Neal McCoy calls CMT.com from his homeward-bound bus, having just completed his next-to-last show of the year. His final performance of 2003 will be his New Year’s Eve extravaganza Wednesday night (Dec. 31) with Wayne Newton at the Stardust in Las Vegas.
The two artists have been sharing stages since Newton invited McCoy to join him on a USO tour for American troops in Italy, Hungary and Bosnia. That was in November 2001. A few weeks later, Newton asked the lanky Texan to accompany him and his cast to the still-embattled area around Kandahar, Afghanistan. Their show there — staged at night in a bombed-out airport terminal — had barely gotten underway when they were suddenly hustled away as a safety precaution.
“It was pretty dang scary,” McCoy recalls. “I can only imagine what these troops go through. I have more and a new appreciation for them. It was pretty blood curdling. It was scary getting there in the first place.” In addition to putting their lives in jeopardy, all the artists do these USO shows for free.
On their way back from Kandahar, the performers stopped at Oman. At a hotel there, Newton’s pianist began playing some songs — mostly pop standards — and McCoy was soon singing such classics as “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “For All We Know.” Impressed by what he heard, Newton asked McCoy to do a guest spot on his 2001 New Year’s Eve show. This year, he’ll again share the bill with Newton and will be backed by Newton’s own band. “I’d like to work with mine,” he says, “but just from a logistical standpoint we can’t have them both there.” (Newton travels with a seven-piece band and estimates he did 140 to 145 shows in 2003.)
As to his program in Las Vegas, McCoy reports, “We’re going to do some different stuff. We’ll probably do a couple of things that were hits of mine — like ‘Shake’ and maybe a couple of other things. But we’re going to work some other songs in there that I don’t always get an opportunity to do and take advantage of that big old orchestra he’s got.” He says he will probably sing Neil Diamond’s “September Morn” and maybe even Newton’s 1972 hit, “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast.” “He doesn’t do that in his show anymore,” McCoy explains, “and I think it’s OK for me to do it — because it’s a great song. I get a kick out of it.”
McCoy says he’s still not sure why Newton first picked him for the USO tour. “I’ve talked to him a lot, and we’ve become very good friends. But I did not ask him if he knew who I was before he got hold of me. But I assume he did. I hope he did, anyway.”
One of life’s great mysteries is why the personable and dynamic McCoy is not a superstar. His live shows are as electric and crowd-involving as those Garth Brooks did in his prime. But his stage appeal has yet to translate to records. For a short period in the early ’90s, though, it looked like it might. After two albums for Atlantic Records that went nowhere, he finally hit big in 1994 with his third collection, No Doubt About It. The title cut of that album became his first No. 1 single, and it stayed at the top for two weeks. Its follow-up, “Wink,” fared even better, holding the No. 1 slot for four weeks. Over the next three years, he had six Top 5 singles — including “For a Change,” “They’re Playing Our Song” and “The Shake” — but no more chart-toppers.
McCoy hoped to revive his recording momentum after Atlantic’s country division folded into Warner Bros. in 2001, taking him with it. But it was not to be. Although he recorded an entire album — Luckiest Man in the World — for Warner, only the title track was released as a single. When it failed to catch on, Warner shelved the album. McCoy says he’s now disengaging himself from the label and has already started shopping his talents elsewhere. He says he’s talked to four other labels so far.
One of the most promising songs on the doomed album was “I’m Your Biggest Fan,” in which McCoy rhapsodizes to his audience about what a privilege it is to play for them. “[That's] the one that we end our show with,” he says, “and the one that gets the most notoriety, especially from a troop standpoint when we’re overseas.”
Despite his solid country credentials — he began opening shows for Charley Pride in 1981 — McCoy says he’d love to record an album of classic pop songs. “You bet! That’s where my heart is. That’s where my mind is. I enjoy country music. I enjoy singing some of the stuff that’s in it. It’s fun to entertain people. But my heart is [in] standards, and I will do that — and, hopefully, sooner than later.”
McCoy earned his wings doing charity work long before he started entertaining American soldiers. Disappointed with the way a local charity he worked with was conducted, he and his wife, Melinda, set up the East Texas Angel Network to raise money for children with life-threatening and serious illnesses. The organization is financed by a concert and golf tournament held annually in McCoy’s hometown of Longview. In its nine years of operation, ETAN has raised $2.5 million. Things like this happen when McCoy becomes “your biggest fan.”