Thank You, Chris Neal

The country music community has lost a true beacon this week with the passing of Chris Neal, a superlative journalist and ally to independent blogs like ours.

As a ten-year staff writer for Country Weekly and a contributor to the Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Performing SongwriterThe 9513, and other publications, Chris helped set the standard for modern country music commentary, combining clear-eyed observations with his trademark acerbic wit. In a decade of confounding change for the genre’s industry and sound, he was a fearless voice of reason, equally comfortable celebrating country’s evolution and – no other word will do – “facepalming” over its less endearing developments. His recent work as Senior Editor of M Music & Musicians has only broadened his impact, delivering on his passion for all varieties of good music.

Of course, for many of us, Chris will be just as remembered for his lively presence across the web – including, blessedly, this blog. Who can forget how he would casually out-snark an entire comment thread of overheated 9513-ers? Who can forget the pure joy of his first batches of “country haiku”? Who can forget his pets?

But he wasn’t just a fun “internet friend,” either. Perhaps most enduringly, he was a mentor, an accomplished professional who used his platform again, and again, and again to help shine a light on writers he deemed deserving. It’s because of Chris Neal that many of us have the confidence and the audience to write about country music in this small way we do; and it’s because of his remarkable example that many of us keep trying in the first place.

We’ll miss you so much, friend. Thank you.


  1. This is a beautiful piece, Dan. I don’t think Chris Neal could possibly have gotten a finer tribute.

    I remember reading Chris Neal’s articles in Country Weekly long before I had any involvement with the country music blog scene. I always found his “Belly of the Beast” columns at The 9513 to be fascinating and thought-provoking, some elements of which I attempted to emulate in a few of my 1-to-10 posts. While I didn’t personally know him as well as I would have liked to, he was a huge influence on me, and he really inspired me to find new ways to grow and challenge myself as a writer.

    His passing definitely leaves a huge void in the world of music journalism, and I don’t believe it will ever be fully filled, but Mr. Neal’s talent will live on in the work of those whom he influenced. May he rest in peace.

    My favorite Chris Neal article is his 9513 column “In Defense of the Critic,” which I found very relatable personally. It very beautifully speaks to the driving force behind those of us who attempt to tackle the oft-maligned occupation of being a music critic.

  2. Well said, Dan. I first heard of Chris through his time with The 9513. He was consistently one of the best writers in the country blogosphere and a great read. This is a huge loss.

  3. Thank you for writing this tribute, Dan. I know it couldn’t have been easy.

    The thing that keeps running through my mind today is how magnanimous Chris was toward us bloggers. One of the things that has meant a lot to me in the past four years, as I’ve written for Country Universe, is that while he was a successful print music journalist/critic, he generously advocated for bloggers. Not only did he feature Country Universe (among other bloggers) in Country Weekly twice, I particularly remember these comments on a specific thread of an article that derided “amateur” critics:

    “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.”

    “I do like to think that the internet will bring a meritocracy to all this. Hopefully the people who write (and report — don’t forget that part) about music well and put their work out there will eventually be noticed and get paid for it one way or another.

    I did plenty of writing for free back in the day just to have clips to show people who might hire me. (A few even did.)”

    Thank you, indeed, Chris N.

  4. Chris Neal was my roommate in college for several semesters. He was – strike that please – is one of my best friends. He shared his love of rock and music in general with me so often. Educating me on great historical bands like Pink Floyd as well as new (then) groups like the Cure and R.E.M. back in those crazy early ’90s.

    Somehow, even at 19, he knew that, in the popular music scene, the only constant was change [though he would shudder as such a cliche] and that a rebirth of rock was coming in the wake of Milli Vanilli and Ice Ice Baby. He thought it would be from Minneapolis because of his deep love of all things Prince. But when grunge hit, he was there with a critical eye even then. Because even that was just another wave in the rock tsunami.

    Chris taught me that when people asked me what kind of music I liked to reply, simply: “Good.”

  5. Thanks for bringing out your above points, Leeann, most of which were new to me. I was completely unaware of the discussion on the CMT blog on the topic of “amateur” critics, but seeing how Chris spoke out in favor of bloggers definitely makes me respect him still more – both as an “amateur” critic, and as one heavily of the opinion that a person’s work should be appraised wholly on its own merits. It has at times frustrated me when individuals discredit a perfectly well-constructed critique on the grounds that it was written by an “amateur,” as there’s definitely something to be said for one who writes just for the love of it. I might also add that you raised some great point in that discussion yourself, Leeann.

    Also have to say how cool it was of Chris to give those shout-out to Country Universe and Country California in Country Weekly! You can sure tell he meant what he said about the value of the country blogger.

  6. Beautifully said, Dan. Chris will be greatly missed. I’m still too shocked to put together coherent thoughts, but am enjoying reading others’ remembrances.

