Shawn Mullins released his last CD Light You Up in 2010. If that seems long ago and far away, that’s because it was. As the young and hip like to say, it’s been a minute. President Obama was barely into his first term, the Iraq War was still the lead story, Muammar Gaddafi and Osama Bin Laden were breathing borrowed air, One Direction had yet to cast their enchanting spell, and we were all eagerly anticipating the arrival of Justin Bieber’s first CD. Also, Caitlyn Jenner was a man and Chaz Bono wasn’t. It was a simpler, more innocent time. In the 2015 post-Arthur C. Clarke age of driverless cars, 3-D printed kidneys, televised beheadings, and hip-hop Presidential proclamations, 2010 seems almost quaint.
Almost, but not quite.
Always a lit powder keg of distinctly unpleasant philosophical disagreements and increasingly well-mannered music, the world has somehow found a way to get better and worse at the same time. Whatever your disposition, you’ll find plenty of ammunition. Since 2010, both Gaddafi and Bin Laden have been freed from their earthly shackles and the Iraq War has mercifully ended, but now the bodies of innocent Syrian children are washing ashore and 17 (YES, SEVENTEEN) U.S. Presidential candidates are reenacting Mike Judge’s Idiocracy word-for-word. Advances in modern medicine allow us to live longer and healthier lives, but we also run the risk of being shot dead on live TV. Crime is down everywhere and there are riots in the streets. F-List celebrities like REDACTED and REDACTED (I refuse to type their names) have fittingly receded into the primordial muck from whence they emerged, but Lil Wayne has released 850 mixtapes and cute little Hannah Montana has (d)evolved from lovable Disney princess into…well, whatever she is now. I have no idea what that is, but it needs to calm down.
Modern life is white-knuckle infuriating, impossibly sad, and completely ridiculous. And mind you, this deeply unsatisfying empyrean application of chaos theory has happened in addition to the usual personal failures, professional setbacks, stupid remarks, unending prayers for forgiveness, and disturbingly routine relationship disasters. I don’t know about you, but I call that last sentence ‘Monday Before Breakfast’. It happens to the best of us and it happens every minute of every day. Life gets in the way and never lets up.
And before you know it, five years go by. Eternity in the blink of an eye. Love, hate, war, and peace all tumble through the kaleidoscope of time and echo through the canyon like disappearing dreams of yesterday. The wheel’s still in spin and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’. Everything—and nothing—has changed.
Which is where Shawn Mullins comes in. He’s had #1 hits (“Lullabye”), Grammy nominations, platinum albums, a boatload of instantly recognizable songs (“Everywhere I Go”, “Beautiful Wreck”), and now…well, he’s back. The inexorable passage of time has blessed him with a devastating wealth of material. Self-imposed silence has given way to The Great Americana Novel.
The eagerly-anticipated My Stupid Heart comes out on October 16 (on Rounder/Sugar Hill) and Shawn Mullins has five years of something to say.
(Editor’s Note: Michael Franklin interviewed Shawn Mullins last fall about his latest album, My Stupid Heart.)
Michael: Welcome back, Shawn. We missed you. Five years.
Shawn: Yeah, thanks. I know it. I toured a bit with the last record and I just decided it was a good time to settle in and be a full-time daddy for a while. I married again. That didn’t work out, although everyone’s still good friends which is always good. But that kind of devastated me, and I think it’s really what started most of the record. I was in a tough place. In the end, the whole thing’s about love but it’s not about that [the divorce], necessarily. It’s about loving one another and my love for my country and my love for my species–although they drive me crazy–as well as songs like “My Stupid Heart” and “Never Gonna Let Her Go”, which is another one about ‘I can’t get over this person’ that you lost.
Michael: So this is basically a case of stepping back and living life so you have something to write about.
Shawn: Yeah. I wrote some in that process, but it was mostly the kind of co-writing where I’d sit in a writing room in Nashville with someone I didn’t necessarily know. And it’s not that nothing good came out of it. Exercising and sharpening the tools and all that is always–from what I’ve been told by the older and better songwriters than me–they all say that. That it’s okay. You’re keeping the tools sharp every time you write one that’s not necessarily your favorite. You’re still writing and working.
