Chuck Wicks swears he never thought about the automobile references on his debut album, Starting Now. That's probably because he's been busy thinking about "Stealing Cinderella," his single that's steadily approaching the country Top 10, and an upcoming tour with Brad Paisley.
However, driving plays a major theme in "All I Ever Wanted" and "Good Time Comin' On." "The Easy Part" has a line about picking up the car keys, and "She's Gonna Hurt Somebody" depicts a woman who's driving too fast. He wrote all of those songs. In fact, he wrote all but one song on his album. So what gives?
"I like to drive a lot," he laughs. "Now that you bring it up, that's all I'm going to think about."
And although he says there's no correlation between the songs and his previous job, Wicks did work as a valet parking attendant at Fleming's, an upscale steakhouse in Nashville. Among those handing him their car keys were Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
"All the big names," he says. "I definitely parked their cars."
Asked whether record label executives, songwriters or artists tended to be the best tippers, Wicks says, "Well, that depends on which label they work at. That depends on whether they've written a hit song. And that depends on whether their record is doing well in the stores."
Wicks grew up on a farm in Delaware and majored in education at Florida Southern College. The campus location near Orlando, Fla., gave him a chance to perform in cover bands around the tourist haven, and he also got a musical education checking IDs at the House of Blues.
"I saw everybody from B.B. King to Jerry Lewis to Huey Lewis & the News to Brad Paisley to Wynonna to John Mayer," he says. "I got to sit there and watch them for free. It was all different genres, and you got to see how they treated their audience and how their audience responded."
Wicks moved to Nashville during his senior year of college after making frequent visits from Florida. The move was prompted by a developmental deal with RCA.
"I made this horrible demo," he admits. "It was a Brian McKnight song and an Andy Griggs song. I did it myself in Florida. I came up here and gave it to a guy who worked at the label at the time. To make a long story short, he gave it to Jim Catino, who's now my A&R guy and one of my best friends. Jim called me in the next day to sing for him live. He came back in with a producer, and I ended up getting a development deal."
It usually doesn't happen that way for most artists.
"It doesn't," he says. "It's not supposed to. There's no real answer to how it's supposed to work. You have to make it work. Whatever scenario you're given, you've got to try to make it work.
"I knew nothing about the music business. I just wanted to show them I knew how to sing. I grew up listening to a lot of different genres. Alan Jackson's Don't Rock the Jukebox was the first album I ever bought, but I also listened to Chicago and Journey. Brian McKnight is one of my favorite singers, but I also tried to imitate Joe Diffie and Tracy Lawrence and all these guys on the radio. So that's what I wanted to show the record label -- the wide range of what I could do."
As it turns out, though, nothing became of Wicks' first developmental deal even after he turned in a professional demo recording and performed a showcase for RCA executives. They simply didn't think he was ready.
"I'm the first one to say that I agree," he says. "If I had put out a record five years ago, I don't think I would have even made it to this interview. I don't think the record would have succeeded. I was not ready at the time, but it was perfect because it moved me to town. It got me here. A lot of great songwriters took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, taught me how to write songs ... and every once in a while write a good one."
For his debut album, Wicks collaborated with some of Nashville's best, including Monty Powell, Anna Wilson, Rivers Rutherford, George Teren, Jason Matthews, Wendell Mobley, Jim Collins and Troy Verges. The first song he ever co-wrote, "Lead Me On," eventually made its way to Steve Holy's Brand New Girlfriend album.
Wicks' debut album was co-produced by Powell and Dann Huff, who was one of Nashville's top session guitarists before producing albums by Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and others.
"I knew I needed a top name producer -- a guy like Dann Huff, who could just bring it to the table," Wicks says. "Monty introduced me to Dann. I went to his house and played live, just me and my guitar. It was pretty nerve-wracking. I mean, I'm an OK guitar player, but Dann is pretty good. I was more nervous playing guitar in front of Dann than singing in front of him."
"Stealing Cinderella" has captured the attention of country music fans, including Paisley, whose car Wicks once parked at the steakhouse. Now he and Rodney Atkins are opening shows during Paisley's Bonfires & Amplifiers tour.
"They were looking for someone new to fill that slot," Wicks says. "Brad heard 'Stealing Cinderella' on the radio. He called his manager and said, 'I don't know who sings that song, but that's who I want to open for me.' So it all happened organic and naturally -- which is cool because most stories you hear are about somebody doing a favor for someone or trying to break an act. So since it came from Brad, it really meant a lot."
Does Paisley remember Wicks parking his car?
"I'm not sure," Wicks says. "I haven't mentioned that to him. I don't know if I should bring it up or not."