Whenever I tell people that I like Country music I always feel the need to back it up with “but not the stuff they play on the radio” or to define it by calling what I like “Americana”. I get the feeling Texas singer-songwriter Matthew McNeal feels the same, as he bills himself as: “gimmick-free Americana”.
Americana is an interesting but appropriate term for what was probably once called Country – if only to distance the music from the current spate of over-produced pop that passes as Country these days. In the end Ryan Adams has certainly made a nice career out of writing great songs and if you’re a fan of Adams, The Avett Brothers or Trampled By Turtles – Matthew McNeal is in your wheelhouse.
The first single from Matthew’s new record – Lost and Found, reminds me of the legendary Canadian country band Blue Rodeo. Blue Rodeo hold a special place in the hearts of a lot of Canadians (like Tim Hortons coffee) because the fabric of what it means to be Canadian is woven throughout their music – they write about Canada – Canadiana if you will. Like a good book, a song should take you somewhere and Matthew, who is still in his early 20s, seems wise beyond his years. Matthew’s studio debut album, recorded with Grammy award-winning McKenzie Smith (Midlake/Sarah Jaffe/St. Vincent) and Joey McClellan (Midlake/Israel Nash/The Fieros), is due out this Spring. His first record – 2013’s When You’re Down, was recorded in a small apartment in south Texas.
Matthew also has the winds of Texas at his back; the list of singer-songwriters from the Lone Star state is a long one – Townes Van Zant, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, Alejandro Escovedo, and of course Willie Nelson. Lost and Found is an awfully strong opening shot and Matthew McNeal’s music stands alongside these artists more than it does beside say, Florida Georgia Line, if you’re willing to lend an ear.
People say I sound like….
Rather than pegging my sound similar to another artist, most often people categorize my tunes as a strain of Americana or garage country (whatever that means).
I am originally from…..
I grew up in a small town east of Dallas by the name of Terrell, Texas. Not much to offer other than the State Hospital and Jamie Foxx, but it’ll always be ‘home’.
What music has had an influence on your sound?
I’ve always gravitated toward music with a real solid groove while still having genuine lyrical content, so The Avett Brothers are always my ‘go-to’. They’re definitely one of the bands that inspire me the most.
Tell us about the scene in Dallas and what it is like touring around…
Odd enough, I haven’t spent too much time playing gigs in the DFW area. I tend to spend my time out on the road, but I’m hoping to change that this year. There is some phenomenal talent coming out of the area though- my two personal favorites being Leon Bridges and Bad Mountain.
Tell us about your live show…
When I play live, I perform as a two-piece with my buddy Andre Black on the drums. It gives us a little more grit and groove, plus it’s a completely different experience yet still compliments the record.
How does a city’s musical history, or landscape influence your sound?
When we play live, we tend to vibe off the crowd and put on a show that’s more fitting for them. I’ve found that towns out in the middle of nowhere are the most fun to play because everyone is excited that there’s even something going on in town that night. Cities known for music have seasons of over-saturation every once in a while, but that’s just the ebb and flow of the live music industry. I just like to share my stories and have a good time wherever we play.
What influences you lyrically?
Anything that makes me think “man, why isn’t anyone else writing about this?” The new record covers everything from divorce to feeling alone in a room full of people. I think people deal with a lot more issues than what is put out in the open, so those little nuances are what inspires me most.
My most memorable gig ever was….
On this last little road run I did, we played at a really cool bar over in Lubbock, TX. We played a three hour set, live-streamed on the local radio station, to a packed house with a line out the door all night long. It was like footloose- people dancing everywhere and having a ball. It was the perfect first show of the year.
If you could pick any time to travel back to for music, where would you go and what year would it be….
I’d happily pick any year in the 80s. I’d love to be a part of that era in country music- George Jones, George Strait, Randy Travis, and Willie Nelson. I’ve always felt that the 80s produced the best country music, plus I would’ve loved to bring some grit and growl to the country music of that time.
Growing up, at home I listened to…..
My mother always had old R&B cassettes around the house, so we’d listen to that at home. I think that’s where I learned to really like music with a good groove. Out and about we’d listen to country classics, so it’s easy to see where my roots are.
What tunes are on heavy rotation for you…
Here lately it’s been a lot of Shakey Graves, Sturgill Simpson, and Ryan Bingham. I’m a full-album kind of guy and all these guys have impeccable discographies. I’m a big advocate for this newer alt-country sound in all of its variations.
If you could open for any band/artist right now who would that be and why?
I’d have to pick my fellow Texan Shakey Graves. I really think he’s the most innovative, entertaining musician touring today. Plus his energy paired with his lyrical wit makes him a powerhouse when he plays live.
If you could only bring ONE record (only one) in the tour van what would it be?
Aha Shake Heartbreak by Kings of Leon. I think it’s one of the most well-composed records in the past 15 years from start to finish.
When you’re not playing and have some time off, where could we find you…
My family has a little woodshop, so I try to get my creative fix out there whenever I can. I just love to create, whether it’s through my music or little woodcrafts I toy around with.
You are a storyteller – what books would you recommend – or who are your go-to authors?
I’m really into books written by songwriters. I just like to get inside the minds of the people that write songs that I love. Whether they’re regarded as literary greatness or the books end up falling short, they really intrigue me. Works by Steve Earle and Ryan Adams are both on my list, but I’m a big fan of Josh Ritter’s Bright’s Passage. I also think C. S. Lewis is brilliant when it comes to apologetics and ideology, especially in books like The Screwtape Letters. To me, some of the best reads are found surfing through the nether-regions of Tumblr/blogs and reading poetry and stories written by people from all different education levels, walks of life, and backgrounds. I find that some of the best writing is found in the profound thoughts of everyday people.
The one thing I want you to remember while you’re listening to my music….
I want people to always remember that when you feel like you’re down and out, someone else has been there and has already gotten through it. I try to have a sense of hope or redemption in my tunes, even when the topics seem dark.
What’s up for 2015?
My studio debut will come out in a few months, so I’m using 2015 as a year to play/promote all over Texas and get my home state to rally behind what I’m doing. After a year of writing, rehearsing, and recording, it feels awesome to be able to share what I’ve been working on with everyone.