Meet W.Va. Native Charlie McCoy - A Harmonica Rockstar

Sep 8, 2017

Even if you don’t recognize the name Charlie McCoy, you’ve probably heard his music. Many of the great musicians who recorded in Nashville over the past fifty years have played with McCoy, a native of West Virginia who’s been working in the Nashville music industry for over five decades. He’s recorded with some of the best known country music and rock and roll legends, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and George Jones. Charlie McCoy's new memoir is called 50 Cents and a Box Top

On a recent episode of Inside Appalachia, McCoy spoke about his life's story, which began in Oak Hill, W.Va. He was eight years old when he got his first harmonica, the instrument that would later launch his career as a session musician in Nashville.

“I saw an ad in a comic book,” recalled McCoy. The ad said, "You can play harmonica in seven days or your money back. Send us 50 cents and a box top."

“And so I conned my mom out of 50 cents. You know she was a single mom in 1949 50 cents was some money. It would buy something. And but she bought this for me, and it felt like forever before it finally came. After about a day she said, ‘could you take it outside?' You know an 8-year-old kid with a harmonica doesn't have a clue what he's doing. And I'm just making noise and that's when I discovered that dogs and cats don't really care for harmonicas. All of the neighborhood animals would protest as well.” 

McCoy put that harmonica away for a few years. After all, he was more excited about playing baseball and guitar. But when he was in high school, he remembered his old harmonica again when he heard blues harmonica player Jimmy Reed, playing on the radio.

“Well the harmonica was so haunting the way he did it. Course I was a child of the 50s you know, and rock and roll hit it hit the radio like a like a storm you know. Then one day while surfing the radio dial I ran into a rhythm and blues station and I heard a record by Jimmy Reed and when I heard that record with that harmonica you know it's like it hit me in the head hey I got one of those. So then I got reintroduced to the harmonica in a big way.”

Charlie McCoy and the Escorts perform at the Jolly Roger in Printers Alley, circa 1965. From left to right: Wayne Butler, Jerry Tuttle, Kenny Buttrey, Mac Gayden, and Charlie McCoy.
Credit Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

By this time, McCoy had moved to Miami, Florida, with his dad, who bought him an electric guitar and got him music lessons. In the Miami public schools, his music teachers recognized he had a special gift for learning music by ear.

“The school system in Florida decided to experiment with music theory. I was like a sponge. I couldn't get enough of it.”

First Taste of the Music City

Then, towards the end of his senior year in high school, McCoy met a Nashville songwriter named Mel Tillis, who promised to help him get a contract with a record company, if he ever made his way to Nashville.

“You know that was like showing a steak to a wolf. And so I went to Nashville and got to the office of his manager. And they said, ‘Well, Mel's out of town.’”

But the publisher got McCoy an audition with Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, who at that time were two of the major producers in Nashville.

“And both of those guys turned Charlie down,” said Travis Stimeling, a music historian who co-wrote Charlie McCoy’s book. Like McCoy, he’s a West Virginia native. (He now teaches at West Virginia University and directs the school’s bluegrass band.)

Stimeling was first introduced to McCoy as a little kid from the weekly television show, Hee Haw. "I remember Charlie McCoy, playing harmonica with the musicians. I thought, that guy’s pretty cool. The more research I did, as an adult, I realized he really could play with everybody. Reason he could play on Hee Haw with all these great musicians is that he helped record with them. He knew their work because he helped make it.”

Rejection Helped McCoy Find His Calling

But Charlie McCoy says his first rejection in Music City actually helped him find his calling as a session musician.  

Back to that day in 1959, Charlie McCoy had just been turned down by the two producers in Nashville. “And of course the best thing they did for me was turn me down as a singer,” said McCoy. That's because one of the producers, Owen Bradley, invited him to see a recording session at his studio. 13-year-old Brenda Lee was recording a song, called “Sweet Nothins'”.

“And when I watched those musicians and then heard that first playback, at that moment I said, ‘hey I don't want to be a singer I want to do this.’ So that was that was my goal then to be a studio musician,” said McCoy.

Charlie McCoy playing with the original Nashville A Team
Credit courtesy Charlie McCoy

The Road Back to Nashville

After he saw his first recording session in Nashville, Charlie McCoy was certain that’s what he wanted to do. But his dad insisted he finish college. He was in the middle of his freshman year at the University of Miami as a music major. So, he went back to Florida.

