Shawn Mullins, perhaps best known for his 1998 Top Ten hit "Lullaby," has released his first solo album in six years, 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor, an acoustic/rock hybrid named for the New Orleans studio it was recorded in last April. The Pickin' Parlor, a converted 100-year-old shotgun house owned by producer and Mullins pal Mike West, was located a block from the city's Industrial Canal and would be ruined by Hurricane Katrina four months after Mullins' recording sessions.
"The 9th Ward is known as such a tough neighborhood," Mullins says of the area that spawned Fats Domino, "But what I learned is that there was this really amazing community where people of all shades were getting along. You heard an occasional gunshot in the distance -- but nothing around where we were. There was nothing but families and kids running around alongside the levees." A powerful cover of "House of the Rising Sun" closes out 9th Ward, serving as a moving tribute to the Crescent City.
In addition to laying down the album's acoustic parts in New Orleans, Mullins recorded in Nashville and his hometown of Atlanta, with guests ranging from Nickel Creek's Chris Thile, guitarist Peter Stroud (Sheryl Crow, Don Henley) and bassist David Labruyere (John Mayer). "This record has been a communal effort," says Mullins.
The effort is his first album in six years, having put his solo career on hold after the 2000 release of Beneath the Velvet Sun. In 2001, Mullins formed the Thorns, a one-off side project with fellow singer-songwriters Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. The Thorns spent the next three years touring, releasing their self titled debut in 2003. Soon thereafter, armed with a handful of new numbers, Mullins felt ready to turn back to writing on his own. Of his process, the singer says, "I'm just trying to write good songs and communicate them to people."
The resulting album features mellow acoustic numbers -- like "Blue As You," "Kelly's Song" and "Solitaire" -- intertwined between big-band pop songs. The bigger tunes include "Beautiful Wreck," built around a Thorns lyric, and the Johnny Cash-inspired murder-mystery ballad "Cold Black Heart."
"Those themes, where someone gets killed, thrown in jail or is running for their life -- I never had done it before. Most my songs are love songs," admits Mullins, who in addition to Cash lists Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor and Neil Young as major influences. "I'll always be rooted in acoustic music because that what's moves me."
Among the mellowest tracks is "Talkin' Goin' to Alaska Blues," an acoustic number he wrote en route to a gig in Anchorage. "I did a show at Chilkoot Charlie's, and it was really laidback when I played," says Mullins. "Then I went back the next night, and people were fighting every five minutes."