A New "Stupid Heart" Brings out the Best in Shawn Mullins
On the gray March days between winter and spring, Shawn Mullins recorded My Stupid Heart in the Tennessee foothills outside of Nashville. His first album in five years is a new beginning for the Georgia singer-songwriter who is singing with a voice that is stronger without cigarettes, writing from a heart that is no longer broken, and recording with a new producer who brings out the best in him. His narrators are still bruised and scarred by life and love, but their hope in holding on reveals who Mullins is today.
It has been almost 20 years since Mullins’ song “Lullaby” was a Number One hit, earning a platinum album for Soul’s Core and a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal. The song lifted Mullins from an unknown singer-songwriter selling cassettes and CDs from his van at coffee shops and bar gigs into an overnight success, leaving him with a lasting career for his warm, baritone voice and storytelling lyrics. He followed up “Lullaby” with more hits, including the number ones “Beautiful Wreck,” and “Toes,” co-written with the Zac Brown Band.
Today, Mullins writes from observations, characters, conflict, and truth, and his own life seeps into his music. He stopped the heavy touring when his only child, Murphy, was born in 2009, and Mullins wanted more time at home to be a dad. A year later, his longtime marriage ended and he impulsively married again. “I went through two divorces in three years,” he says. “That phase in my life was a dark time and an emotional blur. I toured just enough to barely stay on the map and I wrote just enough to fulfill my obligations to the publishing company, but the writing wasn’t me.”
My Stupid Heart, released Oct. 23, is Mullins’ 14th album and reflects personal and musical changes. He co-produced his last three albums, Light You Up, 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor, and Honeydew with his drummer Gerry Hansen, but turned My Stupid Heart over to Lari White, a successful producer and singer-songwriter in Nashville. They recorded the album in her backyard studio, "the Holler" -- a former car garage with 20-foot ceilings and concrete floors. It is now covered in wood and stone with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam painted on the ceiling, and its big windows are filled with trees and sky.
By shaking things up, Mullins found freedom in letting go. “Shawn took a step back to let someone else make decisions and it got him out of his comfort zone,” says Hansen, who played drums on the album. “Lari had great ideas that were different than anything we have done before. Without the pressure of production, Shawn was in the moment and that is when he is at his best.
“With Shawn, you can add a few effects, but you don’t want to detract from the lyrics. His vocal has to be forthright and you have to hear the rumble, the grit, the falsetto, and every word.”
Supported by musicians feeding off one another and White’s sharp ear and contagious energy, Mullins sang into a 1949 Telefunken mic with a voice that starts low, confiding, and intimate, stretching out until it growls, soars and explodes in “Pre-Apocalypse Blues,” co-written with Tom Ryan, Mullins’ bass player and tour manager, and “Never Gonna Let Her Go.” Loose, funky, trashy songs that sound like friends stopping by to play on a Saturday night.
“I sang without thinking and just went for it,” says Mullins. “It felt natural to sing openly and not be afraid. It was a beautiful experience and how it is supposed to feel, but this feeling is new for me because recording is torture when I overthink it. Lari understands my influences and where I am coming from. She clues me in about what sounds good and reaffirms that the things that happen naturally are where I should take them. That brought out the best from me.”
Nashville’s top studio musicians brought out the best in Mullins’ melodies, often in only one or two takes. From recording booths, the studio floor, and a corner by a couch, Michael Rhodes, Jerry McPherson, Tom Bukovac, Matt Rollings, and Guthrie Trapp improvised with guitars, amps, pedals, a bouzouki, and a melodica. Playing long after the songs were supposed to end, they added their own ideas that shaped the mood of the music. Rhodes created a bass heartbeat for “My Stupid Heart,” and Bukovac switched Mullins’ Gibson guitar for a Resonator to take “Ferguson” back in time with dark sounds of Appalachian angst and tension.
Trusting the album’s instrumental core to musicians he didn’t know was a leap of faith for Mullins. “I was scared this was going to become a slick Nashville record, but I trusted Lari and the exact right people played on the album,” he says. “They are the best there is and played things I didn’t anticipate, but every time it turned out better than I expected. We even brought in an accordion that added a whole new spectrum and an older sound of romantic melodies from long ago. I am just a small part of this album and I am in awe of what it became.”
