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Rocker Rick Derringer and Kansas City Entrepreneur Jim Wagy On Faith and Family

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Doing Without!

Kansas City entrepreneur and award-winning musician Jim Wagy is spurred on to his achievements by faith, loss and legacy.

By Chris DeRosier

Photos – Edward Biamonte

Jim Wagy thought about filling his father’s shoes once. “A couple of years ago, I thought to myself, It would be neat to go and get some of my dad’s shoes and wear them. you know, physically fill them,” Wagy says. “And just as soon as I said that I was driving down the road, tears in my eyes, and I hear the Lord say to me, ‘Jim, you can’t fill your dad’s shoes. I made your foot bigger. Your dad wore a size ten and a half; you wear a size 12.'”

Jim’s father was a McDonald’s magnate, a Yale graduate and a man described by many as the nicest person they ever met. In trying to be just some of these things Jim, 46, has become something else altogether: successful in two almost opposite careers. On one hand, he followed in his father’s footsteps, owning six McDonald’s locations in all. On the other hand, the death of Jim’s father in 2004 propelled him into a music career he never saw coming.

A music career had been the dream once, first dreamt by a first-grade Jim as he watched his cousin play the theme to Hawaii Five-O on his drum set. Jim’s parents tried to discourage him from learning the instrument, paying for a year’s worth of piano lessons hoping it would catch on with him. It didn’t. They even tried a cheap $25 drum kit, but nothing dissuaded Jim.

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He not only learned to play drums but went on to study music education in college before abandoning it (he decided he didn’t want to teach) and hitting the road playing drums for the Top 40 act Bullet and the Christian Group Shiloh Morning. Jim spent much of the ’80s on tour, but when he saw the drug use and other unsavory lifestyle choices that are common in the music biz he quit the group and returned to Kansas City. He still played with Shiloh Morning on the occasional weekend tour for a while, but he never fully committed to life on the road again.

Jim came home to the family business–McDonald’s–where he had started as a crew member at age 15 and returned as a manager. He was a good manager, at that; Jim says he received the Outstanding Manager Award in 1989, an honor given only to the top 10% of the 10,000-plus franchise managers across the country. By 1991 Jim was ready to take the next step and buy his own franchise, at 7412 N. Oak Street in Gladstone, Missouri; he still has it. He finally built a McDonald’s of his own in 1995, but he was just getting started. Jim bought two more franchises in 1998 and another pair in 2000. He built one last restaurant in 2001, the same year his parents retired from the company.

Beyond Choice

If you asked Jim Wagy to choose between making music and McDonald’s, he would tell you he’s keeping McDonald’s. He loves the security of it, he says. Indeed, he already made that choice once when he left Shiloh Morning. But one piece of news in 2004 would send music surging back into Jim’s life, and in very unexpected ways.

It was cancer, the doctors said. Jim’s father was dying. Unable to cope with his bottled-up emotions, Jim took to an outlet he had only occasionally tried before: He wrote a song about it. “I Don’t Have the Heart to Say Goodbye” began as a way to deal with grief and became a catalyst for a whole new second career. Jim still calls it the best song he has ever written, or ever will write. “When I lost my dad I lost my father, my best friend, my business partner, my mentor,” Jim says. “I felt like the Lord was saving a talent for me for after my dad died.”

From then on, Jim says the floodgates opened and the Lord kept giving him words and melodies for more songs. He started calling musicians in and recording the songs in earnest, and he immediately learned how wallet-lightening making music can be. “Before I knew it, I spent five thousand dollars in the studio [on one song] tracking and making sure everything sounded right,” Jim says, and that was with all the musicians playing for free. The expense led Jim to wonder what it would cost to build a recording studio in his own house. The answer was a lot, it turned out, but he pressed ahead and did it anyway, first adding one to an existing home and later working an isolated studio with kitchen and bathroom facilities into the building plans of his next home. Covenant Studios was born.

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He brought his number one philosophy from his work at McDonald’s–here the best people, because you’re only as good as they are–to his albums, with guest producers and artists including Rick Derringer, Victor Gossage, Leeland Mooring and Luke Weese. Jim is bringing elements from his music work back to his day job, too. “I’m working with a lot of young musicians on a lot of my rock ‘n’ roll stuff, and I’ve learned a lot about that generation and how they want to be treated,” he says. “You’ve got to learn how to manage these kids, because their value system is different.”

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Rocker Rick Derringer

Whereas Worship for the Nations is specifically a Christian record, Jim has very different plans for his next album. When it comes out, Songs About Life… Stuff Happens will be Jim’s crossover work, an album with rock, country, R&B and more all on one CD, a combination Jim describes as “darn near impossible” on most albums. It may also be his most personal work yet, too, with songs inspired by his wife, Deb, and two daughters, Ashley and Lauren.There are still a couple of guest artists left that Jim wants to work in before releasing it, which will delay its release a bit, but it should prove to be worth the extra wait.

Jim says his inspiration for Songs About Life was the ups and downs that come with everyday living: job loss, baggage in relationships, love… and losing a loved one. “I Don’t Have the Heart to Say Goodbye,” Jim’s song about the dealing with the death of his father, is currently slated to appear on Songs About Life. Though it has been almost six years since the song, and the crushing loss that inspired it, came into his life, Jim says he still feels the absence as intensely as ever. “I miss [my dad] every day. I really do,” he says. “I can’t go into one of my dad’s stores and not see my dad.” Hopefully, when Jim sees his dad, the old man is smiling. He didn’t just fill his father’s shoes; he far outgrew them.

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