Although he’s most known for, basically, a pop hit, Shawn Mullins is one of those singer/songwriters who spins old-school yarns with his words, telling tales of hard-lived lives and hard-fought battles. Some of his characters are real, some aren’t… but they are all true. And it’s that focus, that care which sets Mullins apart. His kindred musical raconteurs are guys like Kris Kristofferson and Jason Isbell — guys who tell the truth even when it hurts… especially when it hurts.
Having just wrapped a West Coast run, Mullins hits Nashville on November 18 to play a benefit show for Amplify Nashville’s Open Table program, an initiative that aims to disrupt the cycle of poverty and homelessness in Music City. For Mullins, helping out with a benefit is just another way to tell the tales of the disenfranchised that are so near and dear to his heart.
Is it weird for you that most people associate you with a song style that is, for the most part, unlike the bulk of your catalog?
Every now and again, it’ll bug me a little bit. But, for the most part, it doesn’t because the people who come to my concerts — it’s not thousands and thousands, but it’s hundreds and hundreds a night — and they tend to not be there for just that song. So, I don’t worry about what most people know, because when I think about Paula Cole, for instance — she’s really a great artist, but most people don’t know her past those two songs, right? Or Joan Osborne with “One of Us.” These are artists who obviously have a huge catalog and stuff that goes way beyond that. That’s just the way record companies operate. You’re here today and gone tomorrow. So you have to keep doing what you do.
But I think what made “Lullaby” different was that I just happened to have this weird sampling machine sitting around and a guy who knew how to operate it. I’d been listening to Ani DiFranco, those mid-90s records, and I loved what she was doing with acoustic music and hip hop, a little bit, with loops and things like that. Some of that was just what I was digging at the time, and trying to do something similar. It, obviously, didn’t sound anything like that. But the Beatles were trying to sound like Little Richard and they didn’t sound nothing like Little Richard. [Laughs]
It doesn’t bother me, really, because I’m thankful for the success of the song. It was a cool recording. I didn’t really want the rest of the record to sound just like that. I wanted it to represent, mostly, what I was doing live.
Even “Lullaby,” like all your other songs, tells a story about a character that lives a little bit outside the lines on the fringe… What is it about those people and stories that moves you to share them?
I don’t know, exactly. That is what I tend to do, though, you’re right. I’m not sure what the reason is. For some reason, I tend to be attracted to those people in life. And they’re attracted to me. So I will end up having conversations with people I don’t know and, sometimes, they don’t know who I am at all — there’s no connection with my music. But, sometimes, there is. It opens up people’s ability to talk more, which is a good thing. That’s how that song happened at Genghis (Cohen).
I guess I do do that and I’m not really sure exactly why. I guess they’re the most interesting people for me. They’re easy to write about. I can kind of get going… if I start with something about a character I find interesting, then I can build on that with stuff that I’m making up or stuff that may be true, maybe not. I’m not telling history, so much — most of the time, anyway. Although I’m really getting into that, too. I love more historical folk songs, too.
Are you always keeping an eye out for those sorts of folks or do they sometimes sneak up on you?
I wouldn’t say I’m always keeping an eye out, but, on the road, it’s easy because, when you’re traveling, you’re in a different city every day so you’re already looking and trying to figure out where you are. So, yeah, you might notice a homeless guy. Or you might notice the guy unloading the truck outside. It’s little stuff. And I think the taste of each place I’m in keeps that writing going, as well. Just the different vibes. Even on the West Coast, it’s lots of different vibes.

Part of the point of roots music is to tell the stories of people who might not otherwise have a voice. Is that a responsibility that you feel when you’re writing?
Maybe. Yeah. I don’t know that I think about it that way, but, now that you mention it, it hits home that there’s a personal responsibility. I’m not saying that everyone who does this has that. I guess it just depends on why you’re doing it. I find that, whenever I’m telling the truth — and I don’t mean literally a story about what happened and what didn’t happen — if I can get deep enough and real enough to tell the truth in a song, then I’m very happy with it. And, a lot of times, it’s our stories. A lot of times, it’s not. Telling the truth — that has a lot to do with it, I think. And whatever success I’ve had, it usually comes through that.
Sometimes I’ve co-written with people that I find I can’t really co-write with and those songs don’t ever work out — even if it’s a pretty good song — because one or both of us weren’t able to get to that place. That probably sounds dramatic, but it’s really true. The co-writing process, especially, because you don’t even know this person and you’re trying to connect. I feel like, to write something worth a damn, you really need to be able to get down to the bare minimum on all that stuff. Most people aren’t comfortable with that. And that’s what we end up with on the radio.
And that’s fine. I’m learning that it’s a niche group, the people who like what I do. That’s fine. I’m glad to have a niche. My brother is career Navy, he’s a regular American guy. I’m not putting him down, but I was playing some Joni Mitchell for him one time and he was like, “This is driving me nuts. Can you put on some Celine Dion, please? I don’t want to have to think when I’m listening to music.” Now, this is a guy who was in the Pentagon when it was hit… so I started thinking about it and it made sense to me. There’s a great deal of the population who are under a lot of stress and they don’t want to listen to some folk singer tell them what’s right and wrong. [Laughs]
So that, to me, is the truth AND it’s really funny. It lets me know where I am. That doesn’t mean you don’t keep pushing and trying to grow your thing and get more fans. But, it lets me know it’s a niche and, certainly, all Americana music with the way these records sell, for the most part, it’s a niche. And I’m proud to be a part of it.
Amplify Nashville, in their own way, are doing the same thing with telling the stories of disenfranchised people. How did you get involved with the benefit for Open Table?
I’m glad to be a part of it. I used to do a lot more benefits for the homeless. Kelly, my girlfriend at the time (later my wife), was a homeless activist so we did a lot of that stuff for a long time. I still do an occasional benefit and I still do what I can, personally. It’s a tough one. In any city, you’re dealing with developers, old abandoned buildings that could be turned into housing but no money can be made from that. So, it’s a real tough deal. I’m glad to do anything we can do to kick in a little and help.