The Origin of Del's VBL I
8/13/2003 (updated 10/11/2003)
The Origination Of 52 Vincent Black Lightning...
I was working in Stamford CT in the mid-1990's and every night driving home I'd listen to "Americana" music on WFUV-FM radio from Fordham University in NYC. Occasionally this station would play an old Bill Monroe record as an example of "roots music". One dark winter night while I was navigating the bumper to bumper traffic on I-95 I absent-mindedly heard this insistent voice on the radio singing about "Red Molly" and someone calling to her, and her answering back. I'd never heard this record before and I thought it might be some new variant on the old Molly & Tenbrooks bluegrass song. I listened to the song, but concentrated on my driving, and I never could quite figure out what was going on in the song. I did notice it had just one acoustic guitar playing, making an insistent pulsing beat almost like an old Carter Family record with Mother Maybelle thumping out the bass. And it was some kind of a story song, or ballad.
How The 2002 Song of the Year, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning,
Came To The Del McCoury Band, by Dick Bowden
The station had a habit of playing several songs in a row before the announcer would name the records. I missed hearing the title and artist, but the song made an impression.
Weeks later I heard it again and I turned the radio up good and loud and heard almost the whole song. This time I paid close attention and got the title and the artist, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by Richard Thompson. By now I had figured out this was an old-form English ballad, but with a modern twist, about a present-day highwayman and his motorcycle. I had no idea at all who Richard Thompson was, but it was obvious he could finger-pick and sing fine.
As the weeks went by I heard the song again and again and it really started to grow on me; the hint of the old Molly & Tenbrooks conversations back and forth, the doomed love and death ballad construction, the pulsing guitar, and straining upward reaching melody in the first line of each verse. I was convinced this could become a good bluegrass song.
So I went to the record stores and hunted until I found the right Richard Thompson CD. I was hoping to get an entire album of music like this. I was shocked to find that almost everything else on the record was electric Chicago style blues (to my untutored ear). But the Vincent Black Lightning song really got to me. The more I thought about, the more I was sure that Del McCoury was the voice to get that upward straining melody in the first line of each verse. And I thought, Del, being an old motorhead, might actually like this song. At the time I thought Rob could probably lay down a great finger-picked guitar sound on this song. So I made a tape of it, and every time I'd see the boys I'd tell them I found a good song for them.
In the meantime I was trying to figure out who Richard Thompson was, to help "make the case" to Del and the band that this was a legit song on the Americana circuit that could have broad commercial appeal. I happened to mention to my sister-in-law Linda Zaleski in the Philly area, who likes Del's music, that I had found a cool song for Del. When I told her what it was, she gasped and said "Oh my God, that's Richard Thompson's huge hit and it would bring all kinds of new fans to Del!" Turns out she knew all about Richard Thompson. She informed me of his huge stature in the English folk-rock world. She told me that all the great British rock and roll guitar men like George Harrison and Eric Clapton think that Richard Thompson is the greatest guitar player that ever lived. And he's well known as an amazing writer of songs that sound old.
The summer of 1999 I had a chance to hang out with Ron, Rob, Mike and Jason at a gig in San Antonio Texas. I made it a point to bring along my tape of the song for them to listen to. I remember all we had to play it on was a Walkman! Each one of the guys took turn listening to it through the little headphones. None of them had heard it before, but they all seemed interested in it, and allowed as how it might make a good number. But they didn't know how Del would feel about it, and if bluegrass was ready for a motorcyle hoodlum song!!!!! I gave them the tape and a xerox of the lyrics from the Richard Thompson CD liner notes. I told them what a monster hit this song had been for Richard Thompson (according to my sister in law), who he was, and how it might bring new listeners to their music.