Here we are again, at the altar of the "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." J. David wrote a great essay about the song earlier this year. But it wouldn't be right to let a week of Richard Thompson music race by without including the quintessential song about "an object that's British and romantic and mythological," as Thompson described it.
By virtue of composing "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," Thompson has been called "the man who wrote the best song about a motorcycle, despite never having owned one." It's hard to imagine the song played or sung by anyone else. Yet somehow, ten years after the original appeared on Thompson's 1991 album Rumour and Sigh, the Del McCoury Band managed to transform "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" from British ballad to a bluegrass standard. Mandolin, banjo and fiddle breaks replace sophisticated finger picking, and McCoury's bluegrass tenor supplants Thompson's British Isles baritone. There's also a minor lyric tweak -- the town down to which James and Red Molly did ride changes from Box Hill to Knoxville.
Like so many bluegrass legends, Del McCoury started his career as a sideman for Bill Monroe, but he didn't stay with the Bluegrass Boys for long. McCoury largely left music behind in the 1960s, occasionally playing mid-Atlantic bluegrass festivals while working fulltime in construction. McCoury shifted back to music fulltime in the 1990s, forming a band with his sons. As the group's popularity grew, Del and the boys collaborated with Steve Earle on his bluegrass CD, The Mountain. McCoury and Earle famously fell out, as McCoury tired of Earle's constant use of profanity -- "There's no room for vulgarity in bluegrass," McCoury reportedly complained. After The Mountain, McCoury's career took off. He was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry and became recognized as a standard bearer of modern bluegrass music.
"Black Lightning" is from the McCoury Band's 2001 album, Del and the Boys. "It's a song I really like to do," McCoury told a reporter. "It paints a picture." In 2002, the International Bluegrass Music Association's named it the Song of the Year, a feat Thompson celebrated on his website.