Trapp, who grew up in Lillian, Alabama, played mandolin and bouzouki on several songs. “Shawn is known for his songwriting, but I heard the vibe of the music first and his chord structure and grooves felt great,” he says. “There was nothing to question or fight against so playing was fun and easy. Sessions like that make us better musicians because we had to listen to each other and everyone knew instinctively what to do.”
“My Stupid Heart” is the song that pulled Mullins back into songwriting and gave him a new direction. “I wrote ‘My Stupid Heart’ from a depressed place, but it was the one that started me writing again. I didn’t want to call myself stupid, so I blamed it on my heart," he says, then quotes the lyrics:
My stupid heart is what I blame
when the arrow flies its perfect aim.
It don’t work out like I thought it would,
my stupid heart still thinks it could.
Influenced by John Steinbeck and Kris Kristofferson, Mullins writes lyrics with details and imagery that stick in the brain and become almost real. In one of his favorite songs on the album, "The Great Unknown," there is a bar with "An old Hank Williams figurine/Hanging by a guitar string/From the pull chain of a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign/With a clock that's stopped on half-past nine." From a dirty, brown shag carpet stage, the singer sings his songs as he paces the cage.
Loneliness drifts and rolls along the song's acoustic and slide guitars with:
Hopes and dreams and ash and dust
It all seems to either rot or rust
Souls wrapped up in flesh and bone
Heartbeats in the great unknown.
“Poets and songwriters are observers and commentators,” says Chuck Cannon, co-writer of many songs with Mullins and one of the top songwriters in Nashville. (Cannon is also married to White.) “Shawn writes to say something and make people think. He says it with empathy and compassion, and often with a wry wit. The songs we write together are entertaining on the surface, but have a deeper meaning for those who are willing to look. A line in ‘Ferguson’ is, 'A bell too broken to let freedom ring.’ Our national symbol of freedom is a cracked bell that our founders knew they didn’t get perfect. With Shawn, the subject is the vehicle to say bigger things. He doesn’t worry about writing hit songs.”
“Ferguson” began on a drive tracing family roots through north Georgia. Mullins grew up in an Appalachian family of farmers, railroaders, and musicians, and they live on in his songs.
“I parked next to a field and the blooms looked like purple poppies. I didn’t know it was a cotton field,” he says. “My grandmother grew up picking cotton for sharecroppers in the hills of North Georgia and the song started because I realized I am only one generation from indentured servitude and I didn’t remember cotton plants. We are moving too fast from our past and our history.
“For several years, ‘Ferguson’ was just a melody in my guitar with the lines ‘All of you fallen fathers and mothers/ I hear you calling from deep inside your grave.’ I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. Chuck and I wrote the song when we were talking on his porch about the verdict and violence in Ferguson, Missouri. It is easy to take one side or the other, but there is a deeper human condition issue and we wrote from that. The song is about the struggle of people of any descent and leads up to Ferguson but does not mention the events that happened there. The war rages on -- not just the race war but religious wars too. Cops are shooting people, people are shooting each other, and mamas still cry for the dead. ‘The war rages on and the whole thing is rotten/The blood we all bleed is the same shade of red.’”
“With Shawn’s songs, you get a naked soul and a human’s experience of life and love that resonates with many people. He writes about the things that have hurt him and the wrongs that he would like to make right,” says White. “He listens to the universe and the music around him and he responds to what he hears.
"In the studio, if a mix is out of whack or something is wrong with his guitar," she continues, "he can’t respond. But when what he’s hearing is good, it’s like the dam opens and you better be ready to record because it will be magical. God, just the sound of his voice. You pray to be a part of a project like this with the right combination of artist, songs, and players because this is what you hope music will be.”
The music industry has changed since Soul’s Core sold almost 2 million albums and Mullins walked the red carpet at the award shows. “Records don’t sell like they used to, but I still want to make records that will sound good 20 years from now,” he says. “I want my career to grow like John Hiatt’s or John Prine’s. They have good live shows and people buy their records and have kept it going for a long time. As long as I can pack little rooms, write songs, make records and a little money to take care of my son, that is good enough for me.”
Mullins found his voice again and My Stupid Heart gives him hope and new music that he is proud to play. “The songs are all over the place, just like my other records, but starting over and not giving up are what this album means to me,” he says. “In my depression, I didn’t think I would find my way back to the writer I used to be. Instead I grew and changed and became a different writer and hopefully I am better. I have never felt as free as a songwriter and musician as I do now.”