“I had a teacher, a 70-year-old lady from France. Her name was Madame Renée Longy, and she had taught the great Leonard Bernstein, and she was incredible. And man, I'll tell you when I when I came out of that class I think I could write down a bird on a telephone wire. I mean it was that intense. And that that class would serve me well for the rest of my career,” said McCoy.

“Longe was actually [a] supportive teacher in a lot of ways,” said Travis Stimeling.

“She was the one who said, ‘Hey Charlie, if you want to do country music, you want to do rock and roll, go do it. Make your own music. You don’t have to do this conservatory thing.’”

So he made his way back to Nashville, and in 1961, he got his first big break. He was asked to record harmonica on a song called “I Just Don’t Understand.” Ann Margaret was the singer.

“[She was] a bombshell beauty from Sweden,” said Stimeling. “That showed Charlie off as kind of a harmonica player. That was really his first breakthrough as a session player,” said Stimeling.

From 1962 on, Charlie had fairly steady session work, playing with Roy Orbison, Elvis, and Bob Dylan. He helped record three albums with Dylan, starting with Blonde on Blonde, an album that Stimeling researched while helping Charlie write his book.

“I went to New York and listened to the outtakes from that album. And you know, there are moments where it's clear Dylan doesn't know what he wants, you know, in terms of musical feel or the structure of the song and maybe even in some cases the lyrics haven't been fully worked out. And there's Charlie quietly kind of politely and politically trying to steer all of the musicians and steering Dylan toward something that would be a great album. And so that album Blonde on Blonde is considered a landmark album now, but it wouldn't have happened without Charlie.”

Blonde on Blonde was an album that changed Nashville forever,” said McCoy. “Because after that album was released all of the folk-rock artists wanted to record here. It was like Bob Dylan put his stamp of approval on Nashville. And boy the floodgates did open.”

Music Theory Training Gave McCoy a Boost

In sessions, McCoy’s musical theory training from high school and college helped him learn songs quickly. He could figure out intuitively how to create musical arrangements on the spot. He could also play multiple instruments, even playing the trumpet and the tuba at the same time. Another trick with two harmonicas impressed Johnny Cash.

“The song that Charlie's best known for with Johnny Cash is a song called the “Orange Blossom Special,” which of course is an old fiddle tune from Florida. And so Charlie figures out a system to play the song using two different harmonicas, and he kind of swaps back and forth between them. And that's what he recorded with Cash the end of the session. Cash says, ‘hey could you teach me how to do that?’ And Charlie says, ‘well I can do you one better. Here are the two harmonicas I use they're yours now.’”

More Than Fifty Years Recording Albums

Meanwhile, apart from his session work, Charlie McCoy also worked on the show, Hee Haw (you know the one, with Minnie Pearl and Roy Clark.) Most of the actors and musicians wore overalls.

“So I decided to try it for one season. Well you know it ended up 18 seasons,” said McCoy.

The show ran from 1969 to 1991. After it was canceled, McCoy kept on with session work. He also recorded 40 solo albums and has regularly toured across the United States, Europe and Japan.

He was inducted into the West Virginia hall of fame in 2008 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009. Even though he’s quick to point out that back in 1960 he was a college dropout, he was given an honorary doctorate of Music from West Virginia University last year.

“Well it's tall corn for a kid from Fayette County. I can tell you that,” said McCoy.

“You really can’t go too deep in the American popular music in the landscape of the last 50 years without finding Charlie. He’s everywhere,” said Travis Stimeling.

“So we play a game in my house called ‘Can you Spot Charlie?’ When we’re listening to one of the classic country station and I’ll make everybody in the car guess what is Charlie playing now. When he’s playing harmonica, that’s easy, but when he’s playing bass, that’s another story altogether.”

“I mean he’s everywhere. And the thing is, he’s been able to play for 56 years as a consequence of that. If he were just a harmonica player not so sure that that would have worked out."

Even though he spent a lot of his teenage years in Florida and most of his adulthood in Nashville, McCoy still calls himself a West Virginian.

“I'm really proud. My brother still lives in Fayetteville. And we did 18 years of concerts in Fayetteville, raising money for the town park. And I'm proud to have the park with my name on it. I love to go back there.”

“You know it wasn't till I moved away that I realized how beautiful it is. And I would so look forward to coming back. I mean, I was asked to play the national anthem for the dedication of the New River Gorge Bridge. And that gorge right there with a bridge, I mean, that's just one of the most beautiful spots I've ever seen.”

At 76, Charlie McCoy still keeps busy recording music and touring. He says he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

Charlie McCoy’s new book is called 50 Cents and a Box Top.