Singer-Songwriter Chip McGuire Plots His Future by Examining His Past
Like the rest of us, metro Atlanta singer-songwriter Chip McGuire is emerging from the pandemic a changed person. Over the past 26 months, his act, The Chip McGuire Band, an Americana-NuGrass unit once on the cusp of regional success, broke up. McGuire is also currently navigating the end of his marriage. And during lockdown, the adopted Filipino-American reconnected on Zoom with peers, who, like him, as infants lived in an orphanage near Cebu City and were later adopted by white families for a new life in North Georgia.
In short, when McGuire hits the stage tonight at Eddie’s Attic at 9 p.m. for his first Atlanta show in over two years, he has some new experiences to share.
“I have no shortage of inspiration, dude!” McGuire concedes with a dark chuckle from his Woodstock kitchen, relaxing in a Buc-ee’s T-Shirt (a souvenir from a recent trip to Cape Canaveral) in front of a red refrigerator displaying colorful drawings by his two small daughters. Around his neck on a chain is a guitar pick inscribed with his youngest daughter’s birthdate, a gift from his spouse. “Here’s the weird thing. In the past, I never really wrote songs that were autobiographical. I used music as an escape. It was storytelling. Now, I’m telling my story.”
McGuire says the loss of two key relationships forced him to look inward and also spurred an examination of his identity as a Filipino orphan adopted by an Irish-American family who grew up in conservative, mostly white rural Georgia.
“Songs are a time-stamp for me now,” he says. “It’s going through the initial shock of where you are in your life and your relationships. It’s about being angry, devastatingly sad and examining your mental health while you’re re-prioritizing everything. It’s about looking at the hard things, like your spouse being in a relationship with someone else and thinking about someone else playing parent to your children. It’s also about breaking up with the band. It’s easy to romanticize things. You remember all the great times you had. With the band, it was easy to remember all the times we banded together but it was also about remembering the times where I felt like nobody was focused except for myself. I was manically trying to make all of these things happen, trying to shove that circle into the square. While it did lend me some regional success, I feel like I could have gotten there anyway and without running myself ragged and being anxious all the time.”
McGuire is also learning how to co-parent now as a soon-to-be single dad, while mourning the end of his marriage. “It’s easy to remember all the magical things you knew about this person and the things that made you happy,” he says. “It’s easy to forget the things that really were toxic, the things that made you miserable, the times you didn’t like each other and how that felt. The reason we romanticize these things is that it’s a small reprieve from the way we felt at the time. But it’s not real. [The new songs] snap an emotional photo of that place where you were so you can always remember how you felt and always be ready to move forward, with that in mind. I’m not out to speak negatively about anyone. It’s just about me being honest with myself.”
I love being a Southerner. The South is dope. I love the music, I love the culture. But as a brown person, I also recognize that you need to shed the things that fucking suck.
At tonight’s Eddie’s Attic show, McGuire promises to do old CMB favorites, including “Nashville,” “Whole New Low” and “Changing Lanes.” One of the new songs that might appear on the set list tonight is “Long Way to Go,” a tune he first started writing in his 20’s that especially resonates with him right now. Says the singer: “It’s about self-discovery — what it’s like to be raised in the South by Baby Boomers and what it’s like to live in the Bible Belt with everyone so hyper-focused on religious establishment and what I took from that and how that informed my life.” McGuire says he’s also hard at work on a concept EP that examines the darker “less sexy” aspects of the American South with a “grimy, swampy” sound.
