REMEMBER CRUISING IN YOUR pickup, arm around your girl, listening to … Charley Pride? No? Well, Neal McCoy hopes to change that. McCoy’s tribute to his early mentor, Pride: A Tribute to Charley Pride, has an ambitious aim: he wants younger listeners to hear, appreciate and maybe even hum Charley Pride songs.
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Texas, McCoy, of Irish and Filipino descent, has more than three decades of performance experience under his Texas-sized belt buckle. His singing career started in a church choir before he founded his own R&B group. He was singing in local bars before he won a contest in 1981 hosted by country star Janie Fricke, securing his spot as Pride’s opening act. He toured with Pride for six years.
Steeped in honky-tonk with a three-octave baritone and contagious smile, McCoy embarked on his solo career in 1988. He didn’t reach the top 40 until 1992 with “Where Forever Begins,” but in 1993 he had back-to-back No. 1 hits: “No Doubt About It” and “Wink,” which was named BMI Song of the Year. He scored two platinum albums, a gold album and six more top-10 hits, including “The Shake,” another BMI Song of the Year that reached No. 1.
But pretty much all that happened in the ’90s — save for his last single, “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On,” which peaked at No. 7 in 2005. Once the hits tapered off, McCoy recommitted himself to his performances. “We knew a long time ago we had to be good when people came to see us,” McCoy says of his celebrated live shows. “We have a little bit of everything that makes music special. If you’re not a Neal McCoy fan, we’re going to do something in there that will make you go, ‘Hmmm, that’s good.’”
His career got a boost when country power couple Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton produced last year’s XII, his first studio album since 2005, which showed that the seven-year hiatus from recording hadn’t diminished his optimism or good-natured sense of humor. The album opens with “A-OK” — complete with a warm whistle, finger snaps and a bright chorus that benefits from the harmony vocals of Lambert and Shelton — setting the tone of the work.
Equally as noteworthy about McCoy is his big heart and desire to serve: in 1995, along with wife Melinda, he established the East Texas Angel Network, which assists critically ill children around the state. (McCoy’s two children, Miki, now 27, and Swayde, 19, have been involved with the network most of their lives.) He’s also organized 15 USO tours and represented President George W. Bush at the inauguration of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
And now, he feels called to preach the gospel of Pride. “I hate to think that kids today listening to more aggressive country wouldn’t have a shot at hearing some of these great songs Charley recorded,” McCoy says. “If they hear them through me, maybe it will pique their interest.” The album is produced by Garth Fundis and includes guest spots by Trace Adkins (on “Roll on Mississippi”), Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo (on “I’m Just Me”) and Darius Rucker (on “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” the Grammy-winning 1971 hit that spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart).
On the verge of releasing his tribute album, McCoy spoke to Texas Music from his Longview home.
Charley Pride once told you to “put on a great show and be nice to people.” What has that meant to you?
It’s kept me relevant in the business — it’s what I credit my longevity to. You end up playing for the same crowd and people who come back to your shows, so you have to treat them right. That means not just being nice to the fans, promoters and booking agents but also the caterers, stagehands and security guards. They remember … they’ll say, “Hey, you’re nice. We like having you around.” It’s really about being human and all being connected.
You’ve been influenced by so many country artists. Why Charley?
He’s the reason I’m in country music. Charley and his wife gave me the opportunity to be seen. He started booking me, and for six years I traveled all over with him. But this tribute is a labor of love. I want his music to be heard by a different generation. I could have done a new album, but I’m probably not going to get played, so I just wanted to honor him and have people hear his music and think, “I really like that” and keep listening.
Pride has so many hits — how did you choose these songs?
It was an effort. My producer, Garth Fundis, who has a great background in country, helped me research, plus it seemed like everyone was offering us songs. But I had the ultimate choice. And I’m a true baritone, so I love to sing his music in that register. As for songs that didn’t make it, well, we’ll save those for volume two maybe. [Laughs]
You’re known for your humanitarian work. What’s your fondest memory from your various volunteer efforts?
I’m most proud of my USO work — going to see the troops. I want to make sure you know that. But the East Texas Angel Network has raised money to help more than 500 families. We take care of secondary expenses for families with critically ill children. We pay for mortgages, salaries, light bills — so families can just be in the moment with their children. My wife and I are also about a year into ChildFund International, an organization that raises money to provide clean drinking water and such. We’ve sponsored a young man from the Philippines, which is where my mom is from.
The best moments are the smallest things — seeing joy on faces … seeing proud Texas fathers accept help and still be prideful. Man, when you see a man crying and saying thanks for what you did … that’s the joy of it.
You have two children and a grandson along with your sponsored child. What legacy do you hope to leave them?
My legacy? Pretty simple. My wife and I have been together for 30 years. We have good hearts. We’ve been fortunate. My daughter went to Texas A&M to be a special education teacher. My son is studying to be an actor. But it’s just about having a good heart. And being good to people. It’s really all we can do. And pay it forward by sharing your good heart and good manners with others.
You’ve had terrific success in Nashville — what influenced you to remain in Texas?
I’ve never left Texas. Nashville is where I record. I made a cautious and conscious decision to stay and keep the family in Texas. Everyone was happy here. You know, I talked with my family, and we decided I could maybe better my career by moving, or I could remain in Texas. All aspects of my business are in Nashville. I just work there, and they’re used to me running in and out.
What Texas acts do you follow?
Wade Thorn, Randy Rogers, Asleep at the Wheel.
What makes you a Texan?
Well, having good manners. I often smile and sound like I’m smiling — just being a ray of sunshine. I also think it’s about listening more than talking. I just like to get to know people. Being genuine. Slowing down.
Any good stories about Charley you’re willing to share?
We were in Canada about 20 years ago. As Charley was getting on the plane — we’d been signing autographs — a fan gave Charley a thumbs down because he wasn’t able to get an autograph. Well, we were eating years later, and this guy came up and said, “Mr. Pride, I bet you don’t remember me.” Before the man could say anything else, Charley said he remembered the thumbs down. I mean … wow! It hurt Charley’s feelings that much because he wants to please people, but he had to catch a plane to be somewhere else. So again, it’s about how you treat people — having that good heart.
Charley is what he is — the same onstage and off — genuine and generous. The best advice he gave me was, “You don’t have to be tough.” He told me to just be myself, because people like that. Let my guard down. Let the audience know I’m here to have fun, and I want them to have fun with me, even if I may be a little goofy. I learned that from Charley Pride.