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Catching Up With... Willie Heath Neal

August 10, 2009  |  8:37am
Catching Up With... Willie Heath Neal
I first saw Willie Heath Neal at a now-defunct East Nashville bar called the Radio Café. Back then, Willie was fronting an outfit of badass outlaw pickers called The Damned Old Opry. It was late 2003, and they were sort of the house band there. My band at the time, The Wheels, were playing later in the night, and while I was drinking a cold beer and eating some hot wings at the bar after soundcheck, I ended up having a conversation with Willie about the ups and downs of the music business, his dissatisfaction with the pettiness of Nashville, and his many near breakthroughs. I took it all in as he sat there pontificating, his hair slicked back, his tattooed arms bobbing and weaving whenever he was particularly irate about something. He seemed like an alright guy, so I stuck around to catch his early-evening set. 

Before the first tune was even finished, I’d had my jaw dropped. Not only were Willie’s songs great, but the band was just laying it down—everyone in the place was getting rowdy and wild, and Willie was at the center of it all, commanding the stage as if the bastard son of Johnny Cash and Glenn Danzig. 

Several years went by without knowing what became of him, until one day some demos for Willie’s record Lonesome happened across my desk at Paste, sent by Mike Dickinson at Chicken Ranch Records. One of the songs, “Broken Hearted Beauty Queen”— about an aging, washed-up, pill-popping beauty queen—is one of the most beautiful, spare, heartbreaking ballads I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m not exaggerating when I say this: Merely thinking about the tune as I sit here writing this gives me chills. 

For whatever reason, though, I didn’t catch up with Willie again until earlier this year. We sat down at The Vortex in Atlanta over some burgers and beers to discuss his reflective new record, Out of Highway, and his brilliant, struggled-for and unjustly under-the-radar life as a singer and songwriter.

Paste: What was it like working with Mark [Robertson] from The Legendary Shack Shakers? Tell me about the sessions for your new album Out of Highway

Willie Heath Neal: It was great, man. I went in there just anxious as shit, and they were very cool and nurturing. Any idea I suggested, they didn’t dismiss it. They really listened. They made it comfortable fast. They didn’t just go in there and take control of it. He asked me what I thought; he’d tell me up front what he heard on stuff. It was really cool, man. Like I said, I was very anxious when we first got in there, but it didn’t take long for the comfort level to hit.  

Paste: How well did you know him before you went in there? 
Neal: I knew J.D. [Wilkes] and Mark for a while. As a matter of fact, I’d toured with them before this, and they were supporters of my music and fans, so they didn’t have any qualms with doing it. Besides, they’re the kind of guys that—if they thought you sucked—they would ditch around it. 

Paste: Listening to the songs on Out of Highway, songs like “Even Alive” and “Porter’s Blues” and “One More Day” … 
Neal: That song, I was trying to write a gospel kind of thing, but it never came out; I wound up writing a song about Armageddon. You hear the preacher at the end of the song? In the studio, when we were plugging into some pedals, we just started getting this radio frequency coming in, and it just happened to be this preacher talking about, “There is no real joy.” It’s just creepy that we happened to be recording that song. So they just recorded it and stuck it on the end. 

Paste: The reason those songs were standing out to me—it seems like you’re taking stock with this record. Looking at where you’re at, and where you’ve been. 
Neal: Yeah. You reach a point, you know. At this level, you’ve got to have a record about every two years. And [my last album] Lonesome was just that Townes Van Zandt side of me, that John Prine side of me that I really wanted to get out. I loved the record; it’s still one of my favorites, but the fanbase didn’t really eat it up. They want the rowdy shit. So that puts you in a reflective—you’re just thinking, “What do I want to do?” And I think I came to a good compromise with this [new album]—still keeping it rowdy, but still having some of that more melodic shit in there. 

Paste: You cover The Misfits’ “Attitude” on Out of Highway. What made you choose that song? 
Neal: As lame as it sounds, it’s probably the most easily identifiable Misfits song, and I love The Misfits. God, I love The Misfits. There were some other ones I wanted to do, and I had just been fucking around. I would do it live every now and then. And [my record label] Chicken Ranch, they were like, “We insist you cut this song!” So I was like, “OK, I’m down with it.” At the end of my second album, I did [The Ramones’] “I Wanna Be Sedated.” 

