Neal McCoy wins fans by break-dancing, cracking jokes, and wiggling his behind onstage. He sings too, but that’s beside the point.
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LONG BEFORE NEAL MCCOY ever sold a country record, he sold shoes at the Longview Mall. The self-described “Texapino,” a Texan of Filipino descent, says the shoes “sucked,” but he moved enough of them that he was offered his own store in Dallas. Reeling in customers was easy, he says: “If you can get ’em to like you, they’ll sometimes buy the shoes, even though they don’t like ’em.” To win them over, he’d serenade them, crack jokes, and most important, dress badly. “’Cause then they feel sorry for you,” he explains. “They think, ‘Oh, if I buy some shoes, this poor little boy should be able to buy some nicer clothes.’”
Today McCoy is moving quite a bit of product: five million CDs and cassettes to date, and his latest release, Be Good at It, has gone as high as number 23 on the country charts. The 39-year-old singer also recently won his first major award: music video of the year from the Nashville Network and Music City News. But despite the boon that country music has been to him, the gangly baritone is no lifelong loyalist. Of all the folks cashing in these days on country’s slide to the mainstream, McCoy is the rare opportunist who freely identifies himself as such. He would just as soon have been a pop star, he says, and scoffs when his peers speak in hushed tones about the sanctity of country. “All they’re supposed to admit to likin’ is George Jones and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson—which is crap,” he says. An “easy-listenin’ kinda guy,” McCoy puts on no airs about his own musical heroes: the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Luther Vandross, and to the horror of many, Michael Jackson. “Loved him. Goddang, who didn’t? But who will admit it? Nobody but me.”
It seems, then, that McCoy’s cowboy duds function a bit like the ugly outfits he wore at the shoe store: as an easy entrée to his market. But, as with the shoes, selling all those records has less to do with their quality than McCoy’s knack for making people like him. In person—onstage—he is a gale-force entertainer, hitting his audience with such charm and glittering presentation that they can’t help but be fans. In fact, if you know him only from radio or videos, you might think little of him. Most of his songs are ear candy: pop ditties that tell you to “shake it real funky,” groove tunes about how he used to be a “drinkin’ man” but now he’s a “thinkin’ man,” and a rap version of the Beverly Hillbillies theme in which he throws down gangsta moves and sings “b-b-b-bubblin’ crude.” McCoy won’t say this particular product sucks, but he acknowledges that his songs may not inspire anyone to buy a CD. “They won’t necessarily buy it because of my music,” he says. “They’ll buy it because they think I’m a decent person.”
Few people would disagree. After all, he has his own charity, the East Texas Angel Network, which helps the families of seriously ill children by paying for prescriptions, home care, travel, and the parents’ lost wages. Enlisting pals like basketball star Karl Malone and fellow Texan Nolan Ryan, McCoy stages annual benefits that have raised more than $450,000 in just three years. “A lot of time in pro sports and entertainment, people are just ‘me, me, me,’” says Malone. “It’s kind of amazing to see somebody who doesn’t mind giving back.”
Beyond the decency thing, McCoy instantly strikes you as a compadre. His biggest fans consider him a family member; some have driven 1,200 miles to see him live, and others have made him the beneficiary of their life insurance policies. But he impresses less rabid types as well. Consider McCoy’s appearance at Nolan Ryan’s fiftieth birthday party, where he entertained the baseball legend’s friends, including cattlemen, old ballplayers, and members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “I had people from all walks of life and all age groups,” Ryan recalls, “and they were raving about Neal.” McCoy has even converted a tough prospect like Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly, who described his first top-ten hit as “scary”—a “blander-than-generic ballad” on a “snooze-inducing album,” she wrote. “Even if you’re not fond of what he does,” she told me, “his personality is such that he completely wins you over.”
So how does he do it? The assault starts with the end—the rear end, that is. McCoy fills out his Wranglers so winningly that LeAnn Rimes once raised up a cheer for his fine packaging from a crowd of 220,000 at the Texas Motor Speedway. Nash says she’s never seen anything like it. “Even thinking back on it now I get a little flustered,” she confesses. “I’m really not the kind of woman who notices that with any regularity. But this guy—it was the eighth wonder of the world.” McCoy knows it. To give his crowd a good view, he flips around onstage to shake his behind. “Why have Shania Twain, Mindy McCready, and so many of these girls done well?” he asks. “If you’ve got a butt, you’d better show it.”
And while other male country acts stand in place and tap their toes, McCoy breaks into spontaneous Michael Jackson moves: a seamless moon walk, crisp robot maneuvers, scooping pelvic thrusts. Then he morphs into a reed-thin Fred Astaire, sashaying in elegant grapevines and airy twirls. He often sweeps out his arms like a Price Is Right spokesmodel and makes his way across the stage with such flirty kicks that you expect to see a pair of jazz slippers on his feet instead of Tony Lamas. “I enjoy watching Neal dance because he truly can dance,” says Ryan. “I’d love to be able to dance like that.” Of course, McCoy knows precisely what most good ol’ boys make of his dandyish display, but he undoes the perception by assuming different characters. He’ll sing “Any Man of Mine,” Twain’s signature hit, and play the sexpot in a very feminine way. Then he’ll snap to and become a bubba, saying, “See, I knew he was like that” (read: gay). “Well, no,” he’ll then say, “I’m not.”
