Happy birthday, Shawn Mullins

My co-worker had to ask why I was laughing so hard at the celebrity birthday listings on the page I was proofing.
She got an answer worthy of the general obscurity of references in this blog.

It was Shawn Mullins’ birthday. Shawn Mullins is a musician who’s been a national artist for 25 years.

Those who aren’t deep into music know him best for his song “Lullaby,” a top-10 hit in 1998, eight years after his first album came out. That’s how I learned about him. That was the song I figured would be the last one he played when I decided to watch his show at a music festival I attended the next year.

(The 1999 Fleadh Festival in Chicago would prove to be the first and last outdoor festival I would attend. Rain the night before and through the day made the infield of the racetrack at which the event was held a muddy mess, and my patience with my fellow man, not very high even now, was on an even more sensitive hair trigger at the time. In fact, near the end of the afternoon at the fest, I was getting ready to leave and not even see the acts about which I was most excited. I happened by a tent from which some nice singing was emerging. That was my introduction to Too Cynical To Cry, one of my favorite names for a band. I stayed after their set and thanked them for playing music that soothed my savage breast and made me decide to stick around for a bit.)

I listened to Mullins’ first three or four songs. It was, to my ears, generic singer-songwriter nonsense. Competent to be sure. I don’t know anyone who listens to Mullins and doesn’t immediately acknowledge the quality of his voice. But none of the songs were grabbing me. I hadn’t heard anything he’d done except “Lullaby.”

It was the fifth song he played. I thought, “Wow, you have a lot of confidence in your material if your hit is this early in the set.” And the audience sang along (which I dislike) with his encouragement (which I despise). And I left, and went and found Too Cynical To Cry.

The next time Mullins and I crossed paths was a three years later. He hooked up with Pete Droge and Matthew Sweet and formed The Thorns, who to me recalled some of the melodic and harmony-laden pop I’d enjoyed 25 years sooner. I mentioned Crosby, Stills and Nash and Bread. Others heard Eagles. And it was and is a solid album.

In fact, a few weeks ago, a music-loving friend asked his Facebook pals to name albums that were the only recording by that group and were among your favorite albums. I immediately mentioned “The Right to Be Italian” by Holly and the Italians. It’s at No. 50 on The Big List. (I also qualified it by admitting I wasn’t sure it fit. The singer’s next album was called “Holly and the Italians,” and it was credited to “Holly Beth Vincent.” I always treated her as a different entity than the band, and it looks like most others did as well. But I’ll bet very few of them were as disappointed as I when they played that second album.

And then I remembered The Thorns.

I always wondered why they didn’t make another album. It’s happened a few times when artists have come up with work I’ve found extremely satisfying, but they can’t or don’t continue along similar paths with similar people. I can’t begrudge the artists, but I can bemoan what I think I’m missing.

(Even though I’m not supposed to. You have to evaluate John Lennon’s solo career based on the totality of his output, not based on some imaginary scheme in which he didn’t get murdered. I couldn’t have predicted “Double Fantasy” based on “Sometime in New York City,” even though the two primary artists were the same. I can’t guess what Sly Stone would have done if he hadn’t discovered cocaine, ot what Rod Stewart might have accomplished if he hadn’t moved to California.)

It eventually became clear that Mullins wasn’t particularly fond of The Thorns. He complained about the slickness of the sound, and there was never a second album.

Reading that was a little heartbreaking. Kind of like when I interview Don McLean in the early 2000s. I told him his song “Dreidel” was one probably my favorite piece by him. (It was true. I liked “American Pie” and “Vincent” fine. But “Dreidel” was just a cool record. Also, I thought he might appreciate that someone liked one of his songs better than the signature piece. It kind of starts like one of Joni Mitchell’s more commercial efforts, and then it picks up and those horns come in, sounding like they’ve just arrived from a George Harrison session, and that acoustic rhythm guitar still holds it all together. It has insane tempo shifts for a four-minute pop song.)

Instead of taking the compliment, McLean disagreed, yet another bump in what was probably the most contentious interview I’ve conducted. “I never liked the recording,” he groused. (I normally avoid ascribing emotions to statements. But this was as grouse-like as I’ve ever heard anyone.)“We never got it. The horns are way too loud.”

I wanted to say, “Of course they are! That’s part of the charm of the whole thing.” But I held my tongue. I wasn’t able to hold it any longer when he started lecturing me about how proud he was to have held on to his publishing, and the show he was coming to Decatur to perform was not one he HAD TO do. He was doing it because he wanted, because he’d been so smart with his money.

He’d said the same thing a few years earlier when he played Decatur Celebration. He pointed at a 4-year-old perched on her father’s shoulders during his performance. “That’s my retirement account,” he said. “Keep bringing me those kids who will love my stuff.” Between that and his putdowns of the then-popular grunge scene, he came off as Grandpa Grumpy who was disgusted at how the world was changing for the worst. He even threw in a reference criticizing New Wave music, which was about 20 years past its prime by then.

After one more point (none of which, by the way, would have fit in my story in any fashion) about his business acumen, I said, “Don, you know it occurs to me that if you were as concerned about your art as your money, we might be talking now instead about your new album and you playing a bigger venue.” I expected him to curse and hang up, but instead he said, “I think you’re just naïve,” I said, “I think you’re doing yourself a disservice as an artist,” and that launched a five-minute heated discussion.

I thought he was a weasel then and think he’s a weasel now. But I give him credit for talking it through. Just like I give myself credit for having the stones to make the observation to him.

But to have McLean tell me he didn’t like my favorite work was a little heartbreaking. Kind of like Shawn Mullins in his own way disowning The Thorns.

So I looked over the birthday list, and was surprised to see Shawn Mullins listed. Sometimes, those listed have parenthetical information for further explanation of how we might know them.
In paretheses for Mullins was “The Thorns.” Two years out of his 25-year career, two years of which he seems not particularly fond.

“The Thorns” sits at No. 182 on The Big List.

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