As the parent of two biracial daughters, McGuire also used the two-year pandemic lockdown to dig into his identity, beyond his Caucasian-centric childhood growing up in Adairsville, Georgia. Reconnecting on Zoom with the other Filipinos adopted from the same orphanage over three decades ago now, has been therapeutic for the singer. “Most people take who they are for granted,” he explains. “They understand who they are because they understand where they came from. I was two when I was adopted. There’s this whole portion of our lives that’s blank. It wasn’t until we got in touch with each other that we really started to address things that we didn’t know about ourselves. We also talked about what it’s like to be brown and live in a rural setting with people who haven’t been exposed to other cultures. Patience and grace are things we’ve all had to learn. Now as parents ourselves, hopefully our children won’t have to be in that situation. Now, there’s a lot more awareness of racial differences and people are trying to incorporate inclusion with things like Stop Asian Hate. It’s been good to discuss these things with each other. Unlike a lot of people, these people don’t sympathize, they empathize because they’ve been there.”
Like his music that successfully fuses country, emo, boomer rock like The Eagles and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with punk and bluegrass, McGuire is trying to embrace all aspects of his diverse identity. “Growing up, you made the Asian jokes before the other kids did so it wouldn’t hurt as much,” McGuire reflects. “In high school, I was called Twinkie. I took it as a term of endearment but really what the kids were saying was, ‘You’re yellow on the outside but white on the inside.’ Why did they perceive me as white? Because I spoke English well? Because I wasn’t poor? What aside from physical qualities makes you white?”
The singer says it wasn’t until he graduated high school and was sitting in an audio production class at the Art Institute of Atlanta with classmates of color that he recognized —and began to dismantle — his life under an “umbrella of white privilege.”
Remembers McGuire: “Growing up in Adairsville, there were maybe ten Black people in the whole school. And when I’m in this predominantly Black audio production class in Atlanta, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, how can they even afford to go to school here?’ It was so off the rails, I stopped mid-thought and asked myself, “What was that?!” I realized I had this thought process that was not OK. I had grown up in white privilege and being embraced by Caucasians because I could behave like them. But once you leave that setting, you find out very quickly you are not white.”
Unlike his Chip McGuire Band days, the singer says he’s now finally at peace leaning into being a Filipino-American self-taught banjo player, playing pick-less with teal-accented fingernails. (During the band’s heyday, the face of the band on stickers plastered on telephone poles around Atlanta was of McGuire’s white, impressively bearded pal Eddie Walker).
“I like that when people come around the corner at a gig, I don’t look the way that I sound,” he says. “People need to know that a person like myself knows how to play the banjo. I’m sure I drive the purists crazy because I can make it sound like a pipe organ. I play with a slide. I also channel my inner Jimmy Page and play with a bow. I’m not trying to be a bluegrass player. I’m sorry if I don’t fit your criteria of what a banjo player looks or sounds like. If Earl Scruggs had sat around worrying about how people thought about him, he never would have created three-finger [fingerpicking]. He didn’t explain himself to the people still playing claw hammer.”
McGuire also loves telling audiences of the instrument’s African origins and that it was introduced to this country by enslaved people brought here against their will. Says McGuire with a laugh: “Dude, when you hit white people up with the information that the banjo is an African instrument, it’s almost like their world falls apart! Because it’s so synonymous with Southern white culture, with people living in the Appalachians. It just isn’t from there originally.”
As Chip McGuire embarks on his next chapter both professionally and personally, he’s emerging with some hard-won knowledge and perspective. “I love being a Southerner,” he says. “I think the South is dope. I love the music, I love the culture. But as a brown person, I also recognize that you need to shed the things that fucking suck. I love Southern music. I love the way the banjo sounds, I love bluegrass and folk music, all of the wonderful music that’s been cultivated and cooked up here. But I’m going to do it my way, with my sound. It may be a sound you haven’t heard before. Now, I’m just trying to figure out what I want out of life. It’s time for me to move myself out of the comfort zone a bit.”
As he plots a fresh course for the future, the name McGuire has assigned to his iPhone perhaps best characterizes the lessons learned from the crash course into his past and his current attitude: “Asian Sensation.”
Above photo by Carey Hood
Singer-songwriter Chip McGuire and the Renegade Saints play at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur tonight on a bill with Chase Baker. For tickets, click here. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.