After bursting onto the scene in the mid-'90s and scoring several back-to-back hits, including 'Wink' and 'No Doubt About It,' Neal reached the Top 10 on the charts once again in 2006 with 'Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On,' which featured a hilarious video starring Rob Schneider. In recent years he's remained busy performing for crowds on tour and at a theater gig in Branson, Mo. When buddy Blake Shelton and his wife Miranda Lambert recruited him to perform at their nuptials last year, the three had so much fun they decided to take it to the studio and record Neal's new CD, 'XII,' which hit stores today (March 6).
During his recent trip to Nashville, Neal sat down with The Boot to spill details on working in the studio with country's "it" couple, what led to his recording a song by Jamey Johnson and how he's adjusting to his new role as a grandpa!
This was your first new album in nearly six years, and with Blake and Miranda you snagged a couple of pretty impressive producers. What was it like working in the studio with them?
First of all, I couldn't thank them enough for doing it. For them to take the time to come mess with me was pretty cool. One of the neater things about it was they were terrific in helping us find music. They're so hot that they're gonna get good stuff pitched to them, and for me, a guy who hasn't been at radio in a long time, it's probably tougher for me to get the great music. So they brought a lot of stuff to the table. It's really cool because Blake, as much shuck-and-jive as he is -- and Miranda, she just kind of filters in there with him -- they understand, which is probably one of the reasons they're so successful. They understand when you can joke and when to turn it off and get down to work. They've got great ears, and I knew they would.
You had both of them singing backing vocals on your first single, 'A-OK.' That's quite a backing choir!
Yes, quite a backing choir! I'm glad I didn't have to pay for them! They did a good job. Blake, I think he's like me, and I don't know if he'd like being compared to me, but I don't hear harmonies as easy as some people do. Some people are just great harmony singers, and Blake, he's like me, he has to search and find them. So when he was singing, it was a little more work for him. But Miranda has such a great ear and is such a fantastic singer, she just sings harmony. You just sing a line and she just goes in and matches it. There's so much more to singing harmony than just singing the notes; it's phrasing and timing and breaths ... she's just terrific at it. I think that's probably one of the reasons she got help forming the group Pistol Annies, so she could sing actually harmony.
Blake has said over and over what a fan he is of yours. He's really in your corner and he seems very loyal.
He is. And there's no reason for him to be loyal to me other than he was a fan of mine. The first time he met me -- and he tells the story because I don't really remember it as well -- but in 1995, I was with Atlantic Records and I was answering the phones. He came in there to drop off a tape. He was brand-new in town and was going around visiting labels and they wouldn't see him, but he was going around leaving songs. He walked in and I was sitting at the secretary's desk answering phones, saying, 'Atlantic Records,' and putting people on hold and messing around. He said [to me later], "I think you may have been putting people on hold and you weren't even getting back to them. I walked in and thought, 'Is this what you've got to do when you have some radio airplay? You've got to do everything?'" He thought, "Wow, that's cool. Here's a guy who's getting stuff played on the radio and he's answering phones!" He always tells that story! [Laughs]
You have a bevy of great writers on this album, from Rivers Rutherford and Rhett Akins to Brett Eldredge and even Jamey Johnson. He would not be the first person I would think of for you, when it comes to cutting one of his songs. Your styles seem so different!
I know! I talked to somebody the other day and they were mentioning how Jamey's a little darker. But this song I cut is called 'Mouth,' and it's just a fun, comical kind of song. I guess the initial thing is not to think of Jamey Johnson in that light. But the demo was him singing it and I was surprised that it was him singing it. I didn't even know it was him. I've had the song for eight or nine years. When you hear songs, you just hang onto them for whatever reason. Even if you don't cut them, you still like to keep them. I chucked it back in the mix for Blake and Miranda to hear and they liked it.
Some of the stuff I had held onto a long time, and I liked some of the things Miranda and Blake brought in, too. So it was a real joint effort. I think we arrived at a great group of songs. When somebody takes my album home and listens to it start to finish, I want it to be like they've gone to a concert of ours. Concerts are where we do our thing. We want it to be like a Neal McCoy concert where you've laughed, you've smiled, you've thought, maybe even cried. But when you walk away, you go,"Whew!" So when the album's done, I want people to exhale and go, "Whew!"
You were recently listed among the USO's Top 10 performers of all time, alongside some pretty impressive names. What does that feel like, to know you're in that kind of company as an entertainer?
Well, I've done a lot of USO shows, and we sure don't do them for the recognition, we do it for the right reasons. To make that list was a huge deal for me. It was really humbling. It made me think, "Wow, that was really cool!" I wear this ol' USO hat that I have on now just about every day. I had another USO hat before this one and it was green. But it was so nasty I had to retire it!
Although it's been a while since you've been on the charts, you've kind of proven you can have a great career without necessarily selling 50 million records. Do you see it that way?
You sure can! You can do it and support your family and love what you do. But I have kids come up to me all the time asking, "How'd you do it" or "What do you recommend?" I say, "Let me give this to you first: I was 35 when I had my first hit. Do you want to do that?" Because they're usually 16 or 17 and they say, "Oh no, man!" Here's my advice: Get something to fall back on and fall back on it right now! Don't do it! It is so hard. It's brutal! Brutal is a great word. You have to give up a lot.
Your daughter had a son this past year, so you're a new grandpa. What's that been like for you?
It's been so much fun! He's seven months old, Titan McCoy Strong. He's the love of my life. I absolutely love being around him. My daughter only lives 40 minutes away and when I'm home she brings him over every day. I'm in love with him. I just love him to death!
Your son, who's 17, was thinking about getting into music but you told us last year that you weren't too sure about his singing ability. Has he improved?
Swayde still can't sing that well! [Laughs] He's a senior in high school and he's decided he's going to pursue theater. He's such a great kid and maybe once he learns a little bit, he's going to try and be an actor. He's a good-looking kid and really grounded, just a super kid. So I think he'll do a good job.