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Singer-songwriter doesn't let Iraq stop his progress

6 Jun 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Lance Cpl. Brandon Neal was leading the life of his dreams before he joined the Marine Corps.  He was a country singer, playing his guitar to large groups of people in smoky, dark rooms.  When the 20-year-old from Van Buren, Mo., deployed to Iraq in March, not much had changed.

"When I was in high school, I used to take off Friday afternoon for gigs all around the southern U.S. over the weekend," Neal explained.  "I've always loved playing for people, connecting with a crowd," said Neal. 

The soft-spoken young man wouldn't stand out in a crowd, but when playing, he had them in the palm of his hand. 

"Anyone can relate to at least one country song," he added.  "The music I play reminds the guys that there's still a world waiting for them back home."

Neal is known as 'Cornbread' to his platoon-mates because of his accent and upbringing.  The name suits him just fine, he said.

"I like to sing about life experiences, things I've done or gone through," Neal said.  "My music takes me home."

Working the crowd during his performances across the South taught Neal how to read people, to see what songs they'd enjoy the most.  He uses this skill when playing for the Marines here.

"I usually open up with something everyone knows and can sing along to," he explained.  "Whatever it takes to loosen them up, then I'll sing whatever the crowd would best enjoy."

His comrades enjoy hearing the booming voice of the singer accompanied by his guitar at the end of a hard day.

"It gives people a release to be able to sit back and just listen and relax," said Pfc. Curtis M. Hazen, a 19 year-old from Dumfries, Va.  "I'm not even a fan of country music, but Neal knows how to connect with people, how to make them feel better no matter what's happening."

Neal realizes the effect his music has on the people that hear it, and tries to use it to help them as much as he can.

"When I'm singing, people can forget about when the next mortar is going to fall or the next patrol they have to go on," he said.  "They can just enjoy the music, and think of home."

Participating in talent shows was a regular event for Neal during his youth.  His received his first guitar from his father when he was 9-years-old.  Neal remembered the experience vividly.

"He handed me that guitar and said 'No matter where you go in the world or what's happening to you, as long as you have that guitar you'll never be alone'," Neal recalled. 

He took inspiration from the musical members in his family to perform in talent shows and develop his skill on the guitar when he was younger.

"When I was seventeen, I won a talent show which had a record contract for two albums as the prize," Neal said.  "I turned it down to join the Marine Corps."

He doesn't plan on giving up his plans for stardom, however.  Making contacts with record companies through friends and by performing whenever and wherever he can, he has high hopes for his music.

"My goal is to have a song on the radio by the time I'm twenty-six," Neal said.  "I don't have to think it will happen, I know it will happen.  That's how I look at it.  When I play guitar, I'm content with my life and it comes out in my music."

Neal's life experiences as a Marine allowed him to meet a lot of people that affect his music.  Finding time to play in between his duties to the Corps is also something Neal, like many musicians, struggles with.

"Neal is an outstanding Marine and musician," said Cpl. Travis J. Lowis, from Iron Mountain, Mich.  "When it hits the fan, I can count on Neal to be there for me.  He's great for morale here and he's great to listen to."

Even though he can capture a crowd when singing, Neal is shy around most people.  He uses his music to express himself in ways he normally can't.

"I have trouble talking about things in my life sometimes," he said.  "I write about it, sing about it and I can express myself through my music,"

Even if he never makes it big, Neal said he'd still be content.

"I might be playing in bars for the rest of my life, but I'll be happy doing it."