History doesn't purposely follow Shawn Mullins around. After all, he recently returned from a weeklong series of cruise ship concerts that took the Atlanta songsmith to Tortola, St. Croix and the Bahamas. Not exactly a journey into the past, unless you count the fact that 2011 marks the fourth year Mullins has hit the high seas to escape winter.
But slip on his recent album Light You Up, and you hear a very unexpected sense of history percolating at the core of Mullins' music.
The title tune, a soul-fortified groove no doubt informed by generations of R&B giants who hailed from the South, balances a blend of spoken and sung narratives that recalls Mullins' monster 1998 hit Lullaby. But in the story line to Light You Up's standout tune, the folkish Catoosa County, a more exact glimpse of history is revealed through the eyes of a soldier fighting in the Civil War.
During an early evening stroll on his first day back on dry land, the spirits that sparked Catoosa County seem especially close by.
"As I'm talking to you, I'm standing right where the Battle of Atlanta was fought," Mullins said by phone. "We're walking though the park here with our son and our dog literally where it all went down. There is so much history here. That's why I wrote a Civil War song. I've always wanted to do that."
A lifelong Georgian, Mullins, 42, isn't an artist who flaunts his heritage unduly. But he is obviously proud of it. He will happily tell you about growing up in an Atlanta household where his father championed records by Georgia-reared soul legends James Brown and Otis Redding. He will confess the first concert he attended was by Atlanta funk-rockers Mother's Finest. And he will proudly discuss the varied Georgia backgrounds of his band members, several of whom do double duty in the touring ensemble of another great Georgia songwriter, Randall Bramblett. Among that crew is Augusta guitarist/bassist Patrick Blanchard, who will serve as Mullins' lone sidekick at an acoustic concert Thursday at Natasha's.
"The musical history down here is so wonderful," Mullins said. "I've always loved that about where I lived and about the South in general. So much incredible music comes out of the South."
But to label Mullins as strictly a "Southern" artist means missing out on the other vivid inspirations that find a way into his music. One of the still-fascinating aspects of the Grammy- nominated Lullaby was the way spoken baritone verses were woven around a breezy and lyrical chorus. The result was a song bright enough to uphold pop tradition and bleak enough to find a home on alternative radio.
In subsequent years, songs by Mullins with accents of folk, Americana, soul and serious electric pop would find their way onto TV shows like Dawson's Creek and Scrubs. Fast forward to Light You Up, and you hear references that spread to Los Angeles (the folk-pop flourishes of California), West Texas (the luscious reverb of The Ghost of Johnny Cash) and even Detroit (the big-beat guitar strut of You Make It Better).
There are clever thematic jolts, as well. Light You Up heads into its home stretch by tagging the sundown feel of Can't Remember Summer to the album-closing Love Will Find a Way, a serving of pop bliss that is unavoidably summery.
"I don't know if that was a great idea or not," Mullins said. "But I definitely planned on putting those songs together that way."
Collaborators abound on Light You Up, as well. Among the writers who help out on the album's 11 songs are Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips, veteran Nashville scribe Chuck Cannon and longtime Mullins drummer Gerry Hansen. But then, artistic collaboration is nothing new to Mullins. He joined forces in 2002 with fellow songsmiths Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge to form the alt-pop collective The Thorns. A tune from the group's self-titled 2003 album, No Blue Sky, received a neo-country makeover for Light You Up.
But one of Mullins' most prized collaborations doesn't even appear on his own recordings. He is co-writer of Toes, one of the breakthrough singles by the young country-rock maverick Zac Brown.
For Mullins, helping out on the hit was especially gratifying as he and Brown are "old buddies."
"I've known him since he was 14 or so," Mullins said. "He was sitting outside of a club I was playing, just kind of busking on the street. I didn't have an opening act that night, so I said, 'Hey, man, why don't you open the show?' Of course, he was worried about being too young to get in. But I worked it out with the club owner. So Zac came in, opened the show and knocked 'em dead.
"I mean, there's nothing like hearing someone else singing a song you've had a hand in writing. But to be part of that particular song, ... that was just great."