I’m reminded of that well-worn Shakespeare quote, “What is past is prologue,” when Shawn Mullins meets me for breakfast at Thumbs Up diner, smiling mischievously and clutching a newspaper article I wrote in 1994 chronicling Atlanta’s burgeoning acoustic music scene.
That year, Mullins had been playing regular gigs at Eddie’s Attic and had just opened a show for the Indigo Girls. I was sure that he was on the verge of breaking out and getting signed to a major label deal, and I made him the star of the story.
As it turned out, it took Mullins nearly four more years of hard touring to sell much more than a few thousand records. But when he finally had a hit, it was a big one. Bigger than he or I or almost anyone might have imagined.
In the summer of ’98, Mullins’ hooky, drum-looped track, “Lullaby” went from heavy rotation on Atlanta alt rock station 99X to become a number one hit on the Top 40 and Adult Contemporary charts. And his album, Soul’s Core, (which also includes his songs “Shimmer” and “The Gulf of Mexico”) was nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (it has since sold over two million copies).
More recently, Mullins joined with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge to form the harmony trio, The Thorns, a singer-songwriter super group of sorts that drew not exactly kind critical comparisons to Crosby, Stills and Nash.
After a long association with Sony Records, Mullins left the label for Vanguard Records in late 2005. On Valentine’s Day 2006, he released 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor – named for the New Orleans home studio where many of the tracks were recorded.
It favors a country-tinged, acoustic and small ensemble sound that in many ways marks a return to Mullins’ roots.
His reverberating baritone meets up with mandolin, banjo and lap steel on a collection that includes several love songs, a murder ballad, a couple of anti-war tunes and a rousing cover of “House of the Rising Sun.”
While we chomped on heaping helpings of eggs and potatoes, I asked Mullins to catch me up on his life and music.
Why leave Sony for Vanguard – was being on a major label not working for you anymore?
I don’t really have any regrets. It did nothing but help me. But I was ready to move to a smaller label where I had a little bit more control. I don’t want to deliver a record and have somebody go, ‘I don’t hear a single.’ I was never trying to do it for that. I got steered that way because, well frankly, they made me really wealthy for a little while and I felt obligated in a way.
Did having such a big hit early on become sort of disorienting?
I didn’t handle fame well, really. A lot of people think I handled it pretty well. But when it got down to being by myself or with my wife, it was really difficult. I never wanted that. I didn’t want to walk down the street and not have any anonymity. Since the Thorns project, though, I think I’ve gotten better at taking care of myself in that situation. Both Matthew and Pete are good at that and I learned a lot from them.
Was being in the Thorns a strange interlude?
It was. There was a lot of good, though. But we didn’t make the record we wanted to make. And we got slammed by the critics. We really wanted to make a record like the early Bee Gees or Brian Wilson. But it just so happened that when we blended our voices together, everyone said it sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Are you enjoying playing solo again?
For the past three or four years, I’ve been playing solo almost all the time, so I’ve kind of gotten good at that again. During my whole radio period, I was almost always with a band. That’s a whole other way of performing. But I really love just doing it solo, and I can actually make a living doing it that way.
I was surprised to hear you cover two James McMurtry songs in your set the other night.
I’ve been doing that since 1994 or ’95. Usually it’s one song by McMurtry and one by someone else, like Kris Kristofferson or Townes Van Zandt or John Prine – someone I want my fans, who don’t have a clue about those people, to hear.
I gather that those are all writers who have influenced your writing.
This new record for sure is inspired by people like that. The songwriters of the South and especially from Texas is where a lot of this new record was coming from with my writing. And I was traveling through Texas when I wrote a lot of the songs.
People are probably still surprised to find out that you were a paratrooper in the Army, but you like to point out that you’re not exactly alone in that regard.
There are a lot of other musicians who were in the military – Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Jimi Hendrix. When I was in the Army, I remember guys would joke with me because they could tell I needed to be somewhere else. I was always singing and goofing around. I loved jumping out of airplanes and blowing up stuff. But I knew I didn’t want to kill anybody.
There are some serious topical songs on 9th Ward.
It’s not that this record is incredibly political. There are two songs, “All Fall Down” and “Lay Down Your Swords, Boys,” that are probably the closest I’ve ever come to trying to speak as honestly as I can about my politics. My politics have gone 180 degrees since I was at North Georgia College. My wife Kelly had a whole lot to do with my understanding of what’s really going on.
For me, 9th Ward seems like the most rootsy and organic recording you’ve done.
I’m proud of this record. I normally don’t like my records after they’re done. I don’t like hearing my voice back on tape. But on this record, I felt free to do it like I wanted to do it.
Do you like where you are now, on the other side of all of the craziness?
I can look back on it and enjoy it more now. Certain nights, like the Grammy Awards or the American Music Awards, while I was a part of it, I couldn’t enjoy it that much because I was pretty spooked.
You’ve more or less lived in Atlanta your whole life – ever think of moving anywhere else?
I guess I feel comfortable here. I was born in Piedmont Hospital and raised in Lakewood and then Decatur. I just feel at home here. And I travel so much – I’m usually gone two weeks out of the month. I bought an RV this summer and that’s been working out great.
And do you see yourself playing and out on tour for the rest of your life?
That’s a good question. I think about that. Some of the older musicians who are still doing it, like Dylan or Neil Young, are a big inspiration. I think you can still do this when you’re 60 or 70. But I think I really just want to be a really good writer. I want to get better at that, and be able to make a living.