Underrated Southern songwriting
by James M. Manheim
Atlanta songwriter Shawn Mullins had a top-ten pop hit about a dozen years ago with "Lullaby," a mostly spoken portrait of a jaded, stressed young woman in Los Angeles. Mullins' new album, Light You Up, has a couple more acid-etched L.A. songs, and he has some great lines describing that often sung-about city: "Tinseltown / snakes are crawlin' / down the boulevard / of the fallen." Aside from these it's hard to point to a Mullins specialty; he's a journeyman musician who's been at it for a couple of decades, and he can bring a new idea or twist to even a very common song narrative.
On the new album that ability is especially evident in "Catoosa County," which takes up one of the oldest American genres: it's the strongest Civil War song to appear in quite a while. Told from the perspective of a rebel boy who "turned seventeen, spring of 1861" and "killed twenty men before I turned twenty-one," it delivers a monster of an antiwar chorus:
The blue and the gray paint the colors of the lie--
How the old men find a way to send the young men off to die.
If I could I would place a hundred-million-dollar bounty
On the hate that makes a war that digs the graves of Catoosa County.
The new album includes songs about love, contemporary relationships, parenthood, the Great Recession, and the hypnotized gloom that gripped New York in the days after September 11, 2001. They're tied together mostly by Mullins' baritone, with its generous helping of gravelly Southern soul.
Some of these songs could be classified as country, and Mullins has placed some songs on the Nashville hit parade. He had a hand in the clever recent beach anthem "Toes," a number-one hit for the Zac Brown Band. But generally he avoids the uses of sentiment and formal convention that often define music as country. Even a simple ballad like "I Knew a Girl" breaks its pattern with an image of
"a broken soul and a complicated smile."
Mullins writes solo but also collaborates with songwriters from the country sphere (notably Chuck Cannon, who suggested the "colors of the lie" line), and sometimes the latter group of songs has the feel of a humorous release from the task of working toward the lowest common denominator. The title track "Light You Up" has a completely ordinary sung refrain--"I just want to light you up, light you up like a fire"--but the spoken verses parody seduction lyrics with drawled, just slightly improbable rhymes: "Everybody wants a puff of your pipe dream / Everybody wants a lick of your ice cream."
This underrated Southern songwriter comes to The Ark on November 1.
[Originally published in October, 2010.]