Chris Neal, patron saint of country blogging?
Probably not a title he would have taken seriously, but one that nevertheless gets at the great influence he had upon those of us who met him within the online sphere.
With his discerning intellect and keen wit, Mr. Neal immediately infused every community he entered with a spirit of fun and an air of legitimacy. He was an early and frequent commenter on a whole range of country sites, from The 9513 to Country Universe to Farce the Music and beyond. Speaking from personal experience, it was enormously encouraging in those early days of blogging to find a guy like Chris on your side. His presence made putting your voice out into the universe seem a lot less futile.
I had only a handful of email conversations with Chris, but every one of them involved him trying to do something nice for me.
In his first message, he let me know that he had written up my young site in the pages of Country Weekly. It didn’t matter that I was a lowly blogger who had been publishing (pseudonymously, on Blogspot) for just a few months; he liked what I was up to and wanted to put the word out. A few days later, he wrote again to ask for a mailing address so that he could send me several copies of the issue.
I wasn’t the only recipient of Chris’ red carpet treatment. Like a man on a mission, he worked his way down the list, using his considerable platform as Music Editor of Country Weekly to give most of the other significant country blogs of the day their first national print media exposure. Chris seemed determined to open the eyes of the magazine’s readership to the wider world of music coverage happening online.
In another message, Chris suggested that several of us bloggers should see about getting involved with the Nashville Scene‘s Country Music Critics Poll – at that time, pretty much exclusively the domain of professional music journalists. Chris thought our opinions mattered just as much as those of the traditional journos. The representation of bloggers in the Scene poll has grown steadily over the past three years, and Chris had everything to do with bringing our two worlds of music criticism together.
Chris offered a glimpse of the logic behind his championing of small-time, independent voices in a July 2008 comment on Alison Bonaguro’s ill-conceived defense of professional critics at the old CMT Blog:
As a professional music journalist I can assure you that some of my favorite critics these days are bloggers (and it’s been that way for years). I use their criticism the same way I hope that people use mine — to help sort through the overwhelming amount of music out there and figure out what I might like.
The difference between someone who’s being paid to do a job and someone who’s doing the same job because he or she loves music so much he or she will write about it for free (or practically free) is also a vast one.
Months later, he had the audacity to thank me for a favorable mention of one of his country haiku. No thanks were necessary, but the gesture – from someone to whom I was already so clearly indebted – impressed me. If Chris had any ego at all, he kept it well-hidden.
When it became clear that he wouldn’t continue to publish country haiku at his site of that name, he graciously agreed to let me revive the series here. At the time, I promised him that my haiku would never be as good as his – a promise I’ve kept, though not for lack of trying. His was never an easy wit to match.
To those privileged enough to have known him in real life, Chris Neal was certainly much more than the limited firsthand account of an online friend can convey. But for those who believe that large personality traits are revealed in small things – like how we treat those who can’t do much for us – his participation in and championing of the world of independent online music criticism speaks volumes.
Thank you, Chris. Your encouragement and positive example meant more than you knew.