Neal McCoy has never been one of my favorite artists as his taste in material at times has been questionable. The Neal McCoy songs that I like, I tend to like quite a lot; the ones I dislike, I tend to really dislike. That said, I’ve seen him in concert and he is an excellent and quite high energy performer.
Neal was a protégé of sorts of Charley Pride and toured with Charley for a number of years. While there is very little of Charley’s influence in Neal’s singing, particularly in songs like “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On”, “24/7/365” and “The Shake” , Neal has always spoken highly of Charley Pride and of the positive influence Charley has been on his career
Until 2005, Neal had never recorded any of Charley’s songs. Then in 2005, he recorded a live duet with Charley on “You’re My Jamaica” that appeared on Neal’s That’s Life album. Since then, nothing more of Charley songs had been recorded – until now.
Given good material, Neal is a fine singer. Charley Pride, who was not himself a songwriter, recorded one of the greatest catalogues of songs during his long and successful career with RCA so it stands to reason that a Charley Pride tribute could prove to be an artistic success.
Neal does not attempt to clone Charley’s vocal style or song arrangements, a wise move since Charley Pride can truly be said to be inimitable. Moreover, Neal could never be described as a stone-cold traditionalist. Instead, Neal McCoy makes these songs over to fit his own singing style, updating some of the songs with a modern take on the traditionalist arrangements Charley used, and in other cases going for something entirely different. Neal wisely stays away from Charley’s “poor boy” songs, going mostly for Charley’s post-1970 songs.
Neal kicks off the album with a rockin’ version of “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone” that probably owes as much to Doug Sahm’s later version as to Charley’s version. Instead of the staccato violins of Charley’s rendition, harmonica tends to dominate this recording.
“I’m Just Me” was Charley’s second biggest hit. Neal gives it a pretty straight-forward vocal treatment, but the instrumental background is mixture of zydeco and country, which really works. That extra male voice you hear on this track is Raul Malo of the Mavericks.
It takes a brave man to tackle Charley’s signature song “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”. You don’t want to do a carbon copy of Charley’s arrangement, but since everyone with any interest in country music knows the song, you don’t want to take too many liberties with the song. Neal slows the song down very slightly and extends the song by allowing the musicians somewhat longer instrumental breaks than on the original recording which used short ‘turn-arounds’. Darius Rucker joins Neal on this track.
“Kaw-Liga” was Charley’s first #1 record reaching the top on Cash Box. The song, itself a cover of one of Hank Williams’ songs (the other side of Hank’s single was “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) is Neal’s only misstep on the record. The arrangement is a bit melodramatic and Neal can’t quite get Charley’s sound effects going vocally. It’s not a bad track (I’d give it a C+) but it’s not up to the rest of the album.
Most people have forgotten about “You’re So Good When You’re Bad”, one of Charley’s last #1 records from 1982. The song was about as close to R&B as Charley let his records get, and Neal relaxes the tempo a bit and gives in to that soulful R&B groove. Piano seems to be the predominant instrument on this track.
“It’s Gonna Take A Little Bit Longer” had more twang to it than did any other major label single released in 1972. Released in late spring, radio stations everywhere played the song constantly, many playing it every hour as the pent up demand for real country sounds cascaded upon disk jockeys. The song spent three weeks at #1 with lead guitar, steel guitar and fiddles twanging away in unison through the choruses and instrumental breaks. Neal gives the song a very heavy-handed hard country approach but uses a more acoustic sound featuring harmonica, piano and dobro to achieve the effect. I love this recording.
Charley Pride focused on heart songs for much of his career, particularly after getting past the ‘poor boy’ classics of the mid to late 1960s. Rarely did he till the pastures of nostalgia, but when he did, he did so effectively. “Roll On Mississippi” from 1981 was one of those efforts. The song reached only #7 on Billboard, breaking a string of 35 consecutive songs to reach #1 on Billboard, Cashbox and/or Record World. It is, however, a nice song with Neal ably assisted by Trace Adkins.
“Just Between You And Me” was Charley Pride’s first chart hit reaching #9 in early 1967. Written by the legendary Jack Clement and released after a couple of singles that didn’t chart but were well received, it kicked off a long string of top ten records that wouldn’t end (excluding a gospel record and a special Dallas Cowboys tribute limited release) for the next 52 records. Neal gives the song a modern traditionalist treatment with piano and fiddle on the verses and tasteful steel guitar on the choruses and instrumental breaks. The relaxed tempo suits Neal’s voice well and the track is a standout.
“Mountain of Love” was written by Harold Dorman, who had a decent sized hit with the song in 1960 and enjoyed the royalties from a number of successful covers. This song is not necessarily identified as being a Charley Pride song so Neal’s somewhat rockin’ blues rendition isn’t likely to bother Charley’s fan too much.
“Someone Loves You Honey” is a quintessential Charley Pride heart song from 1978 which Neal pairs with a classic ‘Nashville Sound’ arrangement complete with steel guitar shadings and a rather languid delivery that suits the song perfectly. I consider this the best track on the album.
Neal closes out the album with his take on Charley’s #1 record from 1979, “You’re My Jamaica”. Charley’s take on the song had a very Caribbean feel to it and Neal has focused more heavily on the Caribbean elements of the song.
One thing that has changed since the time Charley Pride recorded these classics is the length of the tracks. Other than “You’re my Jamaica”, none of Charley’s recording ran more than 3:06 and most were in the 2:15 to 2:45 range. In contrast only two of these tracks are less than three minutes long, the shortest track being “It’s Gonna Take A little Bit Longer” at 2:46 (Charley’s version ran 2:35). On average Neal’s recordings are about 45 seconds longer than the Charley Pride originals.
Garth Fundis was the producer of this project which is fitting since he was a studio engineer on many of Charley’s earliest recordings. Between Neal’s vocals and Garth’s production, they have achieved what any tribute album should seek to achieve: a properly respectful but not imitative album chock full of good music. This album will stay in my CD player for quite a while.