Before Leo Brooks and Andrew Millsaps teamed up to form the new country duo Neon Union, their careers were on decidedly contrasting paths.
Millsaps focused on writing songs and performing around his native North Carolina, at one point winning the MerleFest Chris Austin Song Contest and performing his original music during the roots music festival MerleFest.
Meanwhile, the bilingual, Miami-based Brooks spent years honing his talents playing bass on tour with Pitbull and Lauryn Hill. He also co-wrote Pitbull’s “Echa Pa’lla (Manos Pa’ribba),” which earned a Latin Grammy for best urban performance, and contributed to songs, including “Que Lo Que” (recorded by Sensato featuring Pitbull, Papayo and El Chevo) from the Grammy-winning project Dale. Along the way, he also played bass for artists including Mary J. Blige, Nas and John Legend.
But country music was a strong influence when he visited family on the Honduran island of Roatan. “The main music on the island was classic country and reggae music. My dad gave me a guitar and taught me to play George Jones and Hank Williams,” Brooks tells Billboard via Zoom.
When Pitbull realized Brooks’ own music had a country vibe, he connected him with “Freedom Is a Highway” hitmaker, songwriter and exec Jimmie Allen, who felt it was a match for Millsaps’ burly voice and energetic stage presence.
Millsaps and Brooks formed Neon Union and Allen subsequently signed them to his management and production company JAB Entertainment, which Allen launched with John Marks and Aaron Benward. They also collaborated with Allen on “Livin’ Man,” from the latter’s 2021 album Bettie James Gold Edition. In June, they inked a label deal with Red Street Records (led by Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus), and landed their first entry on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart when “Bout Damn Time,” written by HARDY, Tyler Hubbard, Jordan Schmidt and Hunter Phelps, reached No. 60 on the chart.
“We want to kick the doors down and make a little noise,” Millsaps says of the song, which pays homage to the “farm tan crew” and “the ball cap boys with a six-inch lift.”
Brooks says of the song, “It represents everybody. We want everyone to be at our party.”
Neon Union is also one of a handful of multi-racial acts who have tried their luck in Nashville over the years, including duo Malchak & Rucker, who notched five songs on Billboard’s Country Songs chart in the 1980s, followed by trio The Farm with their 2011 top 20 hit “Home Sweet Home,” and more recently, the duos Exit 216 and 2 Lane Summer.
Neon Union talked to Billboard about their career journey, working together, touring with Allen — and Brooks’ impromptu wedding performance with George Strait.
Jimmie Allen brought the two of you together. What was that like?
Millsaps: I started playing in the bars during college. Later, I had a job interview in Nashville and was staying at a hotel downtown. I randomly met Jimmie on an elevator at that hotel and we connected on social media. I didn’t think anything of it, but about six months later, I was playing at [Nashville music event] Whiskey Jam and saw him again. He liked my music, we exchanged numbers — and maybe two weeks later, he called and asked if I had ever thought about being in a duo, and introduced me to Leo.
Brooks: I played with Pitbull for 12 years, and was his musical director on tour, but I was the only one in the back of the bus listening to George Jones. Pitbull told Jimmie about me, because I wanted to do my own thing, musically.
Millsaps: We briefly met over FaceTime. Leo flew into Nashville and we met at Jimmie’s house. Jimmie was like, “You guys have to be sure you want to do this.” We got some beers and hung out that evening and just clicked right away.
Brooks: It’s like a movie — so randomly put together, but we just get along so well.
How long after you met did you start recording together?
Millsaps: The next morning we were recording together. There were some nerves — I hadn’t even been in a full-fledged Nashville session at the time.
Brooks: I was just hoping this guy could sing. He did, and I was like, “Wow, OK.”
Millsaps: We started recording scratch vocals and cold chills just went over everybody. It sounded so good.
How did your deal with Red Street Records come about?
Millsaps: We started that day with a writing session and wound up with a record deal. We wrote a song and Leo had a flight scheduled that night. Then Aaron [Benward] called me up. He said, “Jay DeMarcus wants you to come by Red Street Records, like right now.” Leo canceled his flight and we drove over there and met in the conference room. We played like two songs and Jay said, “I want y’all to know I’ll have your record deal on the table by tomorrow.”
Brooks: Everyone over there, it’s just a great team of people.
Not only did Jimmie bring you two together to form Neon Union, but you were on his Down Home Tour last year.
Millsaps: Jimmie has been so supportive to us and getting us on that tour early. We didn’t really have any music out at the time. We got to meet a lot of folks in radio while we were on the road with Jimmie, which was great to give them that initial connection on the road — and then later as we put out this song, they remembered us.
What has being on radio tour been like for you?
Brooks: It’s a lot of travelling but we’re used to it. When I was with Pitbull, I was gone for months and home for a couple of days and then right back out. Here, we’ll travel for six days and then we’re home for a day or so. But it’s great having each other through all of it. You’re not just sitting by yourself in an airport, ever. We goof off and have fun. It is a lot of early mornings though — people will say, “See you bright and early.” Instead, we say, “See you dark and early.”
Leo, your first gig out of high school was playing with Lauryn Hill’s band. How did that happen?
Brooks: I picked up bass in high school, and I got the gig through one of my friends in Miami. He was auditioning for drums and she asked him if he knew a bass player. That’s when I came in and she loved it. I used to have a big old afro with a green bass [guitar]. The work with Pitbull came through the same drummer. I was always in New York and wanted to be closer to family in Miami, so I auditioned and met Pit and we became like brothers. I was just learning from him because Pit works hard and it’s nonstop. I would send him music for like seven years before I landed a song.
You are also bilingual. Would the two of you ever release a bilingual or Spanish-language song?
Brooks: Pitbull told me the other night, he was like, “We gotta do a song in Spanish.”
Millsaps: We also have already done another song, that we haven’t released yet, with Jimmie [Allen] and Pitbull, too, so that was sweet. You hear this country guy from Mayberry going, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Worldwide.” I was like, “Did I just get to say that?”
Where are you at in the album-making process?
Millsaps: We are starting to release new music by the end of March and just cut some songs with [producer] Dann Huff. We’re looking at releasing an EP this summer and hopefully a full-length in the fall. We’ve been out on the road playing so much that people are like, “Where’s your music?” We’ve got it coming.
What was the first concert you ever went to?
Millsaps: Kenny Chesney when Keith Urban was opening for him.
Brooks: Mine was No Doubt.
What did your parents do growing up?
Millsaps: My mom was a teacher and my dad owns a flooring cover store. I was third-generation coming up through a floor-covering business, and that’s what I started doing in Nashville at first. It’s still in my blood — I still look down everywhere I go. [Laughs.]
Brooks: My dad was a car painter and did body work as well, he had his own body shop. My mom was a nursing assistant.
If you could see any artist perform, who would it be?
Brooks: Metallica, for me.
Millsaps: I’ll say George Strait because I haven’t seen him in concert yet.
Brooks: I did play with him one time. There was a wedding I was doing and they were like, “George Strait is going to come here.” I was like, “Yeah, right” — but then he walks into this little party house in West Palm Beach, Fla. I was playing bass guitar and he came up and sang “Troubadour.”
Millsaps: Dang, I’m so jealous. That’s, like, one of my favorite songs.