Neal McCoy is a bit of a country music legend in Wisconsin.
Thursday night's performance at Country USA in Oshkosh marks just one of dozens for McCoy in the Badger State. Whether it's Country USA or Rhinelander's Hodag Country Festival (which McCoy headlines July 14), Wisconsinites have supported him for a long time.
"Well, the people of Wisconsin are just smart people,'' he said, laughing. "First of all, I'll tell you this: Wisconsin is my favorite state to play, and it's not because I'm just talking to somebody from Wisconsin right now. I say that wherever and I go. And I'm from Texas so I hate to admit that anything is better at anything than Texas, but Wisconsin, those people really appreciate effort.
"They know when we show up, it's going to be fun and we're going to give them what they give us. That's all we ever ask, and I love Wisconsin people. They're just passionate people no matter what they're supporting, whether it's your Packers or country music.''
While McCoy, who turns 55 next month, hasn't had a hit in a while, he's continued to tour on the strength of such fun songs as "Wink'' and "The Shake.''
Q: You perform in Wisconsin a lot. Why do you keep getting booked in this state?
McCoy: Well, the people of Wisconsin are just smart people (laughs). First of all, I'll tell you this: Wisconsin is my favorite state to play and it's not because I'm just talking to somebody from Wisconsin right now. I say that wherever and I go. And I'm from Texas so I hate to admit that anything is better at anything than Texas, but Wisconsin, those people really appreciate effort. They know when we show up, it's going to be fun and we're going to give them what they give us. That's all we ever ask and I love Wisconsin people. They're just passionate people no matter what they're supporting, whether it's your Packers or country music. They're very passionate about what they do and we love playing anywhere in Wisconsin.
Q: You founded an R&B band early in your career, but you quickly switched to country music. What was it about country music that pulled you in?
McCoy: I was singing R&B standards and all that stuff as a younger person, but I wanted to sing for a living. All that stuff was just local and regional, but then I met Charley Pride in 1981 by way of a contest in Dallas, Texas and he said, 'Let me see what I can do to help you get started and pursue your career.' He's obviously a superstar and legend in country music and I said, well, here's a guy who's a big name in country music who wants to help me; I'll go this country route. I wasn't a musical snob or anything and I thought if a music guy wants to help me and he sings country music, I'll take it. So I took it and ran with it, but that's really the reason for the change, just because I got my foot in some kind of door.
Q: You didn't land your first major record deal until 1990 when you were 32 years old. Tell me about the struggles you had as a musician before that.
McCoy: Well, I met Charley (Pride) in 1981 and I didn't sign a record deal until 1990, so that's nine years (laughs). If you called Charley Pride or Trace Adkins or a guy that's playing in the honky tonks right now, I think we all had the same struggles. You just try to get somebody to listen to you. You try to get a record deal and then you think once you do, I'll record a hit and I'll be rich and famous and that is so far from the truth. If you're lucky enough to get a record deal and then get a song up the charts, the stars have to align and you better count your blessings. There are a lot of people and a lot of great talent that never gets heard. ? It's a tough going and I'm fortunate we had a really good run in the '90s. We're not having much luck now, but that's OK because we're still able to perform live shows and get in front of people and that's what we're about. We're about entertaining people.
Q: Although you haven't had a hit song in a while, you've continued to tour and be a likable act in the country music world.
McCoy: Well, the likable part is easy. Just be nice. Be a nice person and put on a great show and you can work a long time. That's really how we've done it. ? There's no secret to it, but I see artists that either get full of themselves or don't work hard enough from the stage to entertain people. When your hits go away, you'll go away too with that attitude.
Q: Speaking of live shows, you don't write out a set list for your performances. Why not?
McCoy: We like to make it up as we go. We'll know the first two songs when we come out and after that it's kind of helter-skelter. I just turn around and holler the next song at 'em. ? Everything doesn't have to be so structured. People really don't care. They're good with it, so we don't have a set list and I think that's why we get a lot of repeat business actually. People who have seen us, they say, I want to see Neal McCoy again because I know it's not going to be the same show as last time. If I've ever done the same show twice, it was by sheer accident (laughs).
Q: You perform often, but you're also still recording songs. However, these days, is it hard to get great songwriters to pitch you their best country songs?
McCoy: You know it has been hard. It's tough because those writers and publishers want to get to the hot acts. They want to get their best stuff to hot acts hoping they might get it cut and get sales and notoriety. It's tough, but I'll tell you what I've just done. I'm making an album for the guy who got me started, Charley Pride, who had a ton of hits and is a great person. I'm cutting a Charley Pride tribute album. I am so excited because he's a baritone and I'm a baritone, yet I never really got to sing baritone in my life. I had two songs that I got to be in my comfortable register with - "No Doubt About It" and another song called "If I Was a Drinkin' Man." Both of those are in that baritone register where I belong, yet I end up singing the high stuff because it may be more attractive on the radio and more upbeat. So doing this Charley Pride album, I get to sing songs like "Roll on Mississippi" and "You're So Good When You're Bad" and it just feels so right. Trace Adkins is singing with me on one song, too. It's just a great album. I cut 11 Charley Pride songs and I'm having more fun singing on this album than I've had in a long, long time. I'm so proud of it.
Q: You've been in country music for a long time. What do you think of modern country's new aggressive pop sound?
McCoy: Yeah, it's a happening, guitar driven, more aggressive sound than it's ever been. A lot of people are doing the same thing. The thing that's in now is the real redneck, hunting, fishing, four-wheeling, real country attitude and I don't know that everybody who's singing it is near as country as they want to sound, but that's OK. They're having hits with it. A lot of people are doing the same thing and it's working. I'm hoping that it'll come back around to maybe a little older style of country. It's cyclical, so it will come around again, but right now it's working for the younger audience and it's working for country music. The Jason Aldeans and the Eric Churches and all those people are having huge success and good for 'em. I'm really not bitter. I'm just jealous. I wish I could have some of it (laughs). Maybe we will, maybe we won't and we might not have all the hits right now, but we're going to outwork you and be better than you onstage.
Thiel/Gannett Wisconsin Media