“They gave me an award for doing what I love doing,” Neal Laney said.
The award itself may be acrylic with his name on it, but the meaning is in the name of the award – the Unkle Dallas Award – and the impact its namesake had on others.
“That’s what makes it all even sweeter is the name,” Laney said. “As far as my name on it and being the first one, what an honor.”
Laney thought he was presenting an award at the ETX Music Awards when he saw his name at the top of the page, but then they called out his name as the recipient.
“That was a surprise,” he said wiping away a tear. “It just shows I’m doing something right.”
Presented by Boston Chris and Tobie Turner during Saturday evening’s ETX Music Awards, Laney said, it was the first award of the evening.
“They had me tear-staining my vest that night,” he said.
When Unkle Dallas walked into Neal’s Guitars and looked around, Laney said, he had no idea who the man in the red cowboy hat was. That 10-minute encounter ended up being two weeks before Unkle Dallas’ death in early 2016.
Even though Laney knew many people who had worked with Unkle Dallas (a.k.a. Don Wicker), Laney did not know him. Only after Wicker’s death did Laney learned how many of his connections knew Unkle Dallas.
“It was like these people are just all around this one person. I guess that’s what’s going to make the award that much sweeter is it’s a person that has touched so many lives. I hope that I can help as many as he has touched. After he died, I couldn’t have picked up a rock and chunked it and not hit somebody that didn’t know Unkle Dallas,” Laney said, noting he supposes the inaugural award went to him because he and Unkle Dallas share a passion for music.
Music has helped Laney and East Texas musicians forge many friendships through his work to help replace picks, strings or chords or to donate autographed guitars to for charity auctions.
“I coined the phrase a long time ago, ‘For the love of music,’ and I closed every letter that I was doing for anything for music [with that], and I guess it fit me,” he said. “They give me music and signatures, I give out guitars for the benefits of helping people and we mesh.”
One commonality between Laney and the musicians he has befriended over the years is their willingness to give.
“(Musicians) give their music. You pay for them loading in and loading out, they give the music… You’re not paying for the music; they’re giving that to you free,” he said. “That’s the reason you get a lot of them that do it for free or that will put them online for free. They want you to hear their music. That’s something that they want to do. They want that smile on your face. They want you to feel that emotion that they have when they made that music.”
Laney was in the hospital for 30 days with 15 of those in a coma, and it was music that got through to him.
“My adopted daughter played music for me when I was in a coma, and I responded,” he said.
Two days after his awakened from the coma, Laney and Cody Wayne wrote a song together in the hospital.
“I’ve grown a lot of friendships through music… It’s a neat feeling,” he said, having musicians reach out to him from across the state, the country and in some cases the world. “Boils right down to music. Music is the reason I’m still here and the prayers. The music is what it’s all about.”
When Laney teaches students music, he said, the best part is being able to share his passion for music and seeing the light in students’ eyes when something clicks and they get it.
“Music feeds the soul,” he said.
Laney’s love of music began when he was a child and listened with his dad. Not until he was nearly a teenager did Laney hear music outside of the country genre, he said. After spending most of his time listening to the country radio station in his dad’s vehicle, Laney’s sister brought home an 8-track tape.
His most-played music came from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers, playing the tapes until they wore out. Then, he discovered Pink Floyd and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
“Music is my thing,” he said. “Music is something I enjoy doing. We all have our passions in life; music’s one of mine. I gave up most of my things that I do for music. I hunt, fish and everything else, and music took over. Those parts didn’t get done anymore.”
Laney said he did not need an award to do what he does helping musicians with – and donating guitars for – auctions and programs like Kilgore High School’s PASS program.
While at the ETX Music Awards, Laney had the winners sign a guitar – the 43rd autographed guitar Laney has donated – to be auctioned off in November at the Darrin Morris Band’s performance at The Back Porch. A second guitar, which was signed by the 2017 Porch Fest performers, will also be auctioned off at the show with proceeds going to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.