As dark horses go, you can’t beat singer/songwriter Mark McGuinn . His goatee-and-glasses look are more beatnik coffeehouse than country honky tonk; his seven-years training as a jazz trumpeter and his pro soccer aspirations are a far cry from the usual country artists’ bio. Cementing McGuinn’s dark horse status is the fact that he’s signed to independent label VFR Records in a format where major labels are the dominant force.
Still, a little more than a year after a record deal fell into his lap, McGuinn finds himself the toast of Nashville. His surprise hit, “Mrs. Steven Rudy,” has sailed up the charts so fast that VFR has pushed his debut’s release up two weeks (the self-titled album now hits stores May 8.) Best of all, “Mrs. Steven Rudy” currently sits at No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. Not bad, considering the song was not earmarked originally to be a single.
“I’m flattered to have that label,” McGuinn laughs of his unlikely success story image. “It’s nothing that I expected. If people want to make me the poster child for that, I’m happy to carry that flag.”
McGuinn, who hails from Greensboro, N.C., spent his youth studying jazz before setting his heart on becoming a pro soccer player. Three matches into his professional sports career a busted knee set him in search of Plan B.
“I met up with a buddy of mine and we started writing songs. We thought, ’Hey I like doing this! Where we can we learn the most and have fun? Nashville!’ So we took off for Nashville and we never left. I’ve been here six and a half years.”
So he isn’t an overnight success. Still, McGuinn struck beginner’s luck with “Mrs. Steven Rudy.” Jazz background notwithstanding, “Rudy” is full of sunny banjos and bluegrassy flourishes. From a purist’s standpoint, it’s the least country of his album’s 12 songs, but the melody is infectious and the chorus rolls off the tongue with uncanny ease.
“That’s the challenge of a songwriter, to have a melody evoke a feeling and certain types of words, or the other way around,” says McGuinn, who penned the song with co-writer/co-producer Shane Decker. “When you’re able to do that, that’s when you figure out you’ve done a good job on a song.”
McGuinn says part of the song’s appeal is its universal theme that’s part voyeurism, part unrequited love. “Everybody has their own Mrs. Steven Rudy or knows someone like that,” he observes. “I can remember in my life, back in high school there was a particular student teacher where all the guys would be with their hall passes, walking by her classroom constantly. She was married, and it was funny to see all my buddies walking down the hall where she was teaching!”
But VFR originally slated to release “That’s a Plan” as the first single. The only song on the album not written by McGuinn, “Plan,” like “Rudy,” has a catchy melody and strong banjo leads. Nevertheless, when DJ Cody Alan at Dallas radio station KPLX-The Wolf heard “Mrs. Steven Rudy,” there was — pardon the pun — a change of plans.
“He just flipped and said that’s the song,” McGuinn recalls. “He called the label and said, ’I know you’re coming with “That’s a Plan,” but we’re playing “Mrs. Steven Rudy.” We love that song, this is what we want to play.’ Then other stations jumped on the bandwagon. Other stations said, ’We love this song, we want to play this song.'”
You can’t fight fate. With a solid hit under his belt, what’s next for McGuinn? Certainly not a star’s ego. He laughs, “My head can’t get swelled up any more than it has already from me hitting it going, ’What am I doing?!’ I have a lot of good friends that keep my head from getting big.”