Singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins began work on his latest album over a year ago in Atlanta. Last February, about halfway through the recording process, Mullins decided he needed a change of scenery and sounds. He called his old friend in New Orleans, Mike West, at his home studio, The 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor.
"Mike played all over my Soul's Core album, and I love the sounds he gets on his own records," Mullins said. "I wanted that same, raw, unpolished sound for my new project, and luckily Mike had a week open. So I packed my things and together with my tour manager and my dog Roadie, some guitars and dog food, we headed west on I-10. We hit the brakes at the corner of Jourdan and Dauphine, in the heart of the 9th Ward in New Orleans. The Pickin' Parlor stood about one block from the Industrial Canal in a 100-year-old shotgun house. I tracked about half the album there, mostly the acoustic cuts. And like the rest of the record, I aimed for that 'old school' vibe. No loops or samples, live instruments only. If a note isn't perfect but the overall performance is there, that's what we kept. Mike and Katie made us feel like part of their family while we were in New Orleans. We headed back to Atlanta inspired and rejuvenated from the time we'd spent at their studio."
Mike and his family were on the road with their band Truckstop Honeymoon when Hurricane Katrina blew through. Their dogs were rescued by a neighbor who refused to evacuate until relief workers agreed to take the dogs he'd saved as well. The Pickin' Parlor was destroyed by the storm and flooding. They've since relocated to Lawrence, Kansas, where the studio is up and running again.
Mullins produced 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor with the help of a close circle of friends including West on guitar, mandolin, banjo and banjolin (a banjo/mandolin hybrid), Gerry Hansen and Kenny Malone on drums and percussion, David Labruyere (John Mayer) on bass, and Peter Stroud (Sheryl Crow and Don Henley) on electric guitar. Chris Thile of Nickel Creek lays down a tasty mandolin on "Homemade Wine." "A lot of the acoustic songs were done with me and Mike sitting face to face in the Parlor, Mullins said. "On the songs that were arranged for a band, we tracked the drums at Gerry Hansen's Creekside Station studio. The rest of the band songs, for the most part, were cut at Orphan Studio by Glenn Matullo (my old roommate, and engineer of Soul's Core). He was the first cat in town to have Protools, and he recorded three live albums for me and every studio album I've made since '95. Besides his work with me, Glenn engineered several albums for Indigo Girls and Collective Soul over the last several years and has worked with everyone from Outkast to Pink to John Mayer."
9th Ward Pickin' Parlor serves up a diverse palette of sounds, but the arrangements are always true to the songs. "Blue As You," written with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge, fellow band mates from The Thorns, opens the album with a vocal that's reminiscent of Guy Clark or John Prine. "Beautiful Wreck," the album's first single, co-written with Glenn Phillips (Toad The Wet Sprocket), Droge, and Marshall Altman, is a rocker that sardonically celebrates a self-destructive friend. "Cold Black Heart" is a murder ballad. "It's the kind of song I thought Johnny Cash might like to have sung," Mullins explains. The track features Mullins on Charango, (a 10-stringed Bolivian instrument), Mike West on banjo, and a wall of drums and percussion. "Lay Down Your Swords Boys" is a Woody Guthrie-style anti-war tune, delivered in Mullins' gravel-laced baritone. The sultry "Solitaire" is a simple love song that sounds like it could easily have been written in the 1940's. And the album closes with the classic, "House of the Rising Sun."
Shawn's love of music started before he can remember. "I just grew up around it," Mullins said. "My grandfather played upright bass and bass horns professionally for 50 years. When I was four years old, he bought me a scaled down drum kit. He'd play his bass fiddle along with me. I remember putting on Ike and Tina Turner's version of 'Proud Mary' and trying to play my little drums along with it. Talk about jumping into the deep end of the pool. A few years later my older brother Mark taught me some songs on the guitar. He and my sister could both play and sing, and my mom is a musician as well. She can make music on anything she picks up, pretty much. We had a wide range of popular music playing in the house as I was growing up. My dad worked for the railroad and moonlighted for the Rich's department store in downtown Atlanta where he bought discounted stereo equipment from the store's warehouse. We had a reel-to-reel player and a decent turntable. Dad had a peach crate full of great records; Isaac Hayes, the Jesus Christ Superstar Soundtrack, Little Richard, Janis Joplin, Soundtrack to 2001 Space Odyssey, The Beatles' White Album, James Taylor, and Kris Kristofferson."
