This year for Father's Day I Love KC Music's Kimmy is doing a fathers in music mini series. This is part one of the Father's Day interviews.
Melinda and her father. Photo Courtesy of Melinda.
Kimmy: Hi. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Please introduce yourself.
Melinda: Hi, I'm Melinda Mullins, the daughter of Grammy-nominated songwriter and elementary school janitor, Johnny Mullins. I was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, and Dad was born in Layton Hollow in Barry County, Missouri, but lived most of his life in Springfield until his passing in 2009.
Kimmy: If you could only use five words to describe your dad what would they be?
Melinda: Five words? That's hard, but just brainstorming, here ya go: Rooted. Humble. Funny. Brillant. Simple.
Kimmy: Tell me a little about your dad’s music career.
Melinda: Dad left his rural home in Southwest Missouri and moved to Springfield in the early 1950's, right at the time when The Ozark Jubilee was starting to grab hold of the nation by being the first nationally broadcast television show filmed live from The Jubilee Theatre in downtown Springfield. That's where Dad met Porter Wagoner who had just moved from West Plains and didn't have any hit songs yet. Porter recorded the Johnny Mullins song "Company's Comin," and that song took off! it was also recorded or performed by Red Foley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Norma Jean, Faron Young, Jack Benny, and many more. That song got Dad's foot in the door, and by the time The Ozark Jubilee broadcast was ended in the early 1960's and there was a mass exodus of singers and performers to Nashville, Dad was able to pitch his songs either personally on bus trips to the Music City or through producer Si Simon.
It was through the connection of being friends with The Wilburn Brothers that Dad got his song "Success" to Loretta Lynn in 1962. She was a new artist on Decca Records and her own amazing writing career hadn't yet begun at that point, so she recorded Dad's song and it was her first top 10 charted hit. She asked him to write her another song, and he specifically wrote "Blue Kentucky Girl" for Loretta since she's from Kentucky and has beautiful blue eyes. That song was another big hit in 1965 and continues to be popular 53 years later. "Success" went on to be recorded by Sinead O'Connor and Elvis Costello, and in 1979 Emmylou Harris did a cover of "Blue Kentucky Girl" and that rendition sent Dad to Hollywood for the Grammy's. He didn't win his songwriting Grammy, but Emmylou won for Album of the Year and that album was called "Blue Kentucky Girl," so it still felt like winning. Plus Dad won the BIGGEST assembly ever held at Wilder Elementary School celebrating his accomplishment, complete with pompoms, squealing children, and confetti (which Dad had to clean up after the party).
Those first three hit songs were followed up by several others by numerous artists, and Dad kept writing songs and poems and stories and even a few novels up until 1997 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimers. His music and writings were what kept us connected during those dark years. The last five years of his life were spent in a nursing home, and every single time I would visit, which was often, he may not know my name, but he knew his music, and when I'd start singing and telling stories he would perk up. On a good day he would even sing along!
Kimmy: Your dad started writing music at the age of 8. Did you grow up talking about the music? What was the music environment at home like growing up?
Melinda: Dad was always eager to share songs that he had written, and I felt like a very lucky girl growing up with music in our home basically all the time. He had a tiny bedroom turned into a study/office and he had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a cassette recorder in there. He recorded his demos in there, but would also spend time singing and making up songs for me and Mom, my sister and visiting friends. He would come up with a fun little ditty about washing dishes or scratching bunny tummies. He was also always writing down ideas for songs, so no matter where you were, if something hit him, everything would stop while he wrote it down on whatever was available... a gum wrapper, a napkin, or a brown paper towel from his janitor's closet at the school.
I would sing with Dad, but never took up the guitar. That changed a few years after his Alzheimers diagnosis when he realized he just couldn't do it any more and he gave me one of his guitars. That guitar sat around for several years, and then I realized that Dad's songs are basically simple to play so I started learning a few chords so I could sing a few of them around campfires or on the front porch. During the five years Dad was in the nursing home, I basically stopped learning to play because I was too busy loving up on him and the guitar got in the way.
Kimmy: After your dad passed away you discovered boxes of cassette tapes with his songs on it. What was that like?
Melinda: After Dad was gone, I started looking through a bunch of shoeboxes he had given me over the years with cassette tapes in them. It struck me like lightning that I was now responsible for not only preserving his music, but sharing it and bringing the songs of Johnny Mullins back to life. There were songs in those boxes that I was familiar with, but I was stunned at how many cassettes there were that had songs that I had no idea existed, many being transferred by him playing his reel-to-reel and hitting "record" on an old Sony cassette recorder. Dad's writing career spanned over 60 years, and up until 2013 when I started this mission, I had only heard either the hits recorded before I was born, or the songs I knew from growing up. There is so much more! He wrote all types of songs: country, bluegrass, gospel, recitations, honky-tonk, kid songs, ballads... it is quite a treasure to uncover.
I decided to start performing The Johnny Mullins Collection at this point in my life so I could give his body of work the exposure it deserves, plus it's really fun. The feedback and attention is gratifying. I know Dad's songs are good, but to have that confirmed by non-biased listeners and artists fills me with joy and keeps me on this path. I still have many more songs to uncover, but at this point I have enough original Johnny Mullins material to play a 3-hour gig without any repeats!!
Kimmy: Your mission is to share his music with the world by both playing his music and inviting others to play. How has it impacted your connection to your father? What kind of feedback have you heard from people who played his songs as you've taken on this mission?
Melinda: As much as I enjoy performing Dad's music in all its configurations (solo, duo, trio and full band), the thing that thrills me the most is to have other artists sing and record his songs. That's what is going to keep his music current and flowing. The list of those musicians is growing pretty long and I don't want to leave anyone out, so I'll not try to name everyone, but I do want to thank Kansas City's own Kasey Dawn Rausch for her support and excitement over my legacy mission. She performs several "Johnny-songs" in different configurations, including "It's Been A Good Day" on her Live How You Love album, and "I'm Just An Old Man" on the Guitar In Hand recording. She also throws Dad's songs into her projects with The Country Duo and The Naughty Pines. Add that to her ability to share Dad's music and legacy as co-host of KKFI's River Trade Radio, and I consider myself very lucky to have strong Kansas City representation and I LOVE doing shows and house concerts in Kansas City. What a fine musical community you have here!
I've had people ask me if it's hard to do what I do... does it make me miss him? I will always miss him, and there are so many times I want to ask him a question about something I've discovered, but the bottom line is that being so involved in this project, and working so hard and spending so much time on it keeps me connected to my father. I feel like he is still with me. I've had some pretty supernatural things happen that I don't take for granted, and take those as his approval. There is so much more to do, and I would absolutely love to be able to devote full time to discovery, preservation, archiving, research, sharing, etc., but even if that is never financially viable, I'm going to continue doing what I can, while I can, and embrace this legacy.
I went into the studio in 2017 and released a recording entitled "Melinda Mullins Presents The Johnny Mullins Collection, Volume One." I had to call it Vol. One, because there is way too much music to have to decide what to put on just one album. I would have lost my mind choosing! I'm proud of that project and was blessed to have some very talented area musicians join me in giving each song its own personality. When that CD was released, I also started a website, johnnymullinscollection . com, and there's a link to upcoming shows there, in addition to a few articles and videos and such stuff. I also have a Johnny Mullins Collection Facebook page and am working on getting more performances up on youtube.
The Layton Hollow Gals sing Blue Kentucky Girl
The Layton Hollow Gals singing Lunch Bucket Cowboy
The Matchsellers and The Breakfast Sides playing a Johnny Mullins song