Chuck Wicks @ Claremont Opera House 19 March 2009

wicksCountry is music’s last meritocracy, a genre where, as John Mellencamp wrote recently in Huffington Post, “stars [come] from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity; think Garth Brooks.”

Or think Chuck Wicks, who thrilled a sold-out Claremont Opera House last Thursday with a blend of heart-tugging ballads and straight up rockers.  The lanky singer-songwriter rose through the ranks on Nashville’s Music Row, parking cars while he honed his skills next to some of country’s best writer, all the while awaiting his chance to make his first record.

Thursday night, Wicks played most of that debut disc (“Starting Now”), a few well-chosen (and crowd pleasing) covers, and some promising new songs.

At the outset, however, the challenge of shifting gears from “Dancing With the Stars” to music showed.  While he got reacquainted with band mates he hadn’t seen in a few weeks, the show’s opening song, “All I Ever Wanted,” didn’t hit on all cylinders.

But it was smooth sailing from there, as Wicks found his groove on a churning breakup song (“The Easy Part”) and the uplifting “If We Loved.”

By the night’s first ballad – “Man of the House,” dancing was the last thing on Wicks’ mind.  However, he did oblige the crowd with a with a solo salsa figure eight.  His hip swaying delighted  several screaming fans.

Introducing a new song, the bawdy “Better on the Floor,” Wicks slyly encouraged the audience to sing along, or “come on down to the front and dance.”  This precipitated a stage rush that had a few Opera House board members covering their eyes.

No one else minded, though, and the mostly female throng at the foot of the stage fed Wicks’ energy on the rocking “Leave Me Alone” and a surprising cover of Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.”

A solo acoustic mini-set featured the new “You Won’t Let Me,” written with girlfriend and dancing partner Julianne Hough, and the soulful “Mine All Mine.”

Wicks’ five-piece band rejoined him for back-to-back covers of Brad Paisley’s “Wrapped Around” and Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man.”  The singer took time out to thank Paisley for his support, noting that the singer brought Wicks on his 2008 tour, and wrote early letters on his behalf to country radio stations.

After that tribute, Wicks pleased the crowd by played his biggest hit.   The choice of a Paisley cover fueled speculation about Wicks’ future with his dancer girlfriend, and his introduction to his biggest hit to date added to it.

“I don’t know nothing about stealing Cinderella,” he said, “but I’m trying,” – a subtle reference to the 20-year old Hough.  He followed with a power ballad, “What If You Stay,” and closed the night with back to back rockers – “I Feel a Good Time Comin’ On” and “She’s Gonna Hurt Somebody.”

Wicks’ humility matches his resume.  He was late for a pre-show meet and greet because “my mama taught me to never go out in public without a cleanly pressed shirt.”  It was pretty clear who held the iron.

Flying a redeye out of LA the night before didn’t deter Wicks from wading into a crowd of post-show fans at his merchandise table.  If this kind of fan-centric energy were more common in John Mellencamp’s circle, the business might be in better shape.

The show’s success was a testament to the efforts of local radio station KIXX-FM.  Their morning team of Traci and Paul was instrumental in spotting Wicks’ talent well before his dancing prowess was known,

Manager/promoter Jim Roach booked the rising country star right on the cusp of fame.  As good as the music was Thursday, without such behind the scenes magic, the show never would have happened.

It’ was also clear from the sold-out show that country music is a strong area draw.  More shows like this one are just what the Opera House needs.

Chuck Wicks Keeps Things Cool

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Chuck Wicks
Claremont Opera House
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Tickets – $20.00

7:30 PM – Order Tickets

Though he’s out straight juggling gigs and learning to dance on national television, Chuck Wicks is in a breezy mood.

“My songwriting buddies are coming out to L.A,” says the rising country star, who has two hit singles, a top 10 album, and a new song heading up the charts.

At the moment, though, his mind is on fancy footwork.

During the first week of “Dancing With The Stars,” he and girlfriend Julianne Hough waltzed their way into the middle of the pack.  The couple is practicing hard for the second round, which starts Monday, with an elimination vote on March 17.

Hough is a two-time DWTS champion, but it’s all pretty new to Wicks.

“I have 5 days to learn how to salsa,” he says, but if Wicks is nervous, you’d never know.

“It always looks better than it feels,” he says with a laugh

“I just want to have a decent show and maybe win the thing.  But it’s only about 3 months, and then I go back to touring.”

“The music never leaves,” he concludes.

That’s where the focus will be Thursday night, when Wicks and his four-piece band perform at the Claremont Opera House.

The singer-songwriter tasted success when his debut single, “Stealing Cinderella,” went to number five in the country charts.

The song also caught the attention of Tennessee Volunteers then-coach Philip Fulmer, who declared – “it hit me like a ton of bricks.”

He asked Chuck to play it at his daughter’s wedding.

Says Wicks, “to have a song you wrote touch someone so deeply that they ask for you to perform on one of the most special days of their lives – that is incredible.”

Learning of Fulmer’s interest pleased Wicks – musicians love attention, after all – but upon reflection he realizes his initial response may have seemed a bit nonchalant.

I said, “cool, dude – OK, let’s do it.”

“Little did I know he was Tennessee royalty,” Chuck says. “You don’t really know unless you’re in the state.”

Wicks was born and raised in Delaware, and went to the University of Florida with dreams of playing professional baseball.

But after arriving, he picked up the guitar.

“Freshman year, you don’t know what your major is gonna be,” he explains.

By the time he was a junior, Wicks had a record deal and was on his way to Nashville..

“The minute I got here, I got dropped by the label,” he recalls.  “But I dug in and got a job parking cars.”

He also worked with some of country music’s best songwriters.  Through the multi-year apprenticeship, says Wicks, “I really found out who I was as an artist.”

The success of “Stealing Cinderella” led to “Starting Now.” his debut on RCA Nashville.  For the album, Wicks selected a diverse mix of songs that reflected his own tastes.

“Growing up, I listened to R&B, pop, jazz and everything in between. I’m a big fan of music,” he says. He recently bragged in his blog about attending an AC/DC concert.

Wicks wrote all but one of the album’s 11 tracks, including arena country-rock (“All I Ever Wanted”), James Taylor-flavored folk pop (“When You’re Single”) and Brian McKnight-like country soul (“Mine All Mine”).

But his knack for tapping into universal emotions on ballads like “Stealing Cinderella” may lift Chuck Wicks to stardom on the order of Keith Urban or Brad Paisley (who he toured with in 2008).

The just-released single “Man of the House” tells the story of a 10-year old boy who wakes up early every morning to make breakfast for his sister and coffee for his mother.  He’s trying his best to stand in for his father, who’s serving overseas.

“It’s hard to be a kid when you’re the man of the house,” sings Wicks.

Co-written with Mike Mobley, Wicks says it “was a tough song to write.  We wanted to make sure to do this song justice because there are so many people who are living it.”

Wicks thinks that the song’s little domestic details – Captain Crunch in cereal bowls, Larry King on television – help people better relate to it.

After playing it in concert, many teary-eyed fans have thanked him for telling their story.

Says a humbled Wicks – “it’s mind blowing.”

Fans at Thursday’s Opera House show can expect  “a good hang.”

“We’re gonna have a good time, and we’ll do a very intimate show, maybe have a little Q&A,” he says.  “Don’t be shy about shouting a song if you want to hear it.”