Talking about how he wrote his first song, Warrick McZeke says, “God was speaking to me. He said, ‘You should write a country music song.'”
And whatever your spiritual beliefs, it’s hard not to see some kind of hand in the seemingly unrelated chain of events, circumstances, and coincidences that led an African-American speech pathologist to a career in country music.
As with many people who grow up to be musicians, McZeke loved music as a child, but his aim wasn’t the country charts at first.
“I always wanted to be an R&B singer,” he says. “I thought I would be the next Usher or Brian McKnight.”
The first country artist he remembers becoming familiar with is Reba McEntire, but that was through her sitcom, Reba. By the time he started at Clemson, McZeke had given up on a career in music simply because, he says, “I never knew the process for how to do that. So I went to college and got my degree and became a speech pathologist.”
Here’s the thing, though: McZeke’s freshman year roommate was a guy named Lee Brice. The two spent a semester rooming together and then Lee didn’t return the next semester, or ever again. That’s because Brice was busy beginning a decade-long climb to the top of the country charts that culminated in a few best-selling albums and a slew of chart-topping singles like “Hard To Love,” “I Drive Your Truck,” and “I Don’t Dance.”
The story could have ended there. It could’ve just been a cute anecdote for McZeke to share with his colleagues: I used to room with that country star. But the first unlikely twist in our tale comes when, for some reason, Brice gave McZeke a call before a show at the Music Farm.
“I got a phone call from a Nashville number,” McZeke says, “and it was Lee. He said, ‘I have a show in town at the Music Farm, you should come out.'”
So McZeke did, and the two old roomies rekindled their friendship while McZeke fell a bit more in love with country music. Actually, he fell a lot in love with country music, to the extent that he started going to the annual Carolina Country Music Fest in Myrtle Beach. It was after the festival in 2015 when the event’s main organizer, Bob Durkin, who was friendly with McZeke, mentioned that an old friend would be playing the 2017 edition.
“Bob told me my boy Lee was going to be playing at the festival in 2017,” he says. “And I decided that if I was still dating the girl I was with, I was going to ask Bob to let me get up onstage and propose to her.”
After clearing it with Durkin, McZeke talked to Lee at a Clemson football game and asked for a favor.
“I asked if I could jump onstage and sing his song, ‘She Ain’t Right,’ and surprise my now-wife Josie and ask her to marry me.”
Josie said yes. Actually, she said, “I will absolutely marry you!” And in addition to being overjoyed and newly engaged, McZeke got a taste of what it was like to perform for thousands of people. That feeling stuck with him.
So we’ve got the love of music, the urge to perform, and now we take another seemingly unrelated turn into songwriting a couple of weeks after McZeke’s proposal, thanks to a contest called the Nash Next Competition, a country-music talent-search by 96.9 NASH FM.
“We were listening to NASH 96.9, and the ad asked, ‘Do you have what it takes to be Nashville’s next big music star?’ ” McZeke says. “I assumed it was going to be something similar to The Voice, where you sing other people’s songs. But I read the rules of the competition and found out you had to write your own song, and I realized that I couldn’t participate.”
McZeke had never written a song before. So it again seemed like our story might end here, until some divine, and perhaps alcohol-fueled, inspiration kicked in. God started speaking to him, but he still needed a bit more of a push.
“I got a pencil and a piece of paper, and I needed some inspiration,” he says. “So I looked in the refrigerator to see if there was any beer, because I knew that people drank when they went to country music festivals. We didn’t have any, but I looked in the liquor cabinet, and there was just enough Jack Daniels to have a glass on the rocks.”
Thinking of Josie’s words when she accepted his proposal, McZeke wrote a mid-tempo head-nodder called “Miss Absolutely.” He recorded a demo at home, submitted it to NASH FM’s competition, and next thing he knew, he was on the radio.
“They ended up playing the recording, with me just banging on the table, and I then went on and won that competition at the local level,” he says. The next step was to participate in a national version of the contest in Nashville, but once McZeke got a look at the contract he’d have to sign to take part, he decided to pass.
“I had a lawyer read over it, and he said he wouldn’t sign it if it were him,” McZeke says.
In the meantime, though, this man who’d never written a song before was being asked about “Miss Absolutely” and getting opportunities to perform, so he figured he’d better come up with some more tunes pretty quick. Those songs, including “Miss Absolutely,” are featured on McZeke’s new EP, called C’mon, which was recorded at Charleston’s Anchor + Pine studio, run by Midnight City singer/guitarist Brian Jarvis.
The songs aren’t what one would call “traditional country,” though, which is probably fitting for someone who didn’t come to country music through traditional methods. There’s a good bit of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music in these songs, influences that McZeke readily admits to.
“When most people think of the country music of old, they think it’s too twangy,” he says. “And they think that now, country music is too pop. I think my music is in-between, and I want it to fit in-between those lines. It’s soul-country, if that makes any sense.”