Marietta musician featured in Jennifer Hudson ad

Alex Guthrie, a Marietta musician in a ubiquitous American Family Insurance ad featuring Jennifer Hudson, will be performing at the Star 94.1 Christmas concert at the Coca-Cola Roxy Dec. 12. RODNEY HO / RHO@AJC.COM

Alex Guthrie, a Marietta musician in a ubiquitous American Family Insurance ad featuring Jennifer Hudson, will be performing at the Star 94.1 Christmas concert at the Coca-Cola Roxy Dec. 12. RODNEY HO / RHO@AJC.COM

There’s a reason you know that Geico gecko or Flo from Progressive. Insurance companies have a lot of money to spend on advertising.

And thanks to ubiquitous American Family Insurance ads, Marietta singer Alex Guthrie has been seen by practically every American who has a TV over the past seven months. He was the street musician at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta who was shocked when Jennifer Hudson strolled up and began dueting with him.

For Guthrie, a 23-year-old full-time musician with a soulful feel, this was an opportunity of a lifetime. He has been touring ever since, including a stop at Eddie’s Attic Dec. 1. And he will open for the Bleachers and another “American Idol” alum, Kelly Clarkson, for Star 94.1’s Christmas concert at the Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre Dec. 12.

Star 94.1 program director Tony Lorino is a genuine fan, which is why he added Guthrie to the bill: “I think he’s super talented. He’s got a future and an acoustic singer-songwriter style that works well for this station. We want to support him any way we can.”

American Family Insurance’s ad agency BBDO did its best to keep the secret from Guthrie and obscure what the ad was about from the get-go. In an interview, Guthrie said a friend earlier this year passed along an audition opportunity for Guthrie. The ad was seeking an R&B-leaning street musician in their early 20s.

Guthrie naturally had no clue what this was about, but he got through auditions and was told to show up early morning at Woodruff Park March 9. “It happened really fast,” he said. He had no context in terms of how his performance would be used, but he figured it was a commercial of some sort. “I can’t stress how low my expectations were,” he said.

Ahead of time, he was told what to prepare: a straightforward cover of the 1978 R&B hit “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. “They drilled it home: no runs, no vibrato, just consistency,” he said. (This was apparently so Hudson could blend in with him.) On site, he did several takes, then was told to do it one more time but the producers insisted he sing the entire song through no matter what happens.

Why? Well, just 26 seconds into his rendition, Hudson walked up to his right and joined in. At first, he thought it was an intrusive extra. You could see him turn momentarily and look away. He said at first, he thought, "Hmm … that looks like Jennifer Hudson with a short haircut." Then his brain clicked in and he realized, yes, that is Jennifer Hudson.

He said the impact of the ad was far greater than he expected. He has been able to book more and bigger gigs. And surprise: “Jennifer Hudson has stayed in some contact with me. She’s kind of a mentor, offers me advice when applicable.”

And folks occasionally notice him in the vaguest sense possible: “People will say, ‘I recognize you. You’re that guy from that thing!’ “

The Lassiter High School graduate and son of a mortgage banker had two much older siblings who were into music, Cameron (37) and Nikki (36). They exposed him to a lot of older tunes by Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, the Doors and Gregg Allman, to name a few.

In middle school, he realized that being a musician drew the ladies. So using YouTube, he began learning how to play the guitar. His first chords? “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. “I learned that and was hooked,” he said.

At age 17, he began performing regularly at Suburban Tap's weekly open mic night for two years. There, he met fellow musicians and folks who helped him book other gigs.

After a semester at KSU, he tried out for “American Idol” but didn’t make it past the producer round. He remembers “Idol” impresario Nigel Lythgoe ripping into him, saying he wasn’t soulful or particularly good-looking. Ouch! “I just choked,” he admitted. “I was trying too hard.”

Instead of quitting music, Guthrie quit school and doubled down on the music. Except for some real estate photography on the side, he now performs 150 to 200 times a year. “I’m a starving artist,” he said. “I make enough for rent and ramen.”


Star 94 Christmas concert with Kelly Clarkson, the Bleachers and Alex Guthrie

7:30 p.m. Dec. 12. $44-$115. Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre, 800 Battery Ave. SE, Atlanta.