Q&A With Willie Heath Neal

by Jack Diablo
Willie Heath Neal plays country music. Not the radio-friendly variety, but that old school outlaw country enjoyed by the cowboy hat and leather jacket sets alike. EU met up with Willie before his show at Jack Rabbits to talk about his life, career, and the fusion of country music and punk rock.

EU: “Your bio says you were born in the back of a cop car, what’s the story behind that?”
WHN: “It was winter, man. Where I was living, it was very rural at the time you know, it was 1971. So it was a real bad storm and my dad basically ran off the road. A police officer came along and put my mother in the car and stayed in the back with my mother and my dad drove to the hospital. So that’s how that went down.”

EU: “Wow!”
WHN: “Sounds like an episode of Green Acres, doesn’t it?”

EU: “So you spent a few years in the Navy?”
WHN: “Right.”

EU: “How did that lifestyle affect your song-writing?”
WHN: “Well I got started – I was in my first band in the Navy. I played guitar and got together with some guys and started a band. It was all original. The USO Officer on there, man, when we’d pull into a port like, in Asia or somewhere, they’d go out and find us a place to play to try to get 5000 guys on the carrier to come out, ya know. And we were a horrible band but man, that was cool. The first gig I ever played in a band live was in Singapore. It was crazy, so that’s how it affected me man, it put me…”

EU: “It just kinda threw you in.”
WHN: “Yeah, yeah. And these guys just kinda recruited me. They saw me playing guitar and were like, ‘hey you want to play rhythm guitar in a shitty rock band?’ and I was like, ‘yeah, sure.’ So that’s where I really got my start. That’s when I decided, that show in Singapore, that this is what I’m doing.”

EU: “So that was the moment?”
WHN: “Yeah.”

EU: “You grew up listening to your mother’s old country albums, then you started playing punk rock and psychobilly and now you’re playing country music again. Does it feel like coming full circle?”
WHN: “Yeah, yeah. Well, you start playing in punk bands because you don’t know how to play. You’re too stupid to play other people’s stuff. Just as I started growing as a song-writer, it was a really easy transition. I even still do a couple of my old punk songs. As I learned about music more and my playing developed, it just kinda morphed into country.”

EU: “That was actually my next question. Your background is both country and punk. Do you think the genres are more closely relate than most people think.”
WHN: “Oh yeah, man. I get a lot of mohawks at my shows. I love it, it’s great because there’ll be punk rockers and older people, hippies, everybody. Everybody loves it, man. It’s cool to be that diverse.”

EU: “So basically your life has been one big, long, epic country song?”
WHN: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. My biography would read like Forrest f—ing Gump. It’s been, ya know, Hillbilly all the way.”