Michael: Yeah. Harland Howard called those ‘pencil sharpeners’. Even if they’re bad, they’re pencil sharpeners. I guess it just takes a while to reload.
Shawn: Yeah, it does. For me, my first relationship way back in my twenties, my first marriage. Then I was married to my second wife for 18 years. Most of my adult life, really. And so by the third one not working out, I was really [starting to think], “You know, this is interesting, isn’t it?” (laughs) It was almost like a Big Lebowski moment. “Okay, maybe it’s you and not everybody else. Maybe you’re hard to live with.” But I love all that. I don’t have any bad relationships where I can’t keep in touch with someone, which is good. My little boy is 6 and his Mom and I were together for 18 years and we’re buds. But I’m lucky in that way…that you don’t feel alone in the end, you know? Which is how Townes Van Zandt talked about that. I never got to meet him, but I’ve read a lot and seen a lot of the documentaries and talked to a lot of his friends, and he would talk about how you have to make a choice. And Leonard Cohen talks about that. In one of his writings, he says, “I’ve never had a successful relationship.” So it is a difficult thing. But what I’ve been trying to do is balance it as best I can and turn it on and turn it off when I can. It’s important to raise a kid in this world, as best you can. That’s been my focus for the last five years.
Michael: Well, there’s nothing more important than that. Nothing.
Shawn: Yeah, I’m with you.
Michael: By the way, I have the cover of your new CD here on my computer and one of my student workers walked by and said, “Is that Val Kilmer?”
Shawn: That’s funny. You know, I used to get that when I was a young man. In my early twenties, I had a flat-top haircut and I was in the Army. Top Gun had come out just a few years before that, so people would nickname me ‘Iceman’ sometimes. I hated it. I like Val Kilmer just fine, but I was like, ”Man, I ain’t tryin’ to look like Iceman. That’s guy’s a douche.” (laughs) That’s cool, though. That’s nice. I guess that’s a compliment.
Michael: It is. I’m sure she meant it that way.
Shawn: The guy’s a great photographer, I’ll tell you that.
Michael: Who took that photo?
Shawn: That’s David McClister in Nashville. He’s from Knoxville, actually, but lives in Nashville now. Real good photographer.
Michael: I’ve listened to the record and if you don’t mind, I have a few questions about it. The title track, “My Stupid Heart”—I hear all sorts of things in there. I hear The Beatles and Brian Wilson. And when I hear those names, I don’t necessarily hear happy music, but maybe happiER music. But lyrically, it sounds like you’re disappointed.
Shawn: Well, I guess at first glance, it is going to be that. But if you listen through, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. It’s a bit of a joke because I believe in following one’s heart. That really all started with me sitting on the porch thinking about how stupid I am to go through this again, this third divorce. And I thought it must be my brain. I must have some kind of issue. (laughs) And I thought it’s a lot easier to blame it on the heart, you know? I started thinking about the heart—not as a muscle, but as this make-believe fairy-tale thing that we all think it is. And that’s how that song started to appear. It’s definitely supposed to be delivered and not necessarily explained. What I hope is that people hear that and go, “Yeah, I know how that feels”.
Michael: How about “Ferguson”? You really went to church and testified on that one.
Shawn: Yeah. Well, Chuck Cannon and I wrote both of those together. We wrote a lot of this stuff together. You know, all that was just happening and we were talking about it on the porch at his studio. Incidentally, his wife is Lari White, who’s the producer of the record. I don’t know if you know Lari’s work at all—
Michael: Yeah, she had a few country hits in the ‘90s, didn’t she?
Shawn: Yeah, she got a few country hits in the early ‘90s and then she’s done a lot of different types of creative work. She’s been on Broadway playing June Carter Cash, she was in that movie Cast Away—
Michael: Yes, she was in that last scene of that, wasn’t she? As a mail delivery person.
