A sense of place has been inherent in the songwriting of troubadour Shawn Mullins’s most recent recordings. 2006s 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor is heavily in debt to the city of New Orleans and the famed studio much of it was recorded in prior to being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The 2008 follow up, Honeydew, found the Georgia native returning to his roots; recorded in Atlanta and featuring a guest appearance from Georgia blues legend Francine Reed and songwriting rife with Georgia influences.
Though he’s been writing and recording his songs since 1989, Mullins is most famous for his ubiquitous 1998 single, “Lullaby”—about a girl burnt out on Hollywood—which peaked at #1 on the US Billboard Adult Top 40 tracks chart, and #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. When his 2000 CD Beneath the Velvet Sun failed to measure up, he was let go from his contract with Columbia Records and moved on to form a side project with like-minded singer/songwriters Pete Droge and Mathew Sweet called the Thorns. That trio’s 2003 eponymous debut featured warm, soaring harmonies and chiming guitars, bringing to mind California influenced classic folk groups such as the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Now there is a California folk and pop vibe running through his most recent recording, Light You Up. There’s no denying the influence on opener “California”, which depicts a country boy from Mississippi and hippie chick raised on the Puget Sound falling in love at first site on the 101. Amidst churning electric and acoustic guitars and Sweet’s lulling guest-vocal harmonies, the star-crossed pair find their idyllic dreams coming true—“Down on the sunset strip / Trying so hard to be so hip / Manhattan Beach to Malibu / It’s all about the ocean view”—only to descend under the soul-killing temptations of the material world: “And who you know in Hollywood / It’s cut throat, but it’s understood / Champagne kool aid, drink it down / You’re the toast of Tinseltown”.
The six-minute “Light You Up” follows, and descends further down the road of stardom: “Everybody wants to pick your guitar / Everybody wanna ride in your fast car / Everybody wants a puff of your pipe dream / Everybody wanna lick of your ice cream”. The title track and lead single, it cuts off at just over four minutes, then comes back around in a downward spiraling, instrumental coda, extending the songs timbre.
On the other hand, the somewhat biographical “Murphy’s Song” finds the 42 year-old singer reflecting on life on the road living the American dream, now turning the page and celebrating becoming a family man after the birth of his real life son, Murphy. It features gorgeous pedal steel guitar harmony from Dan Dugmore. Mullins’s solo rendition of “No Blue Sky”—originally recorded for the Thorns—lacks the original trio’s sweet (no pun intended) harmonies, but makes clear the dour, bluesy intent of a downtrodden, likely unemployed person lamenting California sunsets. The same downtrodden, sinning soul is dreaming, “drifting on a sea of shadows”, rowing a leaky craft “with a man dressed all in black at the helm” on the ominous, bluesy and hauntingly sparse “The Ghost of Johnny Cash”.
After getting in “with the in crowd” and getting off on the rock and roll, “Cocain Spree and the music’s loud / Backstage at the Hollywood Bowl”, the star crossed lovers of “California” are finding themselves over all of it on “Tinseltown”. From the house in Topanga Canyon, they spill some wine and “watch the sun melt down / I’m over Tinseltown!” A graduate of a Georgia military academy on a ROTC scholarship, he makes his emotions clear on the anti-war statement “Catoosa County”. It’s as poignant today as it is was in the Civil War period in which it was written. An acoustic, back porch blues, it grieves over “the hate that digs the graves of Catoosa County.”
Mullins has become enamored with co-writing. He’s credited as a co-writer on the Zac Brown Band’s #1 country single, “Toes”. Ten of the 11 cuts on Light You Up he wrote collaboratively, with the lone exception being Chuck Cannon and Phil Madeira’s “The Ghost of Johnny Cash”. Slightly top heavy with the better songs in the first half of the CD, Light You Up is another fine set of songs from an under-appreciated yet talented songwriter.