The Entertainer

Neal McCoy wins fans by break-dancing, cracking jokes, and wiggling his behind onstage. He sings too, but that’s beside the point.

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

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