Shawn: Yeah, and on top of all this, she’s an amazing producer. I’ve never worked with anybody that was so talented. I didn’t feel pressure or weird energy throughout the process. Everything flowed and went like clockwork and was just the easiest thing. It was beautiful. So I wanted to mention her, because she had a lot to do with the sound of this—putting the right people together, knowing that this guitar player is the right guitar player for this particular song. And then Michael Rhodes on the bass for the whole album and being the session leader throughout the recording. Basically, I think two takes is the average for this album. So it was real old-school, everyone playing at the same time. There were a few overdubs here and there, but sometimes even the vocals were captured on one or two passes. So it was definitely recorded like an old-school record with a lot of old-school gear. I know you asked about “Ferguson”, but I was trying to give you an idea that the sound of it is what I love so much, as well as the songs. I feel like I don’t give Lari enough credit. [She’s] The greatest producer I ever worked with and I’ve worked with some serious producers. I hope people will know more about her. She doesn’t toot her own horn that much, you know? She’s really low key. On “Ferguson” we wanted to tell a story, rather than talk about who’s right and who’s wrong and what side people are on. You know, rebel flags and not rebel flags and cops—we didn’t want to mention cops. We didn’t want to mention necessarily any particular thing about Ferguson. And for a long time we went back and forth about that title. Several people that have heard the song, early on, told me it’s not a good title and I disagree. I’m very settled on it now, because it all leads up to the incident in Ferguson. That’s really where the story should be ending. The last couple of lines of the song are sitting in the present day. Every line before that is a journey of a people. It probably sounds like it’s just about African-Americans’ journey and it’s not. The song actually started, for me, in Adairsville, Georgia. I was standing in a cotton field that’s still in operation. My grandmother used to pick it when she was little. She was a sharecropper and she was the first one to move down to Atlanta. I was standing in that field and that’s where (sings) ‘All of you fallen fathers and mothers’ [came from]. I was thinking about her and all my ancestors that had grown up there. And they’re all gone now. And I barely even know what cotton looks like when it’s blooming—you know, it’s like a poppy or something and I’ve never seen that. I was thinking how bizarre that it’s only a few generations and I don’t even know what that plant really looks like, ‘cause I’d grown up in the city for the most part. So it’s about all of it, you know?
Michael: And correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t even use the word ‘Ferguson’ in there, do you?
Shawn: No, because it’s not just about that. But we wanted to market with that, where everyone will know what we’re talking about. That’s the only clue you get, though. And if you think about the last couple of lines—‘are the dreams of the dreamers’—we’re thinking obviously of Martin Luther King, JFK, Jimmy Carter. These people have great intentions. Are they all misbegotten? The last line is ‘the blood we all bleed is the same shade of red’, which is what we first thought the song should be called. And then we were both like, “Let’s call it ‘Ferguson’”. (laughs) We’ll see what people think.
Michael: The guitar solos on that song absolutely rip.
Shawn: Oh my God, man. Tom Bucovac. Tom comes from not too far from here, actually. He’s one of the main guys you hear on radio for the last 25 years. It goes on and on and on, how many records he’s played on. Everywhere from Faith Hill to stuff that’s way more left-of-center, more rootsy stuff. All of these musicians that played on the record, like Michael Rhodes—he’s gotta be the most badass bass player on the planet. He’s played on everything from Buddy Guy records to Hank Williams Jr. records. He’s married to Sarah Buxton and they’re just a wonderful couple and they were there playing and singing. He’s just an unbelievable guitar player. We can’t even figure out how he’s doing what he’s doing.
Michael: “Never Gonna Let Her Go”, to me, sounds like The Band doing bluegrass.
Shawn: Well, here’s the deal with that. We did four Midnight Rambles with Levon Helm before he passed and they were such a joy, almost career-changing for me in a way—the way I started to look at everything. More communal. And it just did that to all of us that played those. Not just my guys, but everyone I’ve ever talked to that got to be a part of that scene and got to know him, just for a brief time. So that’s specifically a tip of the hat to Levon Helm and somewhat to The Band, but Levon Helm Band even more. So I hear you. And I love The Band. So of course, you’re supposed to hear that. It was definitely a purposeful honoring and tip of the hat. Levon was so cool, such a joy to be around and play music with. How cool was that? I got to stand on the stage next to him. [He was] just a natural entertainer, teacher, mentor. Always had a huge smile on his face. I don’t know if he did that on purpose—to make sure that he looked on. But it was intentional, I think. However it was, it always made you smile. You’re like, “That guy, he’s got it figured out.”
Michael: Tell me about “Pre-Apocalyptic Blues”. That sounds like Dixieland. I broke down laughing as soon as you got to ‘Honky, please’.
