ark McGuinn's "Mrs. Steven Rudy" is the surprise hit single of the year. It's surprising in that it came from the independent VFR label and also because it's by a previously unknown artist.
Additionally, McGuinn is an unlikely looking new country star. He doesn't sport a cowboy hat. Instead, he wears horn-rimmed glasses and a backwards golf cap (but not a beret, as some have mistakenly reported) on the cover of his self-titled debut album. The unexpectedness of this success story is also supported by the sound of his music, which includes prominent banjo and even numerous drum loops.
"I liked it and was proud of it," says McGuinn, when asked if "Mrs. Steven Rudy" struck him as a hit when he wrote and recorded it. "You know if it's good or bad, and I knew I'd written it to the best of my ability, but there would be an awful lot of rich people here (in Nashville) if there was a way to predict a hit."
The song, which speaks about a man's romantic desire for his mistreated neighbor, has struck a chord with listeners and has already inspired approximately 25 song parodies of it, according to McGuinn's estimation. One such parody is the Mrs. Steven Rudy story from Mrs. Steven Rudy's perspective.
"People relate to the song," McGuinn says. "Some women say their men pay more attention to them now because of it."
About the only factor that pointed to McGuinn's eventual success as a Nashville singer and songwriter was that he grew up in the South: North Carolina. Country music was not his first love, and musically, his initial real joy was in playing jazz trumpet. Instrumental heroes like Clifford Brown, Doc Severinsen, Louis Armstrong and Maynard Ferguson caught his immediate interest.
He's never really considered himself a true jazz musician, though. "I write music with jazz flavors to it," he says. "I love all that Sinatra stuff, and I just bought a new Dean Martin album."
But will this love of jazz ever show up on any of his albums? Can we expect a little swing from McGuinn? He's confident that his label would be open to almost any of his ideas - even his wild ones.
"I'd hate to think they (VFR) would put a ceiling on what I can do. VFR loves songs. They just have such a passion for songs."
McGuinn is one of five children, none of whom are also musicians. "They're all into computers," says the musical one. "Except for my sister. She raises kids."
"No one could have predicted what I've done," says McGuinn about his childhood musical abilities. "Nobody said, 'Oh my God! He's a child prodigy!'"
But even before music become his vocation, sports, such as football, basketball and especially soccer, were his driving passions. In fact, had it not been for a knee injury, he might still be playing soccer professionally, as he did for the Greensboro Dynamo in 1993.
With his jazz chops and his admitted affection for such pop and rock performers as Billy Joel and Journey, you might have expected McGuinn to try his luck in either New York or Los Angeles first. "I wanted to learn how to write songs," McGuinn explains, "and there are just such wonderful poets in this town."
Songwriting was a skill McGuinn learned late in life. He really didn't put all of his attention to this craft until he arrived in Nashville seven years ago.
"When I came to Nashville," McGuinn recalls, "I had the musical knowledge (to write songs). But I needed help in learning the skills to write lyrics."
McGuinn credits the advice he received from other established Nashville writers with helping him become the fine songwriter he is today. "Whitey Schaffer once told me that he's never known anyone that has stayed in this town for any period of time who didn't have some sort of success," McGuinn remembers. "I don't know if he remembers saying this, but I certainly do."
It's almost like a rite of passage that a songwriter has to get a certain number of his songs recorded before he can even dream of recording his own songs himself. But for McGuinn, this usual ritual was reversed. "I sometimes tell people I had to get a record deal before I could get my songs recorded," he says with a chuckle.
But now that he's a hot commodity, South 65 has recorded one of his songs and Lonestar's new single, "Unusually Unusual." is a McGuinn composition.
It's hard to put a finger on what makes McGuinn's sound unique and so appealing. He has a personable singing style, containing traces of Bruce Hornsby's easygoing charm mixed with anod to the kinds of singer/songwriters, who packed the pop charts during the '70's. Of course, all that banjo on his album doesn't inhibit him from being set apart, either. You'd think that the banjo would be the last instrument to make a comeback on country recordings - especially with Nashville's obvious love for slick pop sounds - and because it has the image as sort of a hillbilly bluegrass instrument in some circles.
"It's all in how you use the instrument," says McGuinn. "Remember, the banjo was on a lot of those old Eagles hits."
McGuinn was able to throw in as much of that four-stringed instrument as he liked, since VFR also let him produce his first album, along with his friend and co-writer, Shane Decker. He may not be able to point to his own name in the production credits of many albums, but if you think about it, producing is really nothing new to him.
"Since I've been recording my own demos of songs," McGuinn explains, "I've been producing."
McGuinn is not at all comfortable with his sudden fame.
"Tower Records had this painting of me," he recalls, "and I just had to run out."
He's even being recognized on the street, which means he probably can't go outside with his trademark glasses and cap anymore. So, has he resorted to putting on some sort of disguise?
"You mean, the whole chicken suit thing?"