In a completely unscientific survey I conducted, I found that for some reason people remember this guy's name and his one-hit, "Lullaby" (they usually follow this with a long yawn). This is a bit unusual as most one-hit wonder artists are faceless, unmemorable folks and sometimes they're even confused with other artists (see the Tom Cochrane entry). And even though Shawn Mullins looks pretty much like any hippie in a Phish t-shirt working at the seafood counter at your local grocery co-op, he gets remembered. Was his song, "Lullaby" that great? Was it that memorable? Or was it just that a lot of people impulse-bought this guy's album and still remember wishing they'd spent that $12.99 on a case of Schaefer Light?
Mullins was your average, run-of-the-mill songwriter. Well, we'll say slightly above average. He's better than a lot of the dudes you'll see at coffee shop open mike. His songs are enjoyable, and a bit more memorable than this kind of thing usually is. It's nothing that wasn't covered at some point in the '70s--that's not necessarily a bad thing, and one can't be too pissed off when a legitimate songwriter comes out of nowhere to find a place on the Top 40. Mullins was clearly indebted to the likes of James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson, even including a cover of Kristofferson's classic "Sunday Morning Coming Down" on one of his albums.
Mullins' first release was a cassette he self-issued in 1989, when he was in the US Army Airborne Infantry Division. In 1991, after having reached the rank of 1st lieutenant, Mullins left the military to pursue music on a full-time basis. Having spent three years searching for a record deal without any luck, he established his own label which released the albums Better Days and Big Blue Sky in 1992 and 1994, respectively. He returned in 1996 with Eggshells, the album which secured him a deal with Columbia Records.
Released in 1998, Soul's Core was layered with a contemporary, trendy (some might say over) production that belied the rootsy, throwback qualities of his work. The album hit #54, and went platinum buoyed by the monster hit that "Lullaby" became.
"Lullaby" is a typical Mullins track, telling the story of a girl who has become depressed about her existence, wishing for a life away from her movie-star filled Hollywood upbringing and harsh LA nights. The narrator--whose concern seems more paternal than romantic--wishes to save her, singing to her "everything's gonna be alright." (A quick aside: as a native Nashvillian, I wish to respond to Mr. Mullins' assumption contained in the song that Nashvillians don't have tans--Kenny Chesney is living proof that this statement is false. Please don't take this to mean that Nashvillians are also bald, short and of ambiguous sexuality.)
The song was unusual in that the verses weren't sung as much as they were spoken. While many hit songs have included spoken sections, few have included this much "talk-singing" (as a friend of mine calls it) outside of maybe Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (incidentally Reed's one mainstream hit). Mullins voice is soothing enough to pull-it-off, sounding like a guy at a bar telling you a story after he's six drinks and a couple of joints into a night of excess. It's also nearly six-minutes, breaking the cardinal rule that a hit song has to be under four minutes. As alluded to earlier, the production is a bit over-the-top...the acoustic guitar base is layered with a hip-hop-style beat, brightly rambling pianos, rock drums and by-the-numbers guitar solos.
Like the biggest and best one-hit wonders (e.g. "Walking in Memphis"), "Lullaby" transcended charts and genres, becoming a crossover hit: peaking at on the #9 Modern Rock Tracks, #7 on the Hot 100, #1 on the Adult Top 40 and #1 on Top 40. It didn't hurt that the song had a video starring Girl of the Hour (and what a short hour it was), late-'90s hottie Dominique Swain.
The follow up single, "Shimmer," was a big-budget remake of a song that had been included on Eggshells. The production is similar, the guitar riff and drum beat are similar, the song structure is similar, the story is similar...Jesus, it's practically the same damn song.
That's not to say it's bad, in fact, it might be better than "Lullaby," but the radio-ready, kitchen sink production makes the two songs almost indistinguishable. It's even a minute and a half shorter than the hit single. All of this could lead one to the conclusion that it was engineered in a lab to be the perfect follow up to "Lullaby," even getting a boost by appearing on Dawson's Creek (desperately trying not to make any Katie Holmes references.) Except it peaked at #27 on the Top 40 chart--not a bad showing for a second single, but not enough to keep the public interested for the long-term either. So why didn't it hit bigger? My theory is that people were simply sick of "Lullaby." If the charts don't prove it to you, then ask anyone who was around in '98 and '99--that song was ubiquitous. And "Shimmer," regardless of quality, is really just more of the same. Add to that, anyone who still liked "Lullaby" could just listen to "Lullaby." And after that, people probably thought "Lullaby" and "Lullaby Pt. II, III & IV" were all Mullins was capable was. Take note, budding musical artists, this is an easy way to become a one-hit wonder.
So what ever happened to Shawn Mullins? Soul's Core paved the way for a compilation of his earlier work, The First Ten Years, and in 2000 he released his follow-up, Beneath the Velvet Sun, which failed to have the impact of his major label debut. He's still around, actually. He might even be playing a club at a town near you.
In 2002, Mullins joined power-popper Matthew Sweet and roots-rocker Pete Droge to create the self-described "supergroup," The Thorns--sort of like Crosby, Stills & Nash if those guys had all been one-hit wonders. While the album was a sweet throwback to '70s soft-rock, and included a nice cover of The Jayhawks' "Blue," it too was brought down by the slick production courtesy of Mr. Slick Production himself, the always generic Brendan O'Brien (Train, Incubus, Papa Roach).
After being dropped by Columbia following Velvet Sun's relative failure, Mullins kept on trucking, moving onto Vanguard Records where he released 2006's tribute to pre-Katrina New Orleans, 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor and 2008's tribute to his home state of Georgia, honeydew. While reviews have been favorable, suggesting Mullins has gotten better with age, sales have not come close to what they were a decade ago.
Having spent ten years without any success before "Lullaby," I have no doubt Mullins is fine with being back to playing smaller venues and releasing albums independently. It's hard to be snarky when someone shows a true passion and dedication to their craft. I may not love the guy's music, but I respect the hell out of him. Sony/Columbia Records must have some respect for the man too; in 2003 they included him as part of their "Essential" series, putting him in the company of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen (cept, you know, not as good).
Wait a tick, look at that picture. I take it back, Sony didn't respect the guy at all to include such a douchey picture of him for the cover art. Seriously, he just went from looking like the hippie guy weighing tilapia for me at the co-op to looking like the date-rapist guy asking me for coke at the sketchy house party thrown by friend I don't know that well--soul patch and all. Granted, the picture was probably taken at the turn of the century when that look was cool. Oh wait, that look was never cool. Way to break the douche-o-meter, Shawn. And just when I was starting to like you too. Nice glasses though.
Download: Shawn Mullins - Lullaby
Download: Shawn Mullins - Shimmer
Buy Shawn's records at Amazon