C&I interviews up-and-coming country artist Charlie McNeal about his new album, Runaway Train.
Slow guitar picks, pure-country anthems, and a baritone voice that cuts deep — this rising star of country pairs great with the likes of Mo Pitney and Brandi Carlile.
At just 18 years old, Charlie McNeal is already on the trail to success, displaying some serious potential of being the next big thing.
After building a strong foundation and an avid fan base in his home state of California with his full-bodied voice and emotionally impactful songwriting, McNeal is poised to reach an even wider audience with his sophomore album, Runaway Train.
The 10-track album shows a depth and edginess to McNeal, who, despite his age, sings with authority about heartbreak and harrowing low points. Though young in looks, his old soul shines through, resonating with all ages.
Recently, C&I caught up with McNeal to talk about Runaway Train, his career so far, and what he hopes to accomplish next.
Cowboys & Indians: What do you hope your fans will get out of your new album, Runaway Train?
Charlie McNeal: I try to imagine how I feel when I hear an album. I want them to have fun with it. There is also a lot of real life in this album. When we started writing, a theme began to develop. Life is full of challenges and heartache. In that moment it can feel like there is no way to get to the other side. The first song is “The Good Outweighs the Bad.” We almost named the album that, but “Runaway Train” is how I think a lot of people feel about their life at times. I hope people find some inspiration in the songs and it helps them in some way. If that happens I did my job.
C&I: What are some memorable stories along the way of getting your debut album from concept to actual release?
McNeal: So many things go into putting an album together. My debut album was a whirlwind. It happened so fast. We were against the clock and wanted one more song. The song that I was going to record wasn’t really me. I didn’t believe in it. So my producer asked my sister and me, who I write a lot with, if we had any other songs we were working on. We had an idea. So, we went back to the hotel and started writing. We came out with “A Little Less Coke.” It ended up being our most popular song off the album. That showed me that you never know what song is going to be the one, so always let the song pick itself. We recorded that song in about two hours and released it a month later. That song really allowed me to make the second album and hopefully many more.
C&I: What was the writing and recording process like? Where did you draw inspiration from for the sound?
McNeal: Writing is the most frustrating and rewarding thing I have ever done. It is work, but it is the best part of the job. When we start writing, it really is a blank sheet so to speak. You get an idea and draw inspiration from everything and everybody around you. Once we wrote a ton of songs and decided to make the album, we put some songs aside and that’s hard. You have an idea of what you want the songs to sound like going into the studio. Once you are in the studio they change. That is hard but necessary to get the sound and vibe you are looking for. Not sounding like your heroes is the toughest part — you want it to sound like you. I listen to everything. A little bit of Bowie, Metallica, and Gordon Lightfoot. But my roots are country. So, guys like Merle, Waylon, and newer guys like Cody Jinks, Sturgill Simpson, and Eric Church are always part of my sound. I get inspired by anyone who is real and songs that say something.
C&I: How does it differ from Remember the Time and “Christmas on the Phone”?
McNeal: Remember the Time was my first album; it was a big part of the learning curve for me. It was my first taste of recording, my first taste of writing, and it launched me to the first steps of building a career. “Christmas on the Phone” was a specific song that I was asked to write for the Hollywood Christmas Parade Special. They wanted a feel-good song, so, of course, we made it deep and sad. It ended up working out and it had a good message, so they didn’t kick me out of the special. Runaway Train was a labor of love. I wrote or co-wrote four songs on the first album. I wrote and co-wrote all the songs on Runaway Train. The difference is every song on this album was something I experienced either firsthand or through people I know. I hope people can feel that when they listen.
C&I: Do you have a favorite song or track your most proud of?
McNeal: That is such a tough question. It changes day to day. I like them all, but one that seems to resonate well is “Good Outweighs the Bad.” It talks about a couple going through hard times and why they don’t give up. It is a timeless message. Of course, I love old country music and I am very proud of “Friends with a Barstool.” I imagined if Merle was alive he would hear it and nod in approval. “You’ll Turn Out Fine” is one that I like a lot because it gives a voice to all the moms who have been the dad and mom for their kids. A veteran at a show came up to me and said, “That is exactly how I grew up.” It’s hard to describe the feeling I had when he said that. So to answer your question: All of them!
C&I: You started singing to help alleviate some sorrow after a death in your family. How do you think you’ve changed as an artist and individual since then?
McNeal: I was 15 when I sang in front of anyone for the first time. My dad’s best friend and business partner died at 43 years old and his cousin passed a couple of months before at 42. They were all in the garage and sad and I asked if they wanted to hear a song. I saw a smile on their faces, so I knew it was what I wanted to do. The last couple of years have been a lot of travel, songwriting, and dealing with the nuts and bolts of becoming an artist. I had to begin to work on guitar, songwriting, and day-to-day stuff. Technically I grew as a singer and songwriter. However, the one thing that hasn’t changed is wanting to see people moved by something you create. There is no better feeling — that’s why I do this.
C&I: Who are some of the singers and songwriters who’ve inspired your creative development and made you want to become an artist?
McNeal: My dad introduced me to Waylon Jennings when I was a freshman. There is something cool and different about him. I think my first shows were like 80 percent Waylon covers. Merle Haggard is a huge influence. He uses so many genres to create a unique sound, but his voice is always country. Sturgill is the same way, and I connect with his songs as well. Ward Davis and Cody Jinks are a big inspiration for me. I have covered all these guys in a show at some point.
C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make it on the album that we can expect later on down the road?
McNeal: There are lots of songs and we continue to write all the time. I drew a lot of inspiration from what people around me were going through in my previous writing. Some of the new songs we have written are a little more personal. I’m older now and starting to experience heartbreak and life experiences. One song, “No Right Time,” is about how there is never a good time to end a relationship. If you know it is over, you just must do it. Since I will be going out on the road, I have some songs about my fears of leaving home and things like that.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring?
McNeal: We have been fortunate enough to start getting shows put together. I have had an amazing opportunity to open for Rodney Atkins and Willie Nelson. Those were great, and I am doing my first headlining ticketed show in April, and then we are going on the road in California, Arizona, Idaho, and all over the western US. That will be announced very soon. In the meantime, I have some shows in California that were already booked in some smaller venues. I really like playing those and getting to meet everyone after the shows.
C&I: You’re a California native. What are some of your favorite places to hit when you’re home?
McNeal: California can get a bad rap. There are lots of cool things to do. I like to fish, go four-wheeling in the dunes in Pismo. I go dirt bike riding in the desert east of San Diego and camping in Big Sur. When I’m in my hometown of Arroyo Grande, I like my local sushi bar, and of course having the beach and mountains on either side of me makes for a great place to explore. I love stopping in and playing the small clubs that helped me get started. Bakersfield is about two hours east of us, so I enjoy going there and hanging out with family who live there. I also enjoy playing small clubs in Bakersfield. They love country music.
For more information on Charlie McNeal and his upcoming tour dates, visit his website.