Paste: Had you played “Attitude” live before? 
Neal: Yeah.

Paste: Did you already have that arrangement worked out, where it’s more of a rockabilly kind of thing? 
Neal: No, I never really thought about the arrangement. We just banged it out. In the studio we put a lot of different depth to it—piano, stuff like that. Live, I never really thought about how I was doing it—I just did it. I didn’t think of it as a rockabilly type of thing. 

Paste: There’s those labels again. 
Neal: Yeah, man. I hate those terms. Not that rockabilly isn’t a part of my heritage, but if you think that I’m “rockabilly” then you’re looking at me with shallow eyes. You’re not listening. Rockabilly is for teenagers. It’s about sock hops and hot rods. That’s the difference between Elvis and Johnny Cash in the ’50s—Johnny Cash was thinking, “How high’s the water mama?”And Elvis was thinking about flattop cats and dungaree dolls, you know, headed to the gym for the sock-hop ball. It’s the content of the music. They’re both ’billy, but… I just don’t like that term, rockabilly. Of course, that’ll piss off all the rockabills if they hear me say that. It’s like if people at a club see your bass player toting an upright, and some moron says, “You gonna play ‘Stray Cat Strut?’ “It’s like, “Get the fuck out of here!” [laughs] “Leave. Right now.”  

Paste: On the new record, I really dig that song “The Classifieds”—it’s a really witty tune.
Neal: That’s a C.W. McCall song. And I do it a lot faster than he does. What’s funny is I used to listen to that song a lot when I was a kid, and one day I was just like, “Man, I want to do that song.” I found it and listened to it, and I remembered the words from when I was a kid. I listened to it one time and I had the words down. 

Paste: That’s a lot of words. 
Neal: That is a lot of words, man. I started doing it as something to just verbally show off. 

Paste: How do you think this record has been different from the others you’ve made? 
Neal: My first two records came out on Headhunter, which is the label of bands like Rocket From the Crypt and Deadbolt. In 2002, when we were making my second record, I was like, “This is it.” Now, though, I think—this is my fifth album, but it’s taken all of this time to finally mature into what it is. Not that my other albums were contrived, but you’re still searching for yourself, and this time it’s much more mature. 

Paste: Do you feel like Out of Highway is an amalgamation of all the things you’ve done?
Neal: Yeah. I think, when you listen to this record, you can hear all of my influences from from Townes [Van Zandt] to Waylon [Jennings] to The Misfits. You can hear all of that in there. 

Paste: Tell me about when your first record came out.
Neal: I made my first record in 2000. I made it myself, and it got picked up by a small European label. But before I’d even signed the contract with them, Headhunter was already contacting me and wanted it, so I went with them. The album was called Willie Heath Neal & the Cowboy Killers. Then, in 2002, I made Unknown for Headhunter, and that was the end of my deal with them, which was good because they were going under anyway. So then I got with Chicken Ranch, and to kind of keep me alive for awhile, they put out this live record that I had [2004’s Live From Somewhere Unknown], and then I made Lonesome, which was a complete 180 from what I was doing, which just kind of fucked people up when they heard it, and—like we were just talking about—this new record is the fulfillment of all of that shit. You can hear samples of all of that in there. 

Paste: Lonesome came out in 2006. Tell me about the time between that record and Out of Highway. I know you left Nashville. 
Neal: Right. What happened there was that Chicken Ranch finally got smart, and they were like, “Screw Nashville, this isn’t working.” So they relocated to Austin. But I have a child [living in the Southeast], so I wasn’t going to Austin. But I left Nashville. I was disgusted with Nashville, and I roamed around for a while with my guitar, down on the Gulf Coast, which is another reason for Lonesome. I’d always had to hide behind shit-hot pickers in a full band. This was a time in my life when I was really grooming shit with just my voice and my guitar. So I spent a lot of time just playing with me and my guitar, and then put out Lonesome. After I left Nashville, I roamed around for about a year, just hobo-ing around with my guitar before I finally came back to where I grew up, which is Atlanta. 

Paste: I read that you were born in the back of a cop car. 
Neal: It’s true. At the time, it was January so there was an ice storm. Country back roads and all that—Woodstock, Ga., was not developed like it is now. That was 38 years ago. So basically, my dad just ran off the road in the car, and a police officer happened to come along. They said that, in the hospital parking lot, in the back of the car, I came all the way out.  