Mullins started several garage bands during middle and high school while playing drums and guitar in his high school jazz band, singing in various choruses, and acting in school plays. He continued his music at North Georgia College in Dahlonega, GA, where he studied voice and majored in music education. While at N.G.C., Shawn began playing the local beer joint, Beauregard's Bar and Grill. He also worked his way into the Atlanta acoustic music scene, playing the Track Side Tavern and Eddie's Attic. It wasn't long before people started asking him for tapes.
After graduation, he was commissioned In the US Army Reserve. "The Army helped me pay for college, so when I graduated I owed Uncle Sam a little active duty time," Mullins said. "It's funny, when people find out I was in the Army, they always ask the same question, 'Why?' It's really not that uncommon. Other musicians/veterans of interest: Jimi Hendrix (101st Airborne), John Prine, Kris Kristofferson (helicopter pilot and Airborne Ranger), and let's not forget Elvis Presley. I was raised in a military family. My dad's father and stepfather both were veterans of World War II. Dad had been in the 82nd Airborne and my brother is a career Naval Officer. I guess I thought I was supposed to do something like that, so I ended up jumping out of some perfectly good airplanes!" Between training exercises at Fort Benning, Mullins performed his songs at every venue that he could walk, run or drive a HUM-V to. When his time was up, he hit the road with a cheap Japanese guitar and a head full of songs.
"I saw that folks like Ani DiFranco and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedy's) were doing it on their own, so in early 1991 I started my own label and modeled it after that whole punk, grassroots 'Do-it- Yourself'thing. I just kept writing, making records, and touring to support each release."
In 1998, after seven independent records, Shawn recorded Soul's Core that included a song called "Lullaby," which caught the ear of Leslie Fram, a radio programmer in Mullins' hometown of Atlanta. She put "Lullaby" into heavy rotation and sent a copy of Soul's Core to every programmer she knew. After a major-label bidding war, Columbia Records signed Shawn, and "Lullaby" became a chart topper. In 1999, Shawn was nominated for a Grammy, Soul's Core had gone platinum in the U.S. and in Australia, and "Lullaby" enjoyed worldwide radio success.
Mullins toured for a year in support of Soul's Core and then released Beneath the Velvet Sun in the fall of 2000. He also began collaborating with other songwriters. "In March of 2002, Matthew Sweet sat in with me and Pete Droge for a few days in L.A.," Mullins said. "We wrote some good stuff, and made demos. Columbia loved the songs, offered us a deal, and The Thorns were born." The Thorns recorded one studio album with producer Brendan O'Brian, and an acoustic album called The Sunset Sessions. They toured the better part of a year, then Mullins returned to Atlanta to work on a new solo album.
"It was late 2004, and I had written a bunch of new songs since my last solo project," Mullins said. "I was whittling down the material for a new album. Sony was in the middle of a large corporate merger with BMG. Everyone at Sony/Columbia was pretty pre-occupied with the transition, so I decided to part ways with Sony." Not long after, he received a letter from Vanguard Records VP of A&R, Steve Buckingham. "I knew his name from Little Sparrow and The Grass is Blue, two recent critically acclaimed Dolly Parton albums, which he produced and played guitar on. Steve and I met at one of my shows in Nashville, and we totally hit it off. He heard my new songs, loved them, and a few months later, I signed to Vanguard Records. I'm proud to be working with everyone at Vanguard. The company has such a rich, musical history and an incredible roster that includes some of my favorite albums."