Shawn: I’ve been wanting to use that in a song for quite a while. Tom Ryan and I wrote it. He plays bass with me live. Great horn player, too. He plays saxophone with Widespread Panic. Tom and I wrote that down at 30A Songwriter’s Festival, we had a day off. I had a little bit of it started already. I was thinking of something between Steve Goodman and Randy Newman in the actual song, not necessarily the recording. I had no idea it would end up like it did, recording-wise. That was so fun. I told Lari, “It’s a bit of a blues progression, but I’m not a blues guy and I won’t pretend to be one. So I’m gonna let you steer on this.” She has a lot of jazz and blues, old-school Americana background. She got Roy Agee from Prince’s band, who happens to live in Nashville. Unbelievable trombone player. And I called my buddy Rad–Radoslav Lorkovic—who’s a folk musician. He travels around playing accordion. He played a lot with Jimmy LaFave but he does his own gigs, too. And then we have Matt Rollings, Lyle Lovett’s bandleader and piano player for the last 25 years. He’s the one playing that unbelievable piano part on that song.
Michael: I was going to make note of that. That piano work is just beautiful.
Shawn: Yeah, that’s Ronnie Milsap’s old piano. It’s in Chuck and Lari’s studio, but it’s still got the Braille—this little digital component that he had added for his live shows, I guess. They were doing that a lot in the ‘80s, where they didn’t have a real piano but it could be triggered with some other sounds. No one really uses that part anymore, but it’s really a neat thing to look down and see that Braille. And I love that old Ronnie Milsap stuff. I grew up on it, you know. But it is what it is, that song [“Pre-Apocalyptic Blues”]. My take on it is that I actually really do feel like that sometimes. (laughs) I get a kick out of watching doomsday preppers and anything to do with, “The world’s about to come to an end, you better prepare”. I get a kick out of it and in the back of my head, the whole time, I’m going, “Yeah…but you never know.” (laughs) So that’s what the song is really about, my own battle with that.
Michael: What’s on the iPod nowadays? What are you listening to? The last time we talked, you were preaching the virtues of Max Gomez. I did an interview with him and he’s a really nice guy. And you were right—his record is great.
Shawn: Yeah, Max is a good dude. I hope New West is gonna work out with him. They need to get something out on him soon.
Michael: He’s a talent, he really is.
Shawn: With someone like that, it’s hard for them. They probably don’t know exactly what to do. He’s got a lot of young girls that like him, so the easy thing to do is make it a pop thing. To pop it up. But one of his favorite artists ever is John Prine and that’s what Max is really about. We wrote “Roll On By” and “Gambler’s Heart” on this album and I love writing with him. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy writing with younger people, typically. It’s just that a lot of them haven’t lived enough to have the vocabulary available, honestly. Or they haven’t read enough. One or the other. And so sometimes I end up having to be the lyricist to someone else’s melody. And I can crap melodies, I don’t need any help with melodies. If I’m going to write with somebody, I want them to be stepping up on that lyric side, and Max always has. Even when he was 21, he was really wanting to stick it out and get that lyric good. I love Max. I’m about to go do his festival out in Red River, New Mexico.
Michael: He’s a good dude. Send him my best.
Shawn: Yeah, I will.
Michael: What else are you listening to right now? Just out of curiosity.
Shawn: You know, I haven’t been listening to a ton of stuff. I have a record player and I still listen to CDs, but I don’t have an iPod and I feel kinda funny about it sometimes. Let’s see…what I’ve listened to the last couple of days…Blue Valentine-Tom Waits, Queen A Day At The Races, George Carlin Class Clown, and Atlanta Rhythm Section Champagne Jam.
Michael: Now you’re talkin’ my language. I grew up with that.
Shawn: Yeah, me too, and I still have a lot of these records. Somehow they’ve made it through all this stuff. Once in a while I’ll have to go re-buy something, but a lot of them are the records I grew up with.
Michael: I’m just gonna plant this in your head. I know you’re a Willie Nelson fan, so I’m just gonna say it: Willie Nelson duet.
Shawn: Oh God, are you kidding me, man? That would be amazing.
Michael: First of all, you know he’ll do it.
