This is the first of what I hope to be many blogs on recorded songs that I think are perfection or near perfection. They will vary in genre, but probably most in the bluegrass format. We start with a personal favorite, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by the Del McCoury Band.
The song – Written by folk-rock legend Richard Thompson, it tells the tale of a girl admiring a boy’s motorcycle. Good girl and bad boy fall in love. Bad boy can’t change his ways, and attempts to rob a store, and gets shot. On his deathbed, he gives her one last kiss and his motorcycle. Now, this is no ordinary motorbike. Manufactured from 1948 to 1952, it was the fastest production motorcycle of its time. There is a famous photo of racer Rollie Free riding one lying flat on his stomach wearing only swimming trunks and a helmet at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948, setting the land speed record of 150 mph. There are only 19 known Black Lightning bikes in existence today. One sold in auction for $929,000 in 2018. The song is unique in that it does not have a chorus – just four long verses that tell the romantic story. It has been covered numerous times, but most prior to 2001 have stayed close to Thompson’s original with a minimal guitar and vocals. DMcB made it a bluegrass standard.
The band – Del McCoury has been a Blue Grass Boy, and has led his own band for nearly 50 years. In the mid-1990s, he formed his present band with his two sons, Rob on banjo and Ronnie on mandolin. Adding Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on bass, this band became more than a powerhouse. They were THEEE bluegrass band that no one dared challenged. When they performed, usually around one or two microphones the old-fashioned way, it is magic. Everyone of them has won an award for their musical work, as well as the band being honored numerous times. Mike left the band around 2006, but every album that this lineup recorded is an textbook example of how a modern traditional bluegrass band should sound.
The recording – DMcB’s version is the lead-off track for the band’s 2001 album Del and the Boys. With the banjo kick-off, it automatically becomes a head-turner. Rob is not using a standard G tuning on his banjo. Instead, he uses a Concert tuning, which sounds a bit darker and works well with songs in the key of C (like this one). That 10-note intro just sounds like from another bluegrass planet. It is gold! Once the band kicks in, it is a diesel train coming at you full-force. DMcB takes a standard bluegrass instrument lineup and turns it into a wall of sound. Many bluegrass bands have strived for this sound, but few can achieve it.
When Del sings, it is soulful. Soulful like Otis Redding. Very few in bluegrass can even come close. That Pennsylvania-meets-Nashville drawl makes it even more special. His accents are slightly different than Thompson’s original. Del is a master at bluegrass vocals, knowing exactly what fits. He is a teacher at it without even knowing. A distinction to the recording is that there is no typical bluegrass harmony vocals. The band has the goods for it – Ronnie and Jason have excellent harmony voices and have done the job many times. However, the song is a story with no repeats, and it forces you to listen to the narrator. Extra voices would only be a distraction.
The lead instrumental parts are perfectly fitting into the song. Expert-sounding without being flashy. Jason’s fiddle and Ronnie’s mandolin could not be any more exact for the song. During the third verse when Del sings about the boy James getting shot, Rob kicks into a 7th chord that puts emphasis onto the scene, which makes the listener pay even more attention. Then in the fourth and final verse, it begins with just Del singing and Rob’s banjo. The production lets the listener know in a musical way that James is breathing his last without having to listen to the lyrics. However, the lyrics are important, and Del’s vocal tone makes you listen to him. Overall, DMcB is extremely successful in taking a tragic story and putting it into a foot-tapping mide-tempo bluegrass song.
The results – this recording is 20 years old, and is still a mainstay with bluegrass radio programs. It has achieved that classic status, in the same category as Bill Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrooks” and Jimmy Martin’s “Sunny Side of the Mountain.” It has become a jam standard, more so accepted because it doesn’t require harmony vocal (although some banjo players may get frustrated having to re-tune). For bluegrass fans, those first few banjo notes are that same as the first chords of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” It defines a certain sound of the genre, one that fans know that they can go to for definition. DMcB has continually put out excellent material in the two decades since this release, but this one song is a “must hear” at every band performance. It is truly four minutes of perfection.
Chew on it and comment.