The Origin of Del's VBL II
8/12/2003 (updated 10/11/2003)
Months went by. Every time I'd see Ron or Rob I'd ask about the song. Ron had played it for Del and gotten a non-commital response. Ron said one of the words in the song might be a problem; the mention of the English town "Boxhill", as in "down to Boxhill they did ride". In a flash of inspiration trying to stick up for "my" song, I said "well just make that Knoxville!"
I never heard too much more about it til around the winter of 2000-2001 Ron mentioned to me that Del had surprised them all -- he had privately worked up a version of the song on his own that suited his voice, pronounciation, phrasing, etc. and wanted to record it! Turns out Del liked the idea of a motorcycle number since he used to ride an Indian in his younger days!
After the band recorded it Mike played a rough cut tape for me, and I could have fainted dead away to hear Rob invent such a great banjo line for it! Everything about it blew me away. Del pitched it even higher than Richard Thompson's Bb, up in C, and that straining high vocal in the first line just sounded like how Bill Monroe said he used to "holler" out in the woods as a kid to see how strong he could make his voice! The arrangement and everything was just marvelous. My sister in law Linda was tickled to death by the news.
I remember the first time I heard Del sing this song in person was at a show in Albany NY. He was kind enough to mention that I had sent him the song. I remember a friend of mine in that audience (who knew nothing about all this) was so surprised that he made an audible yelp of disbelief!
Then we hoped and prayed and repeated the word of mouth for almost two years, seeing Del do the song on the televised Opry, at festivals, at concerts, heard it on the radio, etc., until our wishes were granted and the song was nominated by IBMA for Song of the Year, and then of course, won the award in October 2002. Along the way my sister in law heard Richard Thompson at a concert in Philadelphia where he told the audience how happy he was that Del McCoury was doing this song!
As Del said in an interview "I don't listen to the radio much, but this good friend of ours does and he sent us a tape of this motorcycle song, heh heh!"
I don't think I could be any prouder if I'd written the song myself! I'm really happy how great this all turned out for Del and the band. But I have to tell you on the CD Del and the Boys I like "Learning the Blues", "The King's Shilling" and "Bluegrass Country" all just as much as the Vincent Black Lightning. And imagine my surprise this fall when I went to a little picking session up in Massachusetts with some new friends and their 11 year old daughter was cajoled into singing her two Del McCoury favorites -- "How Can I Explain What I Can't Understand" (from the 1970 Rounder album) and "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". I'm glad to say I was able to fake Rob's banjo arrangement while she sang!
As I learned more about Richard Thompson I found out that the Nashville Bluegrass Band recorded one of his great songs "Waltzing's For Dreamers" back in the early 1990's. Of all the Richard Thompson recordings I've been able to hear so far, I only like a measly 4 tunes of his! Black Lightning, Waltzing's For Dreamers(I would like to hear Carter Stanley sing that really slow, whisky-soaked and sad with just George Shuffler playing guitar), Bee's Wing (I think this is Thompson's greatest, but it's in jig time and couldn't translate to bluegrass I don't think) and a cut on a recent Cajun sampler called Les Flames d'Enfer (Flames of Hell) -- all of these are with his great acoustic guitar playing. In fact, I'm reading a biography of Richard Thompson this month.
I think I may have another tune for Del, from the repertoire of a great blues artist. We'll see. It will be a surprise, at least! Maybe it will have some of the success of Vincent Black Lightning -- "the motorcycle number" as Del calls it. I sure enjoyed the entire experience and I want to do it again! Kudos and congratulations to Del and the Boys for making this song their own so successfully.
The Del McCoury Band Official Website