A Musician’s Musician: Charlie McCoy
Music memoirs are all the rage these days. Every fall, major publishers flood bookstores with the latest stories from artists driven to tell every detail of a life well, or not-so-well, lived and the music they made and that propelled them through their ups and downs.
Such memoirs fall generally into three categories. Some, like Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear (William Morrow), tiresomely catalog an artist’s immersion in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, providing very little insight into the artist’s music or the value of music in the artist’s life. Second, some musicians use their memoirs to settle scores, either with bandmates or the music industry; John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son (Little, Brown) is a recent example of such a memoir. Memoirs in this category tend to focus on the music, though, and are often written vibrantly enough to hold interest without losing the reader in the details of the scores being settled. Finally, the best kind of music memoir focuses on the music and its deep value for the artist, and the artist holds the reader’s attention with powerful and amusing storytelling; the best recent example is Rita Coolidge’s Delta Lady. Coolidge draws in her readers as if they were sitting around the fireplace in her living room—and her prose is that inviting—and she regales them with stories of her rock and roll life and the lessons she learned through the many disappointments and joys of life in music. It’s one of the best music memoirs of the decade because it’s elegantly written and it provides readers with a sense of how music shaped an artist’s life even amid a good deal of personal loss.
Charlie McCoy’s new, long-awaited, memoir, 50 Cents and a Box Top: The Creative Life of Nashville Session Musician Charlie McCoy (West Virginia University Press), written with Travis D. Stimeling (Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks: The Countercultural Sounds of Austin’s Progressive Country Music, Oxford), fits squarely into this third category. McCoy knows how to tell a story and how to compel us to listen to his stories. He reveals no drama in his memoir—the only episode of drug use he discusses is one in which he turns away a dealer because of his previous bad experience with an amphetamine—and he sticks to the music and the difference it has made in his life. For example, we know very little about McCoy’s personal life until the book’s final chapter, when he introduces his wife and children in an anecdotal fashion, almost as if they came into his life much later and he’s just now remembering to include them in his story. Clearly, though, the dynamics of his family life didn’t play an important role in shaping his music life, so he doesn’t weave them into his larger narrative. We’re surprised to hear about his family and their accomplishments when we do, but by then it’s unimportant to us whether he has a family or not.
Charlie McCoy continues to be one of Nashville’s greatest musicians, and it’s about time he told his own story of the deep contributions he’s made to the music scene in Nashville for over 50 years. In a straightforward manner that’s almost too prosaic at times, McCoy draws us into the story of his life from a childhood divided between living with his mother in West Virginia and his father in Miami. As a very young child, he acquires his first harmonica for “50 cents and a box top,” and his mother reads him the instructions on playing it. Just a few years later his mother buys him a Harmony guitar and his uncle shows him a few chords. Soon enough, he’s mastered both instruments enough to start finding his way in the music world, joining rock and roll bands in Miami as a teenager after his father buys him an electric guitar. McCoy is good enough at age 18 to make it to Nashville and audition for legendary RCA producer Owen Bradley; although that first trip to the studio doesn’t produce a contract, a disappointed McCoy sits in on a recording session for a 13-year-old Brenda Lee, and he’s bitten by the session music bug. Eventually, McCoy is playing sessions with the cream of the crop of Nashville session musicians, including Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Harold Bradley, and Scotty Moore. One of the early songs he sits in on is Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”
One of the real achievements of McCoy’s memoir is the glimpse it gives into the life of session musician, the unsung heroes of so much music. The Wrecking Crew—the group of LA studio musicians that included Glen Campbell and Leon Russell—has now become better known because of the documentary and the book that tracks their work, but so far as I know, no book has been devoted to Nashville session musicians. It’s fascinating to see the glimpse McCoy gives of his work and the work of these musicians, many of whom—like McCoy—recorded albums of their own. In Nashville, as McCoy points out, session musicians developed their own system for playing music—the “Nashville number system,” which he explains in Appendix A—so that they could move as quickly and as productively through as many sessions a day, and night, as possible. Having such a system in place also allows the musicians to play as many diverse styles of music as possible. McCoy himself is a musician’s musician, able to sit in on just about any instrument—though he’s become best known as a harmonica player—from drums to piano to bass to guitar to trumpet.
Overall, 50 Cents and a Box Top provides the entertaining story of a musician—and a time in Nashville music history—who deserves to be even better known by a wider range of fans. In fact, one of the shortcomings of the book is that it’s such an insider’s tale; music fans who already know McCoy will love the book, but let’s hope it reaches beyond that audience, too. In his chapter titled “The Artists,” for example, McCoy does little more than list in very brief fashion the numerous artists, from Elvis to Leonard Cohen, with whom he’s worked over the years. Entertaining? Yes. Informative? No. The chapter lacks the depth necessary for us to understand why these artists are important to McCoy. In the end, it doesn’t matter, though, since McCoy wants simply to tell the story of his life and these artists provide the backdrop to his narrative.
We’ve been waiting for McCoy to tell us his story and can be grateful that has now done so in such compelling and entertaining fashion.