Paste: What town were you from? 
Neal: It was Gwinnett County, but I grew up in Woodstock. My family had a farm out there, but years ago that farm was relocated to south Georgia. 

Paste: Your mother was an aspiring singer when you were growing up, and she had a lot of struggles with that. How did it affect you—to see her struggle with that? Do you think it prepared you, in a way, for this life? 
Neal: Man, it’s weird. When I was young, I didn’t know what my mom was doing. She was just gone all the time. My dad wasn’t really ever around. My mother was obsessed with Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams and Elvis—those were the only males that were ever around. I never really knew what she was doing. I was so young that I didn’t realize she was going off and singing. It wasn’t until later in her life, before she passed away, that she talked about what she was doing. And she always had horrible taste in men, even to the point of my father. But it was one of those things where the men were controlling and they wouldn’t let her, ya know—“You’re on stage, and men are oohing and ahhing over you. I won’t have that!” Her bad taste in men kept her shackled. 

Paste: When you went out and started doing it yourself, did you feel any connection? 
Neal: I was only in a punk band while she was alive. My country stuff didn’t really take off until after she’d already passed. As a matter of fact, on my first record, the last song is called “Warm Whiskey”—those are some lyrics that she wrote that I put chords to. It was actually a song talking about how bad of a mother she was. That was a little too personal, so I turned it around, but she got a co-write on there. That was some way to pay homage to her. 

Paste: What was it about Nashville that you were disgusted with when you left? 
Neal: There was no camaraderie. The only thing making it coming out of there was talentless crap. Now, granted, there’s Hank Williams III and the Shack Shakers, and a couple of other people having moderate success, but it’s taking a while. And you’ll notice that everything [good] coming out of there is pissed off and angry. That’s what we would listen to, coming out of there. And there are some great bands there, there’s Porter Hall, Tennessee. And have you ever heard of that kid Laws Rushing? Man, he’s amazing. There’s some good music coming out of there, but they’re not going to get the attention they deserve, because they’re doing it out of Nashville. I don’t know. I just didn’t need it, and I’d been lied to so many times. I went there and I had a record deal with Headhunter. I was living in Florida, and I knew I had to go put in time in a real scene to be taken seriously. So I went to Nashville with just the intention of playing lower Broadway—that was it. I was hanging out with Hank III at the time, and I had just met J.D. [from the Shack Shakers] and all of those guys. He was very nurturing and very cool, a very cool cat. So I went up there with just the intention of, “All I’m coming here for is [to find] players, and to play on lower Broadway.” But then I’d find myself getting sucked into these meetings on Music Row. I had a couple of managers that did me shitty. I got close once to having an appearance on The Chris Isaak Show. My manager at the time, she had me set up with this thing on The Chris Isaak Show where they wanted country that was “outside the box.” About this same time, my manager—who was well connected—goes into rehab, and passes me off to a buddy of hers that had managed the band she was in, and says to him, “Take care of [Willie] while I’m in here.” Well, they sure did. They just basically took the in she’d built with me and snaked it out. I went on tour, I came back and they set me down at a meeting—told me they didn’t want me to show any tattoos, they wanted me to sing some other song, and they wanted to do something with my hair. And I’m like, “Why the hell do you even want me?” That was the first time I left Nashville. I said, “Fuck it, man.” I just left. I left Nashville for six months, and came back later. It’s that kind of shit. There’s no integrity there. It’s all about money. And, granted, I’m not obsessed with money, but it takes that to stay alive. But I’m not going to compromise my values to make a dollar. And there was two lines when you got to Nashville—there was the cock-sucking line and the playing line. [Laughs] You can go suck cock on Music Row—work out, have six-pack abs or have your big tits and your fine ass, and [snaps fingers] bam, they’ll run you through a stack of harmonizers and make you sound like a fucking diva. … When I was living in Nashville, the guy that played steel guitar for Tim McGraw lived right down the street from me, and his wife was good friends with my roommate at the time. He was telling me that only one of them played live at a time on every song. So you’re just faking it. He’s like, “When your [solo] would come around, you could actually play your lead, but the other times you’re just fucking faking it.” You know, it’s sick when the big news in Nashville is, “Tim McGraw is using his touring band to record a record.” It’s like, isn’t that pathetic? Isn’t that what you’d do in the real world anyway? But what they do is take some talentless fuck in a black hat, and they take him and they shove him in their machine. They go, “Can you sing this?” That’s why those people are called “acts.” They’re told what to sing, what to wear, who to talk to—everything about them is designed to sell something. That’s why they’re “acts,” ’cause that’s what the fuck they’re doing; they’re acting, they’re not artists. That’s why I left Nashville, because it caters to acts, not artists. Sorry, it just kills me when you see the bullshit on TV, and what you hear on the radio... these talentless fucking hacks, man. They have to read the lyrics to their own songs off of cue cards. … And with my label, they’ll say—it’s too country. Too much fiddle and Dobro! It’s ridiculous. That’s like saying there’s too much Christ in Christmas! 