McCoy also toys with racial mores, bonding with his lily-white crowd by making fun of people as dark as himself—like his Hispanic guitarist. “I had to hire him because the government made me,” he announces onstage. “It’s that white thing. You have a bunch of white guys, you’ve gotta hire a minority. He don’t even know how to play the guitar.” McCoy will give a you-meanie lecture to a security guard who shoos away fans who’ve come forward to snap his picture—but when she gets embarrassed, he’ll play the dog-eyed penitent. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he says. “You’re just doin’ your job, and I love you for it.” He’ll bounce to stage left, where a woman does sign language for deaf audience members, and run his words together so that she can’t interpret. He’ll spray the crowd with a water hose on a sweltering day. He’ll shame front-row latecomers in a 15,000-seat arena by stopping in mid-song, bringing up the house lights, and having the crowd give the transgressors a standing ovation. “Bet you’ll never be late again,” he’ll quip.
Such shenanigans work up enough of a froth that major stars won’t go on after him. When Pam Tillis did, in Bloomsberg, Pennsylvania, she woke up to a front-page headline that read Mccoy Steals Show From Headliner Tillis. Concert promoter Todd Boltin of Ohio-based Variety Attractions says the only act he’d “maybe” put on after McCoy is Garth Brooks. Of course, Brooks, like other megastars who’ve won the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award, has the advantage of big screens, light shows, and smoke. McCoy, who dreams of winning it, doesn’t. “We’ll have a few little ol’ can lights and a couple of spots, hopefully,” he says. “Given what we have to work with, I think we deserve the award.”
Such confidence served McCoy well back in Jacksonville, where he grew up. His father, Hubert McGaughey, a Texas A&M—educated civil engineer, met his mother, Virginia, during a tour of duty in Manila in the fifties and brought her back to the States. She cooked rice daily, listened to Frank Sinatra, and spoke enough Tagalog (the native language of Filipinos) for young Neal to learn how to cuss and count to ten. At age nine he watched the Jackson 5 sing on television and decided that he too would be a famous singer so he wouldn’t have to go to school. Although his brother and sister applied themselves in class, Neal says he was a “loafer” and a “schemer” who regularly told teachers that a dog had eaten his homework. “The teacher would almost say, ‘Well, that’s all right, Neal, but try to not let that happen again,’” he recalls. “I’m a guy the smart guys hated because it almost wasn’t fair.” He graduated in 1976 and, with the help of grants and a music scholarship, spent two years at Lon Morris College, though he says he can’t remember what he studied: “It didn’t matter. I wanted to sing.”
To that end, he headed about ten miles north to the big city of Longview, where he got his first job selling shoes at the mall. One night at a disco, he fell for Melinda Williams, the fetching daughter of a junior college basketball coach. She refused to slow dance when he approached her, but before the night was over, he had gotten her on the dance floor and even kissed her. They married five months later. (A daughter, Miki, arrived in 1986; son Swayde, named for a character on a soap opera, was born in 1994.)
By 1981, McCoy had gone to work as a land surveyor, but he had begun to play small gigs at local clubs and was singing easy-listening covers every weekend at Canton’s Chinese restaurant. After three years without much success, one of his co-workers showed him an ad in the Dallas Morning News for a talent contest at the now-defunct Belle Star nightclub. “I said, ‘I’m gonna go up to Dallas and show them people how to sing,’” says McCoy, though he knew only one country song all the way through: Ronnie Milsap’s “It Was Almost Like a Song.” Still, he took it to the winner’s circle. Contest judge Janie Fricke, a country star in her own right, arranged for him to meet the legendary Charley Pride, who made McCoy his opening act across the country for the next seven years. “I told him, if you need me to tell you anything, ask me,” recalls Pride. “But he didn’t need to be told. He always had stage presence.” So that he’d be free to travel on weekends, McCoy started his own lawn-mowing service, printing up business cards that read “Warning: May Be Caught Singing on the Job—Additional Charge for Requests.”
In 1990 he set out on his own to do traveling gigs, creating enough buzz that Rick Blackburn, the president of Atlantic Records’ fledgling office in Nashville, tapped him as his first act (at which time Neal changed his last name to the easier-to-spell “McCoy”). His debut CD, At This Moment—a hapless hodgepodge of pop, R&B, and traditional country—didn’t crack the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, and his second effort, 1992’s Where Forever Begins, fared only a little better, sending one single, “Now I Pray for Rain,” to number nineteen. Having spent $1 million on McCoy, Atlantic execs were eager to drop him, but Blackburn persuaded them not to. “I just kept thinking that if we could capture on disc what he does onstage,” Blackburn says, “it was just a matter of time.”
Indeed, McCoy’s next try, 1994’s No Doubt About It, did the trick, bypassing traditional country and opting for the R&B-laced tunes and ballads more suited to his style. That disc went platinum, selling a million units, as did its follow-up in 1995, You Gotta Love That. Last year’s Greatest Hits will likely go platinum, and his current release, Be Good at It, has already placed one single, “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Good at It,” in the top twenty. His next big hit could be another single from that album, “Party On,” which was co-written by seventies tunesmith Paul Williams (who penned some of the monster hits of McCoy’s beloved Carpenters). But, as always, the product is incidental to McCoy, who is on the road 260 days each year. “And I want to be entertainer of the year every night,” he says.
Yes, he very much has his eye on that Country Music Association trophy, and he’s hired a new management team to get him in the running. The odds against him are huge, since voting tends to be based on sales and politics. Nonetheless, some industry bigwigs have confided to him that if his name ever appears on the final ballot, he’ll win. Indeed, given his success back at the mall in Longview, you might say Neal McCoy is a shoe-in.