NASHVILLE As dark horses go, it's hard to top singer/songwriter Mark McGuinn.
McGuinn's goatee-and-glasses look is more coffeehouse beatnik than honky-tonk country, and his seven-year training as a jazz trumpeter and pro-soccer aspirations are a far cry from the usual artist bio. Cementing McGuinn's underdog status is his affiliation with independent VFR Records in a genre where major labels dominate.
A little more than a year after a record deal fell into his lap, though,
McGuinn finds himself the toast of Nashville. His surprise hit "Mrs.
Steven Rudy" (RealAudio excerpt) has sailed up the charts so fast, VFR has pulled his debut album's release forward two weeks (Mark McGuinn now hits stores May 8). "Mrs. Steven Rudy," meanwhile, sits at #11 on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
Not bad, considering the song wasn't originally earmarked a
single. "I'm flattered to have that label," McGuinn laughed of his
unlikely success-story image. "It's nothing I expected. Though if people want to make me the poster child for that, I'm happy to carry the flag."
Hailing from Greensboro, North Carolina, McGuinn spent his youth studying jazz prior to setting his heart on becoming a soccer player. A torn-up knee set him in search of plan B three matches into his professional career.
He started writing songs with a buddy. "We each thought, 'Hey, I like doing this! Where can we learn the most and have fun? Nashville!' So we took off for Nashville and never left. I've been here six and a half years."
While he wasn't an overnight sensation, McGuinn enjoyed beginner's luck with "Mrs. Steven Rudy." Jazz background notwithstanding, "Rudy" is full of sunny banjo and bluegrass flourishes. From a purist's standpoint, it's the least country of his album's 12 songs, though the melody is infectious and the chorus rolls off the tongue with ease.
"That's the songwriter's challenge: to make a melody evoke the words and feelings," said McGuinn, who co-penned the song with co-producer Shane Decker. "That's when you've done a good job on a song."
McGuinn said much of the song's appeal lies in a universal theme that's part voyeurism, part unrequited love. "Everybody has his or her own Mrs. Steven Rudy or knows someone like that," he observed. "I remember back in high school all the guys would walk past a particular student teacher's classroom constantly. She was married, and it was funny to see all my buddies walking down the hall where she was teaching!"
VFR originally wanted to release "That's a Plan" as Mark McGuinn's first single. The album's only song not written by McGuinn, "Plan," like "Rudy," has a catchy melody and strong banjo lead. But after a Dallas DJ heard "Mrs. Steven Rudy," there was a literal change of plans.
"He just flipped and said, 'That's the song,'" McGuinn recalled. "He called the label and said, 'I know you're coming with "Plan," but we're playing "Mrs. Steven Rudy." We love that song and want to play it.' Then other stations jumped on the bandwagon."