"Desolation Row" is arguably Dylan's peak as a lyric writer, it's amazing how relevant, prescient even the words still sound- the song and performance gives me chills. Charlie McCoy's improvised guitar lines play a wonderful counterpoint to Dylan's singing, dipping in and out of the endless verses, sometimes echoing, sometimes answering.
TV STORE ONLINE: So how did you come to get involved with Bob Dylan and play with him on Blonde On Blonde?
McCOY: That came about because of Bob Johnston. Bob had first come to Nashville as a songwriter. He was writing songs for Elvis Presley's songwriting company. When Elvis would get ready to shoot a new movie--his team would send out the script to the various songwriting companies and writers would compete to see what songs they could get into his movies. I came to work with Bob, because he had called me to ask if I could help run his sessions for some demos for Elvis.
Bob ended up getting six or seven songs into a couple different Elvis movies and I worked as a musician on those recordings with him. We had a bunch of songs that didn't make it into the movies and so Bob took those to New York to pitch them around. They ended up in the hands of a Columbia Records A&R man. He said, "These demos are great. Did you produce these?"
Bob was smart enough to tell the man that he had and the A&R guy said, "Would you consider producing records here for Columbia?" Bob ended up producing a session after that here in Nashville with Patti Page for Columbia. It was the theme song for the movie HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964). I played on that as well. It was a hit for Patti Page, and because of that...Columbia decided that he needed to do something else for them. They put him with Bob Dylan. Bob moved to New York City and we stayed in touch. He said, "If you're ever in New York City--get a hold of me--and I'll give you a couple of a tickets to a Broadway show..." Not longer after that--I found myself in New York City. I called him up and said, "Can I get those Broadway tickets?" He said, " Sure, come over to the studio this afternoon. I'm recording Bob Dylan and I'd like for you to meet him."
I went over to the Columbia studio and Bob introduced me to Dylan. He said, "Hey, I'm getting ready to record a song. Why don't you pick up that guitar over there and play along?"
The song that we played was 'Desolation Row'.
I think Bob Johnston had a plan from the start to lure Dylan to Nashville to record the album.
Johnston told me later than after I had left the studio he went to Dylan and said, "See! That was easy, wasn't it? If we go to Nashville the recording of the new album will be much easier than it will be here in New York." So Bob Johnston talked Dylan into recording his next album in Nashville, and Dylan recorded three of his best albums there.
TV STORE ONLINE: When you met Dylan in New York City at the studio, had you been familiar with his past work?
McCOY: Of course. 'The Times They Are A-Changin' had made a huge impression on me. So when he asked me to play along with him that day I was a little bit taken by surprise because while I played guitar I didn't really consider myself to be a great guitar player. Dylan hit me with this eleven minute song and tasked me to play all of the fills in it.
TV STORE ONLINE: With Bob Dylan deciding to record in Nashville...Do you think that it did anything for the music scene after he had left?
McCOY: Oh Yeah. With Dylan coming here to record...Well, it was like he had put his stamp of approval on us. The flood gates just opened up. It got me really busy...(Laughing). I was running all around. I was working all hours of the day. There were some very tired weeks in there. By that time, I was also starting to record a lot of with Elvis Presley and between Elvis and Bob Dylan I was running out of steam because those guys were all-night type of guys.
TV STORE ONLINE: And not skipping over Elvis...You played not just on those early '60s demos for Bob Johnston but also some of Elvis's early '70s work like 'The Next Step Is Love'...
McCOY: That's right. I played organ on that. When it was all said and done--I played on five movie tracks for Elvis and on seven of his albums. I played on 'Big Boss Man', 'High-Heeled Sneakers'. I played on his gospel album and two of his Christmas albums. Elvis loved recording in Nashville and he loved the studio because it was his safe place.
TV STORE ONLINE: Blonde On Blonde--I'm dying to hear these stories....
McCOY: Well, I can remember the first day of recording... We didn't do much that day.... We were booked into the studio for 2 p.m and Dylan's flight came in late from wherever he was coming in from and he didn't make it into the studio until well past 6 p.m. that day. He and Bob Johnston walked in and Bob said, "he's not done writing the first song yet. So just hang loose..." It was us, the usual Nashville rhythm section and also Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson there. We waited. Then we waited some more.
Finally at 4 a.m., the next morning he was ready to start. We started with 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands'. A fourteen-minute ballad. Everyone was in that studio saying, "God! Please don't allow me to make a mistake." It was tough because we had been waiting for so long and had been up all night waiting. Taking this approach to recording was unheard of in Nashville. It just didn't happen in this way. None of us had encountered anything like it before. I figured it took us thirty-nine-and-a-half hours to record Blonde On Blonde with Dylan and it took us nine-and-a-half hours to record John Wesley Harding with him here.
TV STORE ONLINE: Why do you think it took Dylan so long to record Blonde On Blonde? It seems to me as if it was the zenith of his creativity as a musician and songwriter....
McCOY: You know, I think he was unsure of himself and he was unsure of us. He was also writing as he went along. When he came to Nashville again to do John Wesley Harding--he had the whole album already written and that went together very quickly.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've wondered from my reading about Dylan if he wasn't feeling the pressures around him? His audience had wanted him to be the voice of their generation....It seemed like he had been going too hard and too long. As if he needed a break?
McCOY: I felt that was just normal for him. I felt that John Wesley Harding was something brand new for him. To do Blonde On Blonde....To record that in such a long and drawn out fashion just seemed (to me) that it was something that he was used to doing.
TV STORE ONLINE: And you played guitar on 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands'?
McCOY: I did. I ended up playing several different instruments on Blonde On Blonde. I played Harmonica on 'Obviously Five Believers' and I played the Trumpet on 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35'. Then on John Wesley Harding I played the Bass. I also played Bass for him on the recording of Nashville Skyline as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: Playing Bass on Nashville Skyline must have been incredible especially playing on 'Lay Lady Lay' and on 'The Girl From The North Country' with Dylan and Johnny Cash?
McCOY: Well, I was good friends with Johnny. I had played on several of his albums. I was used to working with Johnny.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to your playing on 'Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands'.... Was your part just something that you worked out with Dylan and Johnston?
McCOY: I was just playing acoustic rhythm on that. I was just following.
TV STORE ONLINE: Does Dylan give any directions?
McCOY: No, not really. We just played along. I was session leader and I was supposed to be the middle man between the artist, the producer and the band. When you would ask Dylan for some feedback he really wouldn't give you anything. You'd say something like, "Hey Bob, how about we try such and such...?" He's only say, "I don't know, man. What do you think?" Finally I went to Bob Johnston and said, "You know, I'm asking him about such and such and I'm not getting any answers. I don't know if he's happy with what we're doing or not." I eventually just stopped asking him because I figured that if he wasn't happy with what we were doing he'd probably tell us.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to your playing on Rainy Day Women #12 & 35...How did that come to fruition?
McCOY: That afternoon that we were supposed to record--Bob Johnston said, "Tonight, Dylan wants to record a song with a Salvation Army Band sound. Let's use a Trumpet and a Trombone. Can you get a couple guys in here tonight?" I said, "With the Trumpet...You want it to be good?" He said, "No, man...It's supposed to be Salvation Army..." So I played the trumpet and I called a friend of mine to come in and play the Trombone.
TV STORE ONLINE: How many takes on the recording of something like Rainy Day Women?
McCOY: Just two or three takes. He came in and ran the song down. It was pretty obvious as to what we were supposed to do. Bob Johnston said something like, "I want you guys to yell and holler like it's a real party during it." When you listen to the record now...Those noises you hear in the background were done live while we were recording. It wasn't overdubbed in later.
TV STORE ONLINE: How about 'Obviously Five Believers'?
McCOY: Dylan couldn't have played that riff. It was out of his style.
TV STORE ONLINE: The harp riff goes all throughout the song. And it's a Little Walter riff, isn't it?
McCOY: Absolutely. Bob Johnston said, "You should probably play the harp on this one..."
TV STORE ONLINE: For all the time that Dylan spent writing songs in the studio...It seems like he was efficient in the sense that he never wanted to stop when he was in the actual studio... When he was in the studio he just wanted to keep going and going?
McCOY: Absolutely. The thing is...Dylan never made a mistake in the studio. And you would think that he would've had at least had a little trouble remembering the lyrics to these songs as we were recording them but he never had any problems in the studio with them. He was always right-on with the lyrics and the melodies.
TV STORE ONLINE: You played Trumpet also on "You'll Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine.."
McCOY: I did. The song that I most admire though of my playing with Dylan is 'Lay Lady Lay'.
TV STORE ONLINE: Nashville Skyline, the album, clocks in at being an entire album that runs just twenty-seven minutes long.
McCOY: I know!
TV STORE ONLINE: You also played with Dylan on his 1970 Self Portrait album?
McCOY: That was a weird one. Dylan wasn't even there. I think what happened there was that he and Bob Johnston were coming to the end of their collaboration. I wasn't privy to the state of their relationship at that time so I'm not for certain on that though. Bob had access to some piano and guitar demos that Dylan had made, and so he must have thought that he could squeeze one more album out. I'm not too sure if Dylan is happy with that record... Some of that stuff on Self Portrait was hard to play because Dylan was doing piano and guitar demos and also singing on them so the tempo wasn't always steady. It was difficult to work on that.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you think that Nashville had an influence on Dylan? The music changes radically from Blonde On Blonde to Nashville Skyline in terms of sound...
McCOY: I saw a huge Nashville influence there. There is country and folk music in there. In particular on John Wesley Harding, whereas on Blonde on Blonde--it's a very bluesy album.