His voice is deep, resonant and seems to carry the ache of a thousand heartbreaks. The fact that he’s a year away from his 18th birthday may surprise some, however spend 10 minutes with Charlie and it all makes sense. The phrase “old soul” is a quality often ascribed to young entertainers, but McNeal wears it with ease. He has an uncanny knack for bringing a song to life with a depth of understanding and authority that belies his young years, and that gift shines on his new album “Runaway Train.”
“Country music can make you feel a lot of different things,” McNeal says. “It can make you dance. It can make you cry. It’s really versatile and I love that. I want to make music that moves people.” It was actually a time of sorrow that taught McNeal the impact music could have and spurred the young artist’s desire to launch a career. “No one knew that I had a secret desire to be a singer. But we had a death in our family and folks were at the house, crying and hurting. I pulled out my guitar and started singing. Immediately I saw the affect it had on people-- -that I could help alleviate some of their sorrow just by singing songs-- -that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. A California native, who grew up a couple hours from the seminal Bakersfield music scene, Charlie was heavily influenced by the music of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. “I listened to them a lot,” says McNeal. “I got a lot of my musical inspiration from them and guys like Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Johnny Cash, along newer artists like Cody Jinks, Ward Davis, Sturgil Simpson and Colter Wall. They are proof that traditional country music is alive and well.”
He’s seen that impact first hand as he’s performed in venues around his home state, building up an enthusiastic fan base. People are not only drawn to the rich, impressive timbre of his voice, but also the insightful, emotional songs he writes. He writes a lot by himself and with his sister, Corrin. “She is fun to write. She loves stories”. They recently wrote, Good Outweighs the Bad with Charlie’s producer, Kim Copeland. McNeal says, “Writing with Kim was different and fun. That song is probably going to be the first single.”
On his sophomore album, “Runaway Train,” McNeal is really growing into his gifts as a singer and songwriter with a collection of well-crafted songs about life’s trials and triumphs. The title track is about a man who just can’t seem to stay away from temptation. It boasts a potent lyric and musically McNeal describes it as Waylon meets Metallica. That song was inspired by a lot of just things that happen to people every day. We all know people who struggle and we all have our vices.”
The album combines such up tempo romps as “I’m Out of Luck, Not Out of Love” with touching moments like “You’ll Turn Out Fine,” a mother’s reassurance to her child as he grapples with his father’s alcoholism and absentee parenting. “I wanted to write an album about real life because a lot of radio is about good times, drinking beer with buddies, taking a girl down a dirt road and dropping the tailgate. There’s nothing wrong with it,” he says. “A lot of people want to listen to stuff that doesn’t make them think, but the type of music that I want to make is about real life. It’s about what really happens. I really want to send a message that through all the hard times, you’re not forgotten. Life is full of difficult moments and choices and that’s what this album is about.”
McNeal is balancing his senior year with a busy touring schedule. He recently opened for Willie Nelson. “Standing in front of thousands of people, warming up the stage for Willie, was too cool to put into words.” Those times of validation are coming more and more often. “Playing festivals and honky-tonks you get to meet some pretty amazing people. Recently I met, The Band of Brothers, a veterans group that uses softball as a way to get their fellow brothers integrated back into society after they come home,” McNeal recalls. “I played the song ‘You’ll Turn Out Fine’ and the leader of the group said, Man, that song hit me! My dad was the same way.’ Being able to affect him with that song was amazing to me. Being able to make him remember his feelings and seeing him affected in a good way by it was the most gratifying thing. That really made me feel like what I’m doing is the right thing.”
McNeal recently embarked on a new adventure as he began hosting his own radio show, The Outlaw Country Show with Charlie McNeal, in Morro Bay, CA. “I enjoy being able to play music for fans who have always listened to outlaw country and also to introduce the genre to new listeners,” he says. “The show has a great selection of classic hits and numerous songs from artists who are keeping the genre alive today.” (For those who don’t live in the area, visit centralcoastradio.org on Monday nights from 9pm till midnight to hear the show) Charlie can also been seen on TV this holiday season, as a featured performer in the Toys For Tots Christmas Parade on the Hallmark Channel.
Age and wisdom are generally connected, but in McNeal’s case, he is breaking that mold and showing the world that he is ready to bring back music that matters. His current album, “Runaway Train”, is expected to hit radio early in 2018. At only 17, Charlie McNeal has felt that power and knows the impact a song can have on the listener. He might be young but creating music that matters is his mission and he’s just getting started.