Paste: Back to when you were growing up, at 18 you wound up in the Navy. Why’d you end up enlisting? 
Neal: I was in a small town, and just wanted to get the fuck out. A couple of males in my family had done time in the Navy. I’d always kind of romanticized the Navy, you know, the old World War II—I saw Steve McQueen’s Sand Pebbles when I was a kid, and my uncle Kenny looked just like Steve McQueen. I could never separate the two, so I had this romantic notion with the Navy my whole life, and I wanted to get the fuck out of town. I wound up in my first band ever while I was in the Navy. Played my first gig ever in public, in Singapore, on top of 20-story mall that had a bar on top of it. It was called The Wall. And we were horrible, but they [still] went nuts. You had to have a government-approved set list. The USO officer on the boat, when we would pull into port, they would find places for us to play, and try to convince the crew—these guys have been stuck on a boat without seeing land for three months, so [they’d try to get ’em to come see us] instead of reeking havoc on Asian women. [Laughs] We were told we couldn’t pull into Thailand because the ship that had pulled in before us had been out for three months, and it’s like a 20 to 1 exchange rate there, and they just raped that damn city. So they told us, “No you can’t even come.” So the USO would try to find shit to do, and they would hook [our punk band] up with playing gigs. And we were horrible, but they went nuts. And I knew right then that this is what I was doing. Once, our band played for 2,000 troops in the desert on a big flatbed trailer stage. It was great. 

Paste: When was this? 
Neal: Well, I got out in ’93. 

Paste: So were you in the Gulf War? 
Neal: Yeah, first one. I worked on the flight deck. You'd never really see any action—it’s just planes taking off with bombs and coming back with none. But the U.S.S. Stanley was in our carrier group, and when they would launch those Tomahawks, man—you couldn’t even see it, it was so far away, but you could feel it sucking all of the oxygen out of the air when they would launch. It was crazy, it would just pull your chest back. Couldn’t even see it being launched but you could hear it and feel it. Crazy. So I’m glad I [joined the Navy], man. I’m glad I got the fuck out, but I’m glad I did it. 

Paste: What was your Navy band called? 
Neal: Love Mitt. [Laughs] We were on a 5,000-man spank tank! 

Paste: Did you get to see a lot of cool places while you were in the service?
Neal: I went to Hong Kong, Singapore and we were supposed to go to Australia, but Saddam Hussein flew over the 32nd parallel again and we had to turn around, go back and bomb him into the stone age again. So I never made it to damn Australia, but I will. Can’t wait. 

Paste: After that you wound up in San Diego, playing in a punk band there. 
Neal: Same band, man. About as soon as I came back from my last deployment, I was out. We were going to try to stay in San Diego, but we went broke fast. After that, the drummer actually came home with me to Atlanta. So I played in some more punk shit. But you play punk stuff because you really don’t know how to play. Once your skills develop and your ears develop, you start being able to do shit, and I just started coming back to my roots. 

Paste: And that was around the same time you came home? 
Neal: It took a couple of years after I got home. I’ll tell you, what changed me was Steve Earle’s Train A Comin’ album, and then when I heard the first Wayne Hancock record, I was like, fucking shit. At this time, I was in this rockabilly band called Big Red Rocket—it was a couple of guys who’d moved back down from Nashville. They had played with Charlie Daniels and were trying to cash in on that whole BR549 thing. And I was horrible even then. I just fronted and played rhythm guitar. But, man, once I heard Wayne and shit, I was like, I can’t sing these bullshit songs about sock hops any more, or how fast my car is. I’ve got to sing something with some substance to it. 

