The duo is Billboard's March Country Rookie of the Month.
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.
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