First Flush Festival

w/ Shawn Mullins, Alternate Routes, Jay Clifford, Sons of Bill

Sat. May 16

10 a.m.-5 p.m.

$15, $10/advance

Charleston Tea Plantation

6617 Maybank Hwy., Wadmalaw Island

(843) 559-0383

“When I was just starting out, I wasn’t really sure what I was writing about,” says Atlanta-based singer/songwriter Shawn Mullins. “You get better at it … hopefully [laughs]. There’s an occasional Bob Dylan that happens once in a millennium who can just write unbelievable songs at age 21 … but it doesn’t happen a whole lot. Every artist just has to live life, experience it, and watch other people’s lives, too. So, much of it is just in observing.”

Mullins is the headlining act at this Saturday’s third annual First Flush Festival at the Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island. Billed as a “celebration of the commencement of the 2009 harvest” and the signature product American Classic Tea, the all-day event is presented by the plantation and rock station the Bridge at 105.5. Activities include tours of the 120-acre plantation, games for children, plenty of free iced tea, dance troupes, and comedy.

Live music on the main concert stage features sets from Mullins, alternative pop-rock quartet Alternate Routes (from Bridgeport, Conn.), local singer/guitarist Jay Clifford (formerly of Jump), and Virginia-based Americana band Sons of Bill.

“Our station found the perfect fit in Shawn Mullins as the headlining act for this year’s event,” says Bridge at 105.5 Operations Manager Mike Allen. “In addition, we searched long and hard to find the right supporting acts to play against the scenic backdrop of the Charleston Tea Plantation at this unique festival.”

Mullins has visited Charleston many times for shows at clubs and festivals, but he’s never ventured west of town toward the woodsy scenery of Wadmalaw.

“The tea plantation on Wadmalaw sounds like a great place to check out,” he says, speaking from his Atlanta home. “That kind of thing always interests me. Even though [my family and I] are a couple generations out from being farmers by trade, we kind of grew up just going to the country and growing gardens and stuff. We even tried to build our own log cabins when we were growing up. I look forward to it. Some of the songs I sing are geared toward this kind of thing.”

Mullins has ambled quite a long way since finishing an eight-year stint in the U.S. Army and completing his first self-titled collection of acoustic songs on his own label in 1989. In the early 1990s, he pursued music full-time, and eventually hooked up with the Columbia label and carefully broke out of the regional scene onto the national stage.

His 1998 album Soul Core scored big on alternative rock radio with the singles “Lullaby” and “Shimmer” (an international hit from the Songs from Dawson’s Creek soundtrack). This success paved the way for an anthology of his early work in 1999’s The First Ten Years.

In 2000, Mullins released Beneath the Velvet Sun, which featured backing vocals by Shawn Colvin on “Somethin’ to Believe In,” and Shelby Lynne on “I Know.” The first single, “Everywhere I Go,” enjoyed ample airplay across the U.S. The Essential Shawn Mullins collection came out in 2003, followed by 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor in 2006.

These days, undistracted by his flash of success and fame in the late ’90s, he still sings about life experiences, heartache, and relationships with his recognizable low-timbre croak and soulful falsetto. He’s more concerned with honing his craft as a songwriter than scoring another Top 40 hit. He recently released two albums on the Vanguard label — a thematic studio album titled Honeydew and a live collection titled Live at the Variety Playhouse which documented a gig in Atlanta.

Mullins’ family roots run deep in the northwest region of the Peach State. His grandparents were based in Adairsville — a small textile town near that carpet industry of Dalton. He currently resides with his family on a wide, wooded lot just east of downtown Atlanta. The rural and city settings of Georgia color much of Mullins’ music.

“My grandmother left Adairsville when she was about 16,” he says. “Her family had been sharecroppers, and they moved down to the Cabbagetown neighborhood to work in a mill. She died recently, but we had talked a lot about her early years. It was really cool … and unbelievable, the kind of work people did at a young age back then. That got me thinkin’ about where I live, which is in Inman Park on the other side of the railroad tracks from Cabbagetown. I started looking into the history of Cabbagetown, and really studying it, and it eventually became a song on Honeydew.”

Mullins spent much of the last year collaborating with professional songwriters in Nashville. He approached it as a serious project in which he could explore his own song ideas, bouncing ideas around the room with like-minded writers, and polish his songwriting and arranging skills.

“I noticed with the very best guys up there who co-write like this don’t necessarily work from a formula,” says Mullins. “And there’s not just one formula; there’s a bunch of them. But if it’s gonna be a sad song, a lot of times, they’re gonna try to put a little hope at the end. And that’s not a bad thing. Like with any kind of literature, somehow, in the pit of your stomach you feel a little hope for the characters.”

Honeydew is a well-polished effort, dense with stories of life experiences, with a lot of grit and soul. As a singer-songwriter from the South, Mullins’ richly scenic storyteller approach is consistent across the 12-song collection.

“I’ve learned that after having a hit or two, and a couple of albums that at least have kept me on the map to some degree, I’ve kinda learned that I now do have a sound [laughs]. I think, for the first 10 years of doing it, I was trying to figure out what that was. I learned that I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

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