  7. Another thing that I’d like to point out about Chris that I’d admired is his ability to keep a cool head on the internet. I don’t recall him ever displaying anger toward those who commented ignorantly or rudely. Instead, if he reacted at all, he’d either use logic or wit to make his points.

  8. RIP, Mr. Neal! Always enjoyed reading your reviews in Country Weekly. You will be missed. Thoughts & prayers to all your friends and family.

  9. Thank you, indeed, Chris. What a loss. Will keep his friends and family in my prayers.

    Beautiful tribute, Dan.

  10. Please keep Chris mother grandmother. And brothers as they are saddened by his sudden passing. Chris will be forever remembered in our hearts and prayers. He came from a wonderful loving family in a very small town in rose hill VA. I grew up around his family so I know first hand.god bless.

  11. Just re-read his “In Defense of the Critic” post on the 9513 that Ben mentioned. Good stuff. My condolences to his family and friends.

  12. As CMW stated I’m still too shocked to put together coherent thoughts about Chris. I worked with Chris at the Middlesboro Daily News where he was a reporter. Not only was he an excellent reporter, but his love and knowledge of music was instantly obvious to anyone who met him. I always knew that his talent as a writer would take him far … and it certainly did. We were sorry to lose him as a reporter, but he was one of the ones you knew you couldn’t keep “down on the farm” because he deserved a bigger venue for a talent such as his. Dan, this was a wonderful tribute and one that Chris so richly deserves.

  13. Really lovely work on this tribute, Dan.

    Chris Neal’s writing was never anything less than masterful: Whether he was defending the work of a pop-country star, railing against the loudness war that has ruined so much modern music, or advocating for the voices of writers outside of traditional print media, both his ability to pinpoint the real crux of an issue and his gift for turning a God-I-wish-I-wrote-that phrase were rivaled by very, very few. While his talent may have been peerless, he also made a deliberate and sincere effort to make so many other writers feel like they were his peers.

    The sense of community and camaraderie that has developed in the last five or so years among those of us who write about country music? Such a huge amount of that is due to Chris Neal and the examples he set. He elevated the quality of the discourse about popular music– especially about country– and did so with logic, civility, and class.

    Losing a writer of Chris Neal’s stature makes me feel like the rest of us are somehow obligated to step up our game. An incisive, passionate, and smart writer whose work I will continue to admire and find inspiring.

  14. Thanks for the write-up, Dan. I didn’t know Chris as well as I would have liked to, but he was a big influence on my writing. His humor was always welcome also. He’ll be missed greatly. There’s never a “good time to go,” but 40 is way too young.

  15. “…it was real, it was magic, it was calm, it was savage, it was cool…”

    i only knew chris n. as a “voice” from the legendary “9513”, but what kind of voice he was is perhaps expressed best by that line above, which i borrowed from chely wright’s “it was”.

    besides being a prolific writer und critic of the genre, he was to those “9513”-threads what the fizzy stuff is to a coke, the cherry brandy to my grandma’s black forrest gateau, the moustache to an alan jackson cd-cover – without it, it just wasn’t the real deal.

    “…it’s what you leave behind you, when you go…” is another fitting line from a great song to express my feelings about the much too early passing away of someone, who worked so brilliantly on keeping minds open in a more and more fundamentalistic world, just by using a harmless keyboard as his “weapon” of choice.

    what a sad day this is in country universe. then again, if there is a country music blog as well as that famous jukebox with a country song, where chris n. is now, then some souls surely will have a reason to cheer.

    he must have been doin’ something right, if his name will always be connected with some of the most entertaining moments i had, when spending some time with the ups and downs of the genre in all its glorious imperfection.

    the web-clowns of this world are mourning over one of their best.

    r.i.p chris neal

  16. I am very saddened by the news of Chris’s passing..To show the wide age span this talented young man reached, he was friends with my daughters in High School and I really thought at that time he was a cool and smart kid..Then I became a fan of his as I love M Music&Musicians magazines and couldn’t wait to look for his articles to read first…He went back to my generation doing interviews with Gregg Allman and my all time favorite Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven-Jan/Feb 2011 issue)So I thank him and I choose to remember him as a classic. I wish you forever Peace Chris Neal.

  17. I wish I could add something as beautiful as what’s already been written, but much like trying to match Chris Neal as a writer, these tributes are out of my reach.

    For as artificial and anonymous as the internet is alleged to be, the truth is that a real country music blogging community has been built over the past few years, so that grief can be felt for someone you’ve only known digitally.

    Maybe that’s the power of great writing. The humanity can’t be separated from what’s written.

    Very sad that Chris will never post a new post or comment again, but grateful that he touched so many as a writer and as a person.

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