These days, the folk rocker is flying to his shows, riding in limousines, staying in fancy hotels and ordering room service. Roadie is eating prime rib.
That type of star treatment is reserved for his current promo tour, however. In reality, Mullins and Roadie have traded in their van for a nice tour bus.
Mullins told POLLSTAR he prefers the bus to air travel. On the bus, not only can Roadie come along, but Mullins can set up house and watch movies, listen to music, exercise and write in his journal. When he flies, Roadie has to stay home in Atlanta, which is difficult for Mullins. "We've spent many, many nights in campsites, snuggled up in the van with a little Home Depot heater on. So, we're tighter than just a boy and his dog. We're like buds, you know."
Mullins always expected his grass-roots touring to kindle his career. He realized early on that the best way to develop a strong fan base is with relentless road work but he didn't know he would have a hot radio hit to add fuel to the fire he had been stoking for years.
With the help of his fiancee, Kelly Hobbs, Mullins has toured nationally since 1996, playing about 200 gigs a year. The couple formed their own record label, SMG Records, in '94. Since then, they've released three of Mullins' eight indie CDs, including his latest, Soul's Core, featuring the hit "Lullaby."
Mullins said their strategy was to play coffeehouses and clubs until the audience was big enough to play theatres. They figured if the folk-rock troubadour could get a little radio play, he could maybe end up playing theatres 10 years down the road. "There's no way that it was going to get smaller because the audiences always grew," Mullins said.
It's not that he hadn't tried to land a major label deal. After he first started recording in '92, Mullins unsuccessfully shopped two of his records. Then he saw people like Ani DiFranco becoming successful on their own and realized he didn't need the backing of a huge corporation.
All he needed was a van and his guitar since what really drove him was the "sheer joy of making music for people." He thrived on the reciprocation of energy between an audience and a performer. "That's the love," he said. "That's the drive.... So I basically 'followed my bliss,' as Joseph Campbell said, and I went out there for the next four or five years and didn't even send a CD out to a record company."
While touring and releasing independent CDs, Mullins would get about two calls a year from a regional label rep who had caught a show. Other than that, he and Hobbs were on their own, running their label and booking all of his shows.
Then one day last June, his song "Lullaby" started getting airplay on 99X in Atlanta. Mullins was told, "We think you've got a smash hit here and we're not only going to put it on our station, but we're going to call every station we know and tell them to play it, too." Soon, stations in New York and Chicago picked up the song and it spread like wildfire.
The performer's life became very different from that day forward. "Within the next eight to 10 days, I had messages from 26 record companies on my machine," he said. "People were offering money over the phone. It was wacky stuff. It's a very interesting thing because I would have never thought my career would have been radio driven."
Though he had released eight albums and toured for almost a decade, Mullins' story really epitomizes an overnight success. He went from selling 5,000 records a year independently to 40,000 a week after Columbia Records re-released Soul's Core. "In 83 days, we shipped 760,000 copies of this thing," Mullins said.
Once the pace picked up, Mullins amassed a team to help get his music out to fans. Heading up that team are his manager, Atlanta-based Russell Carter, and agent Frank Riley from Monterey Peninsula Artists.
When asked if it was hard to give up the booking reins, Mullins answered with an emphatic "No! Kelly was very ready and I was too," he said. "Kelly did a tremendous job but we didn't have the contacts that we needed. It was just sheer balls that got us where we ended up. It just wasn't anything else except for not accepting the word 'no.'... She totally is more than half of what's going on here. She deserves the gold record that I just got."
Mullins, who will be touring clubs and theatres throughout the year, was in New York City the day he was presented with that recording honor. That same day, he got a booking on the Rosie O'Donnell show and found out "Lullaby" was No. 1 at Top 40 radio. "That's way too much information for someone to take in one day, man! One of those things, for me, would have been a lifetime achievement."