Paste: You’ve been on the road for many, many years. What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned? 
Neal: You have to keep playing. You stop playing, you’re dead. People have a real short attention span. Even if you’ve got great music, you’ve got to keep playing. I’ve met the best people in my life that I’ve ever met since my solo career started. The fans of my music, man they’re great people. If I’m 80 years old and playing the spoons on a record, they’ll buy it and come out and see me. So, to answer that question, no matter what, you got to keep on the road—you got to continue playing no matter what happens. 

Paste: So you’re not running out of highway any time soon? 
Neal: No. Hell no. There are times, though—that whole song is about, “Man, I wish I could quit.” I don’t know. Part of the lure of playing music is that pirate notion of going all the time. I have to constantly be going. And Steve Earle, in “Guitar Town,” he has the best line—“I heard someone callin’ my name one day.” And it is like that. It’s like I swear I could hear someone calling me. It’s weird. And the only time I’m content is when I’m traveling. If I sit still for too long, I start getting antsy. Self-destructive. Freaking out. If I didn’t have music, I’d probably be in prison or something. It keeps me in check. It gives me a purpose. And I’m an illustrator too, but I never found an artistic release doing that shit. When I write a song, it gives me closure about shit. I’ll write a song, but when you record it, and hear it it’s like, “I never knew I felt that way.” 

Paste: Earlier, we were talking about your new record, and we discussed this whole thing about being pigeonholed. But there are a lot of different sounds on the new record. 
Neal: Yeah, but it still sounds like me. It doesn’t sound contrived. I listen to a lot of music. Good music isn’t bound by genre. A good song is a good song. I mean, I like Public Enemy. I like Chuck D, but I can’t stand most rap. You know why I like him? Because he’s saying something. He ain’t just bragging about how much money he has. He’s saying something: Educate yourself. But that’s what pisses me off with music. I have spent years of my life, my marriage, all of my money trying to make people listen to what I’m saying. You’ve got people out here who need to be inspired. They don’t even know that they need to be inspired. You’ve got this platform. You’ve got all of these people to listen to you, and all you want to do is talk about the ho’s you fuck and the cars you drive. It’s like, “Fuck you, man!” But then I can listen to Beethoven. I can listen to Dave Brubeck. And I can listen to The Misfits. But once upon a time, society was much more segregated. It just didn’t make sense to listen to lots of different genres of music. Nowadays, with media the way it is now, the access you have to music is a lot more [wide-ranging]. And that’s a great thing. But, you know, I’m a country artist because I make music and it comes out country. I didn’t go, “Hey, I’m going to be a country artist,” which is what they do in Nashville. People don’t realize shit like Charlie Daniels and Kenny Rogers didn’t start out in country music. When their rock careers dried up, they said, “Hey, the country market is easier to break in to.” That’s why you’ve got these fucking hacks like Brett Michaels trying to do that now. It’s the same thing. It’s easier to appeal to them. 

Paste: It’s funny you mention Bret Michaels, because the videos you see on CMT sometimes look a lot like hair-metal videos from the ’80s. 
Neal: That’s exactly it. When I see Keith Urban, not only do I want to beat him senseless with a board with a nail in it, but I’m thinking, “This guy tried to be like Bon Jovi, but there was already a Bon Jovi, unfortunately. [Laughs] I mean, just because you’ve got a banjo in it doesn’t mean it’s fucking country! Just because you’ve got a hammer and nails doesn’t mean you’re a carpenter! The contrivement has just got to go. It’s even taken me years to get to that—subconscious contrivement is completely different than, “Hey, I want to be a country band.” It’s like, man, I love Son Volt and all those guys, but how many other fucking puke bands came out after them and were like, “Hey, let’s be like Son Volt,” instead of just making music and letting other people put a title on it. After me doing this for almost 10 years as a solo artist, the problem, always, was that people did not know how to categorize it. And, finally, people seem to have settled on “outlaw country,” but it isn’t something that I asked them to say, that’s just what people call me. So just make the music, and let the masses decide what it is.

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