It's early afternoon, and already it's been a long day for Neal McCoy. By 8 a.m., he had done interviews with close to 30 different radio stations. By 2 p.m., he's feeling a little slap-happy.
"If you ask me something and you don't hear from me, I've dozed off, and I'm gone, so just say goodbye," McCoy cracks in between bites of chocolate.
McCoy, a former country music Entertainer of the Year, has always been part singer, part comedian. He's one of the few artists who doesn't come on stage with a set playlist. He knows what the first couple of songs are going to be and then wings it based on what he's seeing from the crowd.
He's also always been a bit of a risk-taker, as anyone who's seen one of those concerts knows. Three years ago, he disappeared from the Country Concert stage in Fort Loramie, Ohio, and reappeared rapping and dancing on the roof, leaving one band member to grumble while leaving the stage, "That idiot. If he'd fallen off, all our careers would be gone."
The comedian part of McCoy has an outlet in the almost-nightly shows the Texas native puts on at stops across the country or on his frequent USO trips overseas to perform for troops. He satisfies the need for risk-taking at those shows - because of those stunts or even the fact he's performing in war zones.
But McCoy also finds his risk off the stage. Earlier this year, with the help of a couple of investors, McCoy left his Warner Brothers record deal and launched his own label, 903 Music. As of today, he's the only artist on the independent label's roster.
"It came to a point at Warner Brothers where I hadn't released any type of album in three years - a lot of people hadn't heard from us in four or five years," McCoy says. "We had an album done, and I thought it was a really good album. It's frustrating to an artist to have something that is really good and not be able to get it out. I went to the head of the label and asked if it was OK if he released me. He did."
At that point, McCoy decided the best way to get his music out was to release it himself.
"I thought the time was right. Radio has been much more receptive to playing the stuff on independent labels," he says. "The advantage of starting my own label is that I'm able to get a product out, just being able to do what I want to do and record what I want to record and promote me how I want to promote me. I know how to promote me better than anyone. And, of course, there's a financial advantage if I do well."
Independent status has become a much more common route in country music in recent years. In 2003, Clint Black and former Sony Music executive Mike Kraski launched Equity Records in order to give more financial benefits to artists. The most notable recent start-up has been Toby Keith's Show Dog Nashville Records. For years Keith had chafed at having his former labels, Mercury Records and DreamWorks, tell him what his image was supposed to be or what kind of music he could record. At Show Dog, he has artistic freedom.
The freedom McCoy has as his own boss is evident on "That's Life," his current record and first release of any kind by 903 Music.
"I do a lot of different stuff on stage. I go from country to rock to disco. It's what I'm capable of doing, and it's what I like to do. I put a lot of different and good stuff on this album that will appeal to a lot of people," he says.
For years he'd wanted to record a duet with one of his musical heroes, Charley Pride, but his label bosses had resisted. "You're My Jamaica" on his new record is McCoy's long-awaited partnership with Pride.
He's got funny stuff, like his current Top 20 single "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles on," and he cut "You Let Me Be the Hero," a ballad that's a tribute to his wife of 25 years, Melinda. And he's got some stuff you just wouldn't think would be on a country artist's album, like "Hillbilly Rap" and "Head South."
Within about a month, McCoy had achieved the first goal of the label, successfully re-launching his career. Sales have topped more than 50,000 copies, and "we're seeing results at our shows, with more people coming out," he says. "We're selling some albums. You're going to have that initial rush of your longtime fans, but we've been able to sustain sales."
Step two for McCoy is putting together a roster for 903 Music.
"What we have to offer is a better return for an artist's money. We've got a great promotion team in place, and we can concentrate on a few artists and see that they succeed - whether they're established or a new artist," McCoy says. "Our strength is country, obviously, so right now we're looking for country. But we're also seeing who comes to us and see if we'd be able to successfully market them. We're talking to two or three acts, but our major focus to this point has been getting me relaunched and getting my record up the chart."
Step three, obviously, is to see how many albums the label can sell.
"I've got that covered. I've already bought 9 million copies," he says with a laugh. "I've got a lot of kinfolk, you know."
Contact Brian Dugger at: email@example.com