You can't help but love Neal McCoy. He knows how to get a crowd up on its feet, and his smile and sincerity charms the entire room. Neal has worn Wrangler Cowboy Cut® jeans his whole singing career and wears them just right -- stacked, creased, starched and slim.
Gotta love Neal's can-do attitude, matter-of-fact patriotism, and mile-wide Texas grin.
You already know Neal McCoy. Country music icon. Family man. Indefatigable USO headliner, with three treks each year to Iraq, Afghanistan, and anyplace else where American troops need a taste of home. Unpredictable entertainer, capable of veering from one of his own million-selling hits into "Whole Lotta Love," "YMCA," or literally anything else...even his own band has no idea where he's going.
All that is a matter of record. So, our question is: What new feather can the pride of Longview, Texas, stick into his Stetson? Your choices are: 1. Record label executive; 2. Up-and-coming Nashville songwriter; 3. Humanitarian; 4. Dinner companion to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Luckily, there are no wrong answers when you're talking Neal McCoy. This two-time "Entertainer of the Year" (TNN/Music City News) with three platinum albums and one gold album on his wall, is also now head of 903 Music, whose first release due out this summer just happens to be That's Life, Neal's latest collection of honky-tonk anthems, tender ballads, and good ol' American music.
Two of the tracks on That's Life bear Neal's name as co-writer -- quite an accomplishment, since most days of the week he'd rather be, in his words, "diggin' a ditch than writing a song or doing anything indoors." (You'd never know it from listening to "Jesse" and "Tails I Lose," both of which suggest that this gentleman has a future in songwriting. Stay tuned ...)
As for the humanitarian label, well, Neal doesn't like to blow too much smoke about it, but he and his wife Melinda have been running the East Texas Angel Network for ten years now, through which they've raised over three million dollars for low-income parents with seriously ill children. And as of March this year, the Academy of Country Music spread the word throughout the world by nominating him for the Home Depot Humanitarian Award.
We'll get to Neal's culinary summit with Justice O'Connor in a minute.
First, focus on That's Life. Begin with "Last of a Dying Breed," which soars over a slamming beat and keening harmony as a tribute to America's working men. The mood changes dramatically on "Let Me Be the Hero," sung with a candor and tenderness that may surprise even Neal's most loyal fans. Then there's "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On," a classic McCoy hoot and the album's first single, and the irresistible Western swing and fiddle fest "Head South".
You get the picture. That's Life is Neal's most varied album to date. Every track is a home run ... and there's a reason for it.
For the first time in his career, Neal McCoy is fully in charge, as an artist animated now by a new entrepreneurial spirit.
"Entrepreneurial ... spirit," McCoy says, leaning back, locking his hands behind his hat, savoring the words as if each syllable bore the scent of barbecue. "Yeah, I like that." He hunches forward, that playful twinkle in his eye. "Write it down and say I said that."
Then -- wait for it -- the punch line: "Uh ... what's it mean?" And, finally, the laugh, quick and sharp, that barks up from way down in his six-foot frame.
The joke, of course, is that Neal McCoy knows full well what it means to be an entrepreneur. After all, he's been a self-starter all his life. A son of a Filipino mother and an Irish-American dad, he learned about music from the radio and his older brother's and sister's records, sang pretty much everything he heard -- R and B, rock and roll, romantic ballads, and country -- and eventually made his way to Longview, which qualified as a metropolis by this country boy's standards.
On a lark he tried his luck in a vocal contest he'd read about in a Dallas newspaper. His performance earned him first prize and led to a seven-year hitch as opening act for Charley Pride.
Recording success followed too, with a catalog that eventually included five number one singles ("No Doubt About It," "You Gotta Love That," "They're Playing Our Song," "For a Change," and "Wink") and a bunch of others that made the top five ("The City Put the Country Back in Me," "Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye," "The Shake") or ten ("If I Was a Drinking Man").
