You may not have heard of Charlie McCoy, but you’ve most probably heard him. He’s one of the most prolific of Nashville session musicians.
One of his most well-known songs is Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man” (basically a gospel song about a girl, in the Ray Charles mode), which opens with the McCoy’s harmonica, giving the song a melancholy edge that lifts it into a special territory. The song was a million seller, but I believe McCoy, around twenty years old when it was recorded, only got a small wage for the session.
The nearest he had to a hit in his own name was a decade later, with “Today I Started Loving You Again”, which I think he wrote the lyrics to. The song was a bigger hit for the great Merle Haggard (with whom I associated the song for a long time).
I learnt of him via Bob Dylan, who first worked with him in 1965, on “Desolation Row”, for which McCoy provides an achingly lovely guitar, the sweetness of which complements the acidity of Dylan’s voice so well, making the song much more poignant. Dylan then went to Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde with McCoy. McCoy plays the trumpet on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” (for which Dylan plays harmonica), giving it its weird fairground ambiance. McCoy also plays guitar on “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”. McCoy then played all of the bass guitar for John Wesley Harding and then (I think) several instruments on Nashville Skyline.
He’s done session work for everyone from Elvis to Ween, but his solo instrumental work is great. Here is his signature tune, “Orange Blossom Special”, a 1930s 12-bar blues-based bluegrass song, in which in which the harmonica basically plays the sound of the train that gives the song its name. McCoy also recorded it with Johnny Cash, who sang the lyrics and perhaps also over-emphasised the train rhythms.