Biography All Music Guide
All Music Guide:
Willie Heath Neal's official press release calls the unvarnished, throaty singer/songwriter "a country song." The description is right on the mark, considering that the details of his life cover a multitude of country music themes, including a rough start, a hard life, and the rebelliousness that comes with both. Neal was born on the road in a Georgia cop car in the winter of 1971, the fourth of five children in a single-parent household. Money was tight, and after trying to scrape together a buck by working all day, his mother aimed for a career as a singer at night. But the dream that Neal's mother nursed on the stages of local honky-tonks were kind to neither her nor her three girls and two boys. The children eventually landed in foster homes. A period of hell-raising and rebellion during his teen years led Neal to spend several years in the U.S. Navy, during which time he earned a high-school diploma. His time as a sailor led to Neal's ultimate salvation: music.
While serving his country in Asia and still trying to curb his wild streak, he established a punk rock trio that served as a creative outlet for his pent-up emotions. The band landed gigs in Hong Kong and Singapore, and Neal reveled in the approval he earned on-stage. He set his course for a career in the music industry. Bandmembers later were shipped to San Diego, where they remained upon their discharge from the service to continue on the local punk rock scene. Life in California ate the band's funds, and Neal and another bandmate headed back to Georgia. By now in his early 20s, Neal devoted three years to playing the local Atlanta scene. Punk rock failed to hold him, however, thanks to the influences of his country roots and the music of Wayne Hancock and Steve Earle. His childhood, too, exposed him to country music in the form of his mother's favorites, singers that included Elvis Presley and Hank Williams. Neal started to play upright bass for a rockabilly outfit before heading to Florida, where he hooked up with a psychobilly group and began touring the region. A few months later he hired on where needed with various bands across the South, including Savannah, GA, and New Orleans. The lack of stability cut into his songwriting, and Neal set off to pull together his own country group and begin recording a mix of old and new tunes. He caught the ear of fans in both the U.S. and Europe and inked a deal with Raucous Records, a British company based in Leicester. Officials at the company's U.S. distributor, Cargo Music, liked what they heard and offered Neal a deal in the U.S. on the label Headhunter. His touring experience has seen him perform with such artists as Wayne Hancock, Leon Russell, Mike Watt, the Reverend Horton Heat, and Hank Williams III, among others.