Although Mullins lives in suburban Atlanta, he's packing his bags next week and heading to clubs in Nashville, Huntsville, and Chattanooga before coming to Memphis on Saturday, January 22nd. "I love playing those tiny rooms," he says, name-checking Nashville's famed 3rd and Lindsley venue and Memphis' Hi-Tone Café. "I feel like I can connect with people in that kind of vibe. When I had the hit thing happen, it took me to a lot of larger venues. It helped me get out there, but a lot of people just came to hear one song," Mullins adds.
He's referring to his 1998 single "Lullaby," which landed in the Top 40 charts and garnered him a Grammy nomination. The song possessed the perfect pop hook and a redemptive story line, but it ultimately threatened to pigeonhole Mullins' career. "Initially, I thought people wanted me to repeat it," he says. "But I've been assured since then that they want to see me grow and change. The people who come to my shows aren't really about ['Lullaby']. They get the other things I do.
"I missed traveling around the South," Mullins confesses. "It's been a long time since I've been able to plan a tour like this."
He's been too busy working with the Thorns, the singer-songwriter supergroup he formed with Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. After releasing a self-titled album on Columbia Records in the summer of 2003, the melodic power trio spent the next year touring the world with the likes of John Mayer and the Dixie Chicks.
Fans of his solo work have had to be content with his 2003 greatest-hits compilation, The Essential Shawn Mullins. "I was kinda laughing when Columbia called me to do that album," Mullins says sheepishly. "I thought, Come on, you guys -- I've only been signed to you for a few years. I don't know if I need an essential collection yet!
"Look at their whole catalog of 'essentials,'" he says, laughing giddily when I compare his output to songwriters like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. "It's really funny. Those guys are my heroes and my greatest influences. It's not how I see myself." Mullins sighs, then says, "I know what it's really about: record sales."
Ah, record sales. Although Mullins formed his own label for early releases like 1992's Better Days and '96's Eggshells, selling several thousand copies apiece, he signed with Columbia before cutting his '98 solo effort, Soul's Core, and 2000's Beneath the Velvet Sun. The world has been waiting for a brand-new album ever since.
"I've been in limbo for almost a year," Mullins says. "I've been recording a lot of material I need to be able to release, but Columbia is going through a merger with BMG right now." Thinking back to the days when he was his own boss, Mullins says, "It was a simple life, compared to being on a major label and being signed to a major publishing company. You're part of a machine, as long as you've got something the machine wants to put out. Then they'll put you on the conveyor belt. But most of the time, you're just hanging.
"A lot of people are in the hanging position," Mullins muses. "I've been fortunate to have as much success as I've had, because most of the songwriter types at Columbia -- except for Dylan, Springsteen, and Shawn Colvin -- have been let go. They've dropped people you wouldn't believe, some of the world's greatest songwriters," he says.
"But," he hastens to add, "all the people there, right up to the president, are really good folks. Will Botwin, the president of Columbia, used to manage Steve Earle, Los Lobos, and Roseanne Cash. He definitely understands the artist's point of view. He's a huge fan, which is why I'm still signed. Although right now, I'm not even sure that he has much control.
"I've got to get him to move on something or I'll have to go somewhere else. It's nothing personal. I'm just not sure how long I can hang out and wait," Mullins says matter-of-factly.
"Maintaining the balance between being a businessperson and an artist is quite a struggle," he says. "You try to stay detached from the judgments other people are making about your art. But emotionally, you can't separate yourself from it.
"I have a pretty good attitude," Mullins concludes. "For someone who hasn't been able to release a solo album in a few years, I'm still sane, and I'm still writing and recording."