I confess that I had high expectations for Legacy, Neal Coty’s second album. His first, 1997’s Chance and Circumstance, received positive reviews for its gritty singing and songwriting, drawing comparisons to the work of Steve Earle. (Plus, Coty is a self-confessed fan of Tom Waits.) Further catching my interest was a program Coty hosted on the Great American Country video network a few weeks earlier. Too often, Nashville singers are either the “Aw-shucks-just-so-thankful-to-be-here” singer or the “Hand-me-another-bottle-of-Jim-Beam!” ultimate party animal.
Neal Coty was different.
His speech was fast, compulsive, witty, and not at all the typical interview fare of country singers. “Please, buy my album,” he reminded us repeatedly. “I need the money!” Supporting this individuality was Coty’s biography:
He’s easy to laugh, lively, quick with a quip, an aside of affected speech to punctuate a story. This man-oh, he’s a talker all right-has an accent somewhere between his languid, rural Western Maryland upbringing and a redneck Alabamian scholar on speed. Yes, it’s hard to figure. But of course, that’s part of the charm of Neal Coty.
And while he had a hat, the symbol of country music devotion, this was no serious Stetson a la George Strait or Clint Black. Instead, Coty’s twisted hayseed straw was closer to Junior Brown’s, suggesting his difference from mainstream Nashville. All this left me eager to hear what Neal Coty had come up with in the studio given the increasing sterilization of country music, courtesy of Nashville. There’s no way around it: Contemporary country music is just plain boring, a generic sound controlled by a handful of labels and producers with an eye carefully focused on the bottom line.
How would Neal Coty fare?
As it turns out, not so well.
Don’t get me wrong: Relationship-obsessed, Legacy is listenable enough overall, but if you’re hoping for fiddle and banjo, you won’t find them here because Legacy is just more mainstream Nashville. Ten of the 11 songs are fairly standard country-pop ballads that run the relationship gamut: falling in love (“You’re All That” and “South Texas Night”); falling out of love (“Breathin’” and “Right Down Through the Middle of Us”); devotion to love that failed (“Can’t Change My Love”); and devotion to love that succeeded (“The Worst Way” and “Legacy”). Coty co-wrote seven of the songs on Legacy, working with a selection of recognized Nashville writers, and he throws in covers of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “You Got Lucky” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Sad Eyes.”
John Kelton’s production is big—in fact, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being trapped in a Faith Hill album. (He did work on Hill’s Take Me As I Am and has a variety of production and engineering credits, including work with Alan Jackson, Billy Ray Cyrus, Terri Clark, and John Berry.) The sounds are huge: massive piano, guitars and basslines-and no song escapes a swelling backing vocal accompaniment. Somewhere in this is Neal Coty’s voice-in all fairness, it’s big, too. Enough mandolin and pedal steel emerge to keep Legacy “country”, but there’s enough pop orchestration to appeal to a larger audience.
Legacy‘s potential becomes especially clear in the album’s eighth track, “Black Heart of Texas”, a song Coty co-wrote with Randy Van Warmer that is radically different from the surrounding ballads. This is a narrative with Coty assuming the persona of a good-for-nothing Texas outcast who overnight finds wealth in oil. As Coty sings, “I drown my soul in a lake of pure black gold / . . . / Fame and fortune raining down from the black heart of Texas.” With its pedal steel and acoustic guitar opening set against echoes of James Dean’s Jed Rainer character in Giant, “Black Heart of Texas” points Legacy in a much more interesting direction. But with the second verse, the big music and backing vocals kick in-complete with the sound of a gusher in the background. The song ends with the narrator wealthy, but as Coty sings, “I wake up every morning, wondering what I’m going to do.” So while the narrative message is one of isolation, the song’s production undercuts that theme. I suppose one could argue that the elaborate sound is a metaphor for the character’s wealth, but Coty’s voice sounds no more isolated here than it does on any other track, including a ballad like “The Worst Way”, where eternal love is certain.
On the plus side, “Right Through the Middle of Us” is a keeper, the song’s country rock-hybrid tempo echoes the end of this relationship when “suspicion drove a semi truck right down through the middle of us.” The big production and Coty’s voice work nicely as well on “Sad Eyes” and the pedal steel and piano-grounded “Legacy”, which probably will be a popular wedding song this summer.
But as I reached the end of the disc, I wanted more Neal Coty. The clever, defiant guy I’d seen on GAC was no place to be found on this album, which was unfortunate because there’s a clear sense that a “lake of pure black gold” is in there somewhere. But in the end, Neal Coty’s Legacy sounds too much like generic Nashville and not enough like Neal Coty.