in the late ‘60s, most likely in Nashville. | Photo courtesy West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

By MICHAEL LIPTON | Things you should know about West Virginia music!

Charlie McCoy, one of the most prolific session players in American music history, was born and raised in Oak Hill, WV, in Fayette County. McCoy’s trademark instrument is harmonica and over the course of his career,  he has played on more than 10,000 recordings. Fact is, if you hear a country song with a harmonica, you can pretty much bet it’s Charlie.

But he’s also proficient on guitar, bass, keyboards, trumpet, saxophone, and tuba, and has recorded with many rock artists including Elvis, Paul Simon, Leon Russell, the Steve Miller Band, and Ringo Starr. McCoy, who has won a Grammy Award, two Country Music Association Awards and eight Academy of Country Music Awards, has charted more country instrumentals than any artist.

At first blush, one of the more surprising connections is McCoy’s connection with Bob Dylan—and that on his first recording with Dylan he played lead guitar.

The next thing McCoy knew, Dylan asked him to pick up a guitar and play on a new song called “Desolation Row.”

McCoy was in New York City and his friend, producer Bob Johnston (who also produced recordings for Elvis), asked him to stop by the studio where Dylan was recording. The next thing McCoy knew, Dylan asked him to pick up a guitar and play on a new song called “Desolation Row.”

Dylan played the song through once. Then, Dylan, McCoy, and bassist Russ Savakus recorded two takes of the 11-plus-minute song. Dylan recorded other versions of the song, but the one featuring McCoy’s melodic guitar fills closed out Dylan’s 1965 LP “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Audio of “Desolation Row” from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” with West Virginia native Charlie McCoy on guitar.

Johnston had been trying to get Dylan to record in Nashville. The New York session cracked open that door. McCoy’s spontaneous contribution to Dylan’s epic song helped convince him to give Nashville a try. McCoy went on to contribute to every Dylan album from 1965 to 1970.

At age 79, McCoy continues to perform internationally and he records regularly, with more than a dozen recording sessions so far in 2020. In 2017, he came to Charleston, WV, and added tracks to the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame CD tribute to 2007 inductee Little Jimmy Dickens, playing on almost all the tracks. (You can order the CD at this link.)

McCoy was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Charlie McCoy in 2017 at WVMHoF founder Michael Lipton’s house in Charleston WV, recording tracks for a Hall of Fame tribute album to Little Jimmy Dickens.

The Wikipedia entry for Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” album positions its significant role in American music history:

“Highway 61 Revisted” is the sixth studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on August 30, 1965 by Columbia Records. Having until then recorded mostly acoustic music, Dylan used rock musicians as his backing band on every track of the album, except for the closing track, the 11-minute ballad “Desolation Row“. Critics have focused on the innovative way Dylan combined driving, blues-based music with the subtlety of poetry to create songs that captured the political and cultural chaos of contemporary America. Author Michael Gray has argued that, in an important sense, the 1960s “started” with this album.

DATE WORTH NOTING: The eighth induction ceremony into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame begins 7 p.m., Nov. 14, 2020, in the Culture Center Theater in the W.Va. State Capitol Complex in Charleston, WV. This year’s inductees include: The Davis Twins, The Hammons Family, Mayf Nutter, Ethel Caffie-Austin, and Larry Groce. Read more about them at this link

Michael Lipton is founder and director of the non-profit West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, dedicated to documenting and preserving the contributions West Virginians have made to all genres of music.

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