Shawn: Yeah, I’ve never happened to meet Willie. I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always wanted to do Farm Aid. I’m just a little bit off of his radar. I don’t know if he even knows of me, but I sure am a fan of his and that’d be great. Another person I’ve always wanted to sing with is Gladys Knight, on more of a country-soul kind of thing. I’ve always felt she was a Southern Queen Of Soul. I get the whole Aretha thing for sure, but don’t forget about Gladys.
Michael: Who is your greatest influence, growing up?
Shawn: Well, it depends on whether you’re talking about songwriting or singing. Songwriting—Kris Kristofferson was the one I took to real early on, as far as the poetry. My Dad would talk about him and recite it sometimes. He just thought it was amazing. So as a little boy in the early ‘70s, that was played in the house a lot. He also loved Joan Baez and played that kind of thing, too. So the folk music with a funky country twist was there. And of course, Joan Baez always sang beautifully written songs. She was singing everything from old songs like “Silver Dagger” to Bob Dylan songs. My Dad didn’t like Bob Dylan, though. He just didn’t like his voice, but he probably didn’t even know that Bob was writing these songs Joan was singing on these records that were so good. (laughs) But songwriting-wise, it was a lot of Kristofferson. And then I got into John Steinbeck. I was having trouble early on in school, with reading, and [with my Dad] we read The Red Pony together. And then we just started working it up to the more intense of the novelettes. But I love that stuff. So the writing was Americana—that’s the only word I know for that—where you’re really looking at America from a lot of different angles and not necessarily explaining it just demonstrating it for everyone else to figure it out.
Michael: It’s interesting you used the term ‘Americana’, because I was thinking about this just the other day. I really can’t think of a better term, although I kind of wish there was a better one. It covers everything, but it seems a little empty because it envelops so much.
Shawn: At this point, it’s loosely used. I remember Al Moss hearing one of my records years ago and saying, “That’s not Americana”. And I was like, “Right on, that’s cool. We’ll work it either way, then.” I’ve always thought that most of my influences come straight out of the roots of America. There’s a lot of soul, there’s country, there’s folk. There’s a little bit of blues, but it’s more of a blues styling singing than it is literally the blues. That’s not really what I do. Have you ever heard that Big Al Andersen song (sings), “There ain’t nothin’ sadder, and nothin’ falls flatter, than a white guy singin’ the blues”? (laughs) But at the same time, I will go with black gospel soul stylings. [But] my delivery and what I’m singing about is different than that. It’s always been hard for me to categorize what I do. I also think it’s been hard for labels, over the years, to figure out. It isn’t just one thing. And I hate that about what I do, really. Sometimes I wish it was as easy as something like Smash Mouth, where everything you heard sounded like the other one you heard. And that’s fine. I never was bothered by it. I always tend to want to do something a little different than the last thing I did. Meaning the last song I wrote. You said you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s listening to that stuff too, and a lot of those records had a wide range of things available. They took on moods and took you on a little journey. I still like to think of it that way.
Michael: What I used to like to do was pull the record out, take the lyrics and liner notes out, look at the artwork, and read along as I listened. And all that experience has been…removed. It’s just a download now.
Shawn: Yeah, it’s weird. Maybe there’ll be a way to create a product that’s more like that again. We’re gonna release some vinyl of this [My Stupid Heart], but a pretty limited pressing. I like the album on vinyl, because for the people that really like that sound and format, this is good music for it.
Michael: Shawn, you’ve been very nice to me and I sincerely appreciate the conversation.
Shawn: You got it, buddy. Ya’ll take care.
Michael: All right. You take care out on the road.
Which is exactly where he’ll be—out on the road. His tour begins on September 25 in Red River, New Mexico, hits left and right coasts, and all points in-between. DON’T MISS HIM. Shawn Mullins is a once-in-a-generation singer/songwriter, so don’t sleep on this. Now’s your chance.
FOR COMPLETE TOUR DATES, go to:
All photographs courtesy David McClister. http://www.davidmcclister.com/
Special thanks to Ashley Moyer, Concord Music Group.
~ Michael Franklin
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael used to be a professional musician and sound engineer, but now he’s a thin ice walker and a freelance writer. He currently chairs the Buy-Michael–Franklin-A-1967-