By Kurt Wolff
When Neal McCoy was a young, up-and-coming artist in Texas, he entered a singing contest. He won, but as he tells Radio.com, that was beside the point. The real prize was that his win led to meeting his longtime hero, Charley Pride.
The meeting was a life-changer for McCoy, as Pride wound up helping McCoy (“No Doubt About It,” “Wink” “The Shake”) get his career off the ground.
Now McCoy has returned the favor, recording a tribute album to the Country Music Hall of Fame member that includes new versions of many of his best-known hits such as “Is Anybody Going to San Antone,” “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” “Kaw-Liga,” “Just Between You and Me” and (McCoy’s personal favorite) “Roll on Mississippi.”
Initially released in 2013, Pride: A Tribute to Charley Pride was the very first release for Slate Creek Records, a small independent label founded by Jim Burnett that has gone on to release albums by acclaimed artists Brandy Clark and Angeleena Presley, among others. This month, Cracker Barrel reissued a deluxe version of Pride that includes two additional recordings: a cover of George Jones‘ hit “Why Baby Why” (Pride was a huge Jones fan, McCoy explains, and had a No. 1 with that title in 1982) and the gospel song “Let Me Live.”
Radio.com spoke with McCoy about his deep, personal connection to Charley Pride and the numerous ways the pioneering artist has influenced his life and career. He also spoke about the impact of the 1990s (when McCoy was a regular on the charts) on today’s country, his experience touring with Blake Shelton and the value of not just singing but “entertaining” an audience.
Radio.com: Where did idea for a Charley Pride tribute album begin?
Neal McCoy: A couple years ago I did some private parties for an attorney in Dallas who is a fan. And he just came to me and said, “I’d love to help….” I’d always wanted to do an album for my hero, the guy that got me started. I said, “I don’t know if that would make any sense to you.” And he’s a big Charley Pride fan, and he said, “I”d love to be involved in that. Financially I don’t know how we’d come out, but I think it’d be a great project for you to do, since I know you want to do it.”
And then we were able to get Garth Fundis to come in and produce it. And Garth, he engineered some of those Charley Pride records back when Jack Clement was producing in the 1960s.
How much did you set out to update the songs from the originals?
I told Garth [Fundis] at the start of it: “I know Charley, and he’s not going to want anybody to change his melodies much.” He likes what he sang, he sang these songs for 40 years.” So early on I told him [Fundis], “I’m going to try and sing what Charley sang. I think it’s only right, it’s a tribute album to him, so we ought to be paying tribute to him and the way he sung ’em. We can change some other things around, but people have heard these songs a long time, they want to sing along, and they don’t want you screwing too much with the melody.”
Well Trace I just invited. We’re friends, and he loves Charley Pride and the music and the old country stuff.
And I just called Darius. I was hoping that, being African-American, he would respect all the things that Charley had done to stay valid in this industry — get into it, and then stay and remain as successful as he did. And that’s exactly the way he [Darius] felt about it.
With Raul, it’s one of those deals where — [Fundis] was working on a Trisha Yearwood album, producing that, and he called me and said, “Raul Malo’s coming in in a little while to sing some harmony for me. Would you be interested in [asking] Raul to sing on it?” And I said, “Yeah!”
How did you get involved with Cracker Barrel and choose the two deluxe tracks?
Jim Burnett, the head of the label [Slate Creek Records], he just thought, “This is a great album, it would work great at Cracker Barrel and what they try and do.” [So] he thinks, “Well why can’t I just call them and say I got a great album?” And that’s what he ended up doing.
[Burnett then] called me and said, “They would like a couple more songs on there.” I researched all the songs, and I wanted to [include] “Burgers and Fries” and “Crystal Chandeliers” and some other great things. But being around Charley as long as I was, I knew he was the biggest George Jones fan there is. He used to perform “Why Baby Why” in his shows, and I thought, “Well, why not that one?”
And then “Let Me Live” — I’m a gospel fan, Charley’s a gospel fan. I knew it was going to be aimed at Cracker Barrel, and would tend to think that most of their customers were faith-based and would appreciate that selection on there. And Charley won a Grammy for that song, so how could you not put it on there?
Was Charley Pride fully supportive of this tribute album?
He was flattered and honored. And I wanted his blessing. I sent him [a CD] before it ever came and said, “Just listen”‘ And I talked to him not too long after that and he said, “Son, I think you did a really good job.” That is all I wanted.