After six comedy albums, an opening gig for Tenacious D, and appearances on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Jimmy Kimmel Live, it would seem that Neil Hamburger has reached his zenith as a comedian. Rather than sell out and make embarrassing appearances on Idol Gives Back for the rest of his career, however, Hamburger has decided to expand his artistic horizons into the realm of country music. Backed by a lineup of musicians including Prairie Prince of the Tubes, David Gleason, Atom Ellis of Dieselhed and the New Cars, Rachel Haden, and Joe Goldmark, Hamburger recorded Neil Hamburger Sings Country Winners (Drag City) and forever changed the landscape of celebrity recordings.
I thought you were left for dead in Malaysia. How did you make it back to record Country Winners?
Malaysia was quite a number of years ago, but I must agree that it was quite a depressing situation for everybody involved. When you make as many albums as I have, and with my level of success, it was decided that something new was needed to keep things fresh. I hope it worked.
Your band is made up of music professionals. What kind of dirt do you have on them?
I think one of guys played on an album by Richard Marx, but these are consummate professionals. They are musicians who play with all kinds of folks, and I’m not going to mention any questionable instances they have in their collective pasts. Our drummer played with George Harrison, from this musical combo called the Beatles. You might remember them and some of their hits. If you are able as an artist to work with this caliber of people, there’s really no room to criticize them.
What prompted you to make a country-and-western album? Did you owe a bunch of taxes like Willie Nelson?
I do, but not like Willie Nelson. Mr. Nelson has a much larger income than me, so he was into the government to the tune of several million dollars. With me, you’re talking a couple hundred dollars. The similar thing is that I, like Mr. Nelson, am unable to pay the money back. I would love to pay the government back, but as you may know show business is not a high-paying gig. I’d probably have more luck if I got a job fixing the … what are they … French fries they serve in the restaurant. People like to denigrate jobs in the fast-food industry, but that guy is making a lot of money by frying those things up. Guys that tell jokes, except of course for Carrot Top, make very little money by comparison.
Where can I buy your album? Will it be available on the television?
We would like it to be available on the television or the radio and really any possible outlet of commerce. We are currently trying to work out a deal with hardware stores, because there’s lots of impulse buying there. Say you go to buy a pack of nails and pull out a twenty to pay for it. What do nails cost? Seventy-nine cents? People don’t want to walk around with nineteen dollars in change. Now me, I’d like to have the nineteen dollars, but for most people it’s a nuisance. If we had a display at the point of sale, one of those cardboard displays, but with a life-size cutout of me built into it; that would do the job. We could make my handout of rubber or possibly plastic, and in my plastic or rubber hand would be my CDs. And someone who’s up there with their box of nails, they’d just snatch one up and plunk it right down on the counter. I tell you what, it wouldn’t hurt sales at all.
Why should I take an evening out of my life to come see your tour?
Most of our lives these days don’t have a whole lot going on in them. They’re pretty dismal. Coming out to see my show is much better than sitting at home with a gun pressed to your temple, as so many people do every evening.
What should I wear?
Well, you don’t want to compete with the entertainers. That’s just tacky. Other than that, you can never go wrong with a nice dinner jacket and some shoes. Most of the nightclubs have some rules, so you should probably follow those, too. And, of course, whatever clothes you wear should be clean. I’ve given concerts where people showed up in T-shirts that smelled like body odor. That’s offensive to everybody in the room.
Who are your country-and-western singing idols?
I like a lot of these old guys that you don’t see anymore, like Faron Young and Porter Waggoner. I dig the good old sounds of country music. Most of the stuff that passes for country music today sounds like the Village People. People ask me, "Neil, how do you know so much about country music?" Well, if you drive for seven hours a day from gig to gig with only the AM radio, you get familiar with the country music, and the creeps are taking over. Who’s going to fill their shoes and end up bitter with severe drinking problems? None of these disco guys; that’s where I come in.
Have you ever, directly or indirectly in song, referred to your finances?
All the songs are about my finances in some way, because that’s what real country-music songs are about. The other day a reviewer compared Country Winners to something by Al Yankovic. Not that there’s anything wrong with Mr. Yankovic, but I didn’t understand that. These are real from the heart songs. I’ve done comedy albums. This is a country-music record for everybody to enjoy. Unlike some of my other work, we did try to make it for the whole family. The second track on the album is R-rated, but we even have a clean version of that to play on the radio.
Your song “Jug Town” evokes the work of Kenny Rogers. Would you support him for president?
Have you eaten at one of his restaurants? I wouldn’t want him in the White House if that’s all he could do with a chicken. I’ve been in several of his restaurants. They’re one of the few chain restaurants in Malaysia. I’m not understating the problem when I say there are a lot of issues. The recipe for the potatoes is no good, and the last time I was there the soda was flat. Flat drinks do not inspire the kind of confidence that you want to have in the leader of the free world. Now he may be a lot better than some of the other choices out there, but the man has some serious work to do on his restaurants before he starts thinking about politics. Billy Edd Wheeler, who wrote “Jug Town,” also wrote a song called “Coward of the County,” though. Kenny had himself a good little hit with that one.
How did you choose the covers to do?
These were songs that were presented to me by the record producers. Like the Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner albums, this more of a personality record. Nimoy and I are not exactly Pavarotti. That limits the selection of songs right there. As a comedian, I wanted to included songs that reflected the life that I have and the jokes that I tell every night. I chose songs that reflected me, and that took a while. But if you’re making a professional record, you can’t leave any stone unturned.
Is it true that you changed your name from Nelson Hamburglar for show biz reasons?
No, no where did you read that? It’s just a product of the Hollywood gossip machine. My name was originally Neil Doublebaconcheeseburger, and it was changed for commercial reasons because of its association with high cholesterol. People used to be worried about hardening of the arteries; now the only thing they care about is terrorism.
Mr. Hamburger, thank you for your time. It has been a singular pleasure.
You’re not involved with one of those nefarious cellular phone companies are you? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given an interview with an independent-music website and then it ends up I’m somehow shilling a long-distance plan. Just another set of disappointing circumstances, you know?