“We obviously haven’t been recording music, but we’ve been working. We continue to work,” Neal McCoy tells me when I ask him what he’s been doing in the years since the release of 2005’s That’s Life. “We’re guys that make our living performing and doing shows, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
From his tone of voice and the readiness of his response, I get the feeling that this is a question McCoy is often asked. During the 90s, McCoy released critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums nearly every year, and since seven years have passed since the release of his last album, it was an obvious question to ask.
“I wasn’t with a record label, and I actually took off [from recording] for a little bit,” McCoy continues about the span between albums. “I said, ‘I’m just going to work,’ because sometimes it can get confusing trying to get a label deal and find music. It wasn’t on purpose, but it ended up being these four, five or six years in between records, but the whole time we’ve been out working and doing shows.”
The shows alone were enough to keep anyone busy. Even without a new record in all that time, he and his band were on the road 200 days of the year, playing 120 shows annually for audiences excited to hear hits like “Wink,” “The Shake,” and “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On.” And even though McCoy enjoyed the break from recording, he knew couldn’t stay away forever.
“You’ve got to try to get records played at radio,” he says. “That’s what increases your audience and keeps a lot of your audience coming back. We have a great fan base out there that is very loyal, and when we’re in their area they try to come see us. But we want to try and increase our audience, and the way that you can do that is trying to get played on the radio.”
To build up the size of his already loyal fan base, McCoy knew that he’d need to attract younger listeners who weren’t familiar with his music, so he got some outside help from two of the hottest acts around: Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. Both artists are friends of McCoy’s and big fans of his music.
“We were scheduled to play their wedding reception in May,” says McCoy. “We had talked about that probably three or four months before I’d asked Blake about producing the album. When I started talking to Blaster [Records], I thought, ‘You know, it’d be great if we could get a little help here where more people could find out about us,’ so I called Blake and asked him what he thought.
“I didn’t know, contractually, if he could even produce an outside album, if his management or his record label would let him do that. He said, ‘Man, yeah. I think I’d like to do it.’ He had never produced, to this extent, a major album. About a month later he called and wanted to know if Miranda could get involved, and I said, ‘Yeah!’ ”
That was in March of last year, and by August they were in the studio cutting XII.
“I think the biggest influence they had was finding music,” he says about Lambert and Shelton’s involvement with the album. “And then once we got in the studio they were terrific. They both have great ears, they know what they’re doing—that’s obvious by how much success they’ve had in the business—and they’re both a lot of fun. The great thing about them is they can be fun, shuck and jive in the studio, yet when it comes down to get recording and do business, they know when to turn it off and turn it on. They’re very smart kids.”
The first single, “A-OK,” was released last August to create buzz for the release of XII, and the song put McCoy back on the charts for the first time since 2006. The song is one that fits well with the upbeat and positive music on which McCoy has built his reputation.
“I’m a positive, feel-good kind of guy, so those songs always come to me pretty easy,” McCoy tells me about the song. “Blake brought it to me, and he loved it. I knew we all liked it in the studio, and it felt good. And you know, it starts with a whistle. Who could be in a bad mood after you hear somebody whistle? It just puts you in a good mood.”
XII was released Mar. 6, following the release of another single off the album. In the meantime, McCoy plans to continue doing what he’s always done: play music.
As long as he’s doing that, everything will be A-OK.
Story by Andrew Miller