He’s been beating the showbiz odds his whole life, and Neal McCoy shows no signs of slowing down now.
McCoy is a major country star who didn’t even love country music that much as a kid, a man whose parents were Irish and Filipino, and a guy whose first hit single didn’t come until he was 35 years old.
The native of Jacksonville, Texas, said during a phone conversation in June: “It was kind of crazy. Growing up in Texas, you’d think country music was what I listened to the most as a kid, but it wasn’t. I was the youngest sibling, so I was subject to what the older kids were listening to. They were all terrific singers, and they listened to lots of easy listening music with great vocalists like Barry Manilow, Boz Scaggs, and the Carpenters. And Disco was very big when I was starting out, so I really got into bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, and Stevie Wonder.”
In that period, fact is he often made fun of country. Until, that is, McCoy won a country contest in Dallas performing Ronnie Milsap’s 1977 smash “It Was Almost Like A Song,” met the great Charley Pride, and began working shows with Charley.
That was 1981, and it took another nine years of endless club dates and hundreds of thousands of miles before McCoy finally snagged his Nashville deal, with the now defunct label Atlantic Nashville. The first few singles attracted some airplay, and finally in 1993, Neal had a pair of No. 1s.
First was “No Doubt About It,” by John Scott Sherrill and Steve Seskin, followed by Bob DiPiero and Tom Shapiro’s rocking “Wink,” which has always been one of Neal’s concert favorites.
“I had my first No. 1 when I was 35 years old,” he says.
That superb work ethic – many call Neal the Energizer Bunny of country – is still a huge part of McCoy’s story. He is currently between label deals, after running his own 903 Records for a time, but his tour schedule is chock-full of exciting dates.
“We’re still working three or four times a week in the heavy times of the year,” he says from a tour stop in Minnesota. “In the slower times, Branson has been great for us. We went up and did some shows in Branson last year and loved it.”
Competition has always been intense, now more than ever. He says: “For an act my age who hasn’t had radio success in awhile, it’s getting harder and harder to get bookings.”
But his philosophy of touring has helped Neal ensure a huge amount of repeat business and fan loyalty ever since he first started working clubs in the 1980s. “The way we still approach every show,” he says, “is that we want to be really great in each show. We’re gonna work hard. That’s why lots of other artists wouldn’t use us as their opening acts because we outworked ‘em. Other acts at festivals don’t want to follow us onstage, but that kind of excitement and work ethic has gained us huge loyalty with our fans.”
He has outstanding, real-world advice for young artists and songwriters. “Country is still the only format which hasn’t really broken an act thru the Internet. Country radio is still the gatekeeper. So the key is, just be good every day. Figure out that this thing’s not a party, it’s hard work. Try to do the right things and be cool, and don’t be an idiot.”
Excellent advice. It’s that kind of effort which has enabled Neal to release more than 10 albums and to put 31 singles on the Billboard country charts, from 1988’s “That’s How Much I Love You” to “The Last Of A Dying Breed” in 2006.
Showmanship has always been a Neal trademark, and we asked him if any other artist’s concerts had inspired him in that area. “Garth Brooks and I came out about the same time,” McCoy said. “And I always liked his attitude. That’s why he ended up doing so well. I’m an old-school guy too, and effort, effort, effort means a lot to me. If you continue to do that night after night, you’ll keep climbing up some kind of ladder.”
And while Capitol’s Darius Rucker has justly been lauded as being the first African-American country star to have a Top 10 single since Charley Pride in 1987, McCoy is a man of color as well. His Mom is Filipino, giving him one of the most unique ethnicities of any country star. Neal’s Dad was Irish, and the love of both of those cultures for music and for singing has shone brightly in every member of the McCoy family. Neal’s the only member of the family who’s pursued it as a profession, and millions of country fans all over the world are thrilled that he has.
By Phil Sweetland | firstname.lastname@example.org