It's a record anyone would envy. "But something was missing," Neal explains. "And I think we've found it. Now that we've got 903 Records off the ground I have the chance to do nothing but what I want to do for the first time in my life. We've hired a great staff. We're setting up distribution and doing it right. We're looking at other artists we'd like to sign. It's a little scary, because when things go wrong at a major label you can always blame somebody else. Now it all comes down to me -- but that's exciting too. And this is the right time to do it."
With only Neal, his manager Karen Kane, and producer Eric Silver involved in selecting material for That's Life, Neal had no problem connecting with every song that made the final cut. "I feel closer to these songs than most of the ones I've done in the past -- so close I even co-wrote some of them, something I've never done. I just always felt like I'd rather be outdoors than staying inside and writing a song. I don't even have a computer. But all that's probably just excuses for putting it off; now that I've taken the time to write with a few people, I've found that I don't mind it at all."
Throughout 2004 Neal mixed the business side of launching his label with his usual backbreaking tour schedule, which includes his commitment to perform for U.S. troops on USO tours. One highlight from last year was his trip to Iraq, where he performed with his good friend Wayne Newton in the Green Zone. "We stayed at Camp Anaconda in Balad, which is probably thirty miles north of Baghdad," he says. "All the troops there know it as Mortar Ritaville because there's so much mortar fire going on. We'd try to take a nap in the afternoon, and about the time you lay down the alarms go off that they're shooting into the camp. It's pretty intense stuff; the troops have to stay on alert all the time."
Like all who tour for the USO, Neal offers his services for free. "I just think of it as my duty," he shrugs. "These young men and women are professionals, they do a terrific job, and they deserve all the support we can give them. We should help when we can, provided you're not taking anything away from your family or hurting anybody."
With his can-do attitude, matter-of-fact patriotism, and mile-wide Texas grin, Neal would inevitably cross paths with America's number one country music fan. He met George W. Bush years ago, when the future president owned the Texas Rangers and Neal would sing the pre-game anthem. In a way, then, it was no surprise when Neal received an invitation recently to attend a state dinner at the White House in honor of Filipino President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in May 2003.
Even so, this sort of event isn't nearly as familiar to McCoy as a rodeo show or a set at The Grand Ole Opry. Once more, though, he did his duty as a citizen, which meant renting a tux and flying with Melinda to Washington. Passing through the receiving lines, making small talk with Colin Powell and other dignitaries, the McCoys eventually made their way to the East Room, where they learned the first lesson of diplomatic dining.
"I just assumed that I'd get to sit with my wife, but they gave us these cards that seated us with other people, I guess just to mingle. Melinda had table two and I had thirteen. She sits down with Bill Frist, Lynne Cheney, George Will ... and I'm thinking, 'Gosh, she's got a good table.' And I walk around and finally find table thirteen -- and I'm sitting with President Bush, President Arroyo, and I'm right next to ..."
You guessed it. "The first thing I thought was, 'Oh, my God, I'm sitting with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This is going to be a long dinner.' But she was wonderful. She was raised on a cattle ranch in El Paso, so we carried on all night. Now, I'm not a fou-fou eater, so when the food started coming out I said, 'I don't think I'm going to like this.' She said, 'You're from Texas, right?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' She said, 'You're right. But you have to try it.' Then I saw they had all these knives and forks lined up, so I said, 'Would you mind helping me with this?' She said, 'Just start on the outside and eat in.' I hope she was charmed; she acted like she was."
Aside from the faux pas of reaching for the eminent jurist's wine rather than his own, the dinner proceeded smoothly. By the time the night was over, and Neal and Melinda were heading back home, they could add a Justice O'Connor to a long list of friends that they'd picked up over the years. From Jack Hanna and Rob Schneider -- both of whom appear in Neal's hilarious "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On" video -- to basketball legend Karl Malone and actor Gary Sinise, he's drawn people whose only common denominator is an appreciation for someone who's unaffected by fame yet head over heels immersed in life.
These same qualities explain the cheering crowds, the strangers stopping in airports to shake his hand, the feeling of knowing somebody like a next-door neighbor even though you've met only through music. With That's Life Neal McCoy comes a step closer to us all, speaking through songs that will soon mean as much to us as they do to him.