W.K. McNeil was born William Kinneth McNeil in Haywood County, North Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountain region. He received his B.A. in history at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee, his M.A. in history from Oklahoma State University, an M.A. in American folk culture from the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York, and his Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. His dissertation was written about the history of American folklore studies and he has also published many biographical articles based on this work.
W. K. was a founding member of the History and Folklore section of the American Folklore Society and advisory editor to its journal The Folklore Historian. He became well known as a leading expert in writing histories of folklore as a professional discipline. He later became administrator for the Regional America Program of the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, and worked as a folklorist for the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas.