Second Chances for The Mulligan Brothers
The Mulligan Brothers self-titled debut album begins with a mournful fiddle supported by the steady undercurrent of bass and drums. As Ross Newell begins his haunting tale of forbidden plantation love, it is clear that the song will end in death and heartbreak, but well-written songs don’t need a catchy chorus or a happy ending to win over an audience or to be played over and over again.
She was born into subjection. She was born without a say.
He was her first and only revelation that she might not die that way.
I will love you all the seasons. What you want is what I’ll be.
I’ll be your rock, I’ll be your reason.
Just set me free. Oh, just set me free.
The Mulligan Brothers, from Mobile and Baton Rouge, is Newell on lead vocals and guitar, Gram Rea on fiddle, mandolin and harmonica, Greg DeLuca on drums and Ben Leininger on upright suitcase bass (all four can sing lead or harmony). They are not brothers, but the name represents a second chance for the four musicians who finally found the combination that is right for them. “A Mulligan in golf is a ‘do over’ and that is what this band is for us,” says Rea. “We wanted a chance to figure this out the right way.”
Their music crosses borders between folk rock, Americana and country, giving Newell the unhurried space to sing about escaping the miseries of life with a soul that isn’t worth much these days, a woman he loves who calls him by another man’s name, and pleading with God to bring tomorrow to wash away today.
This is the band of my dreams,” says Newell. “This is the music that I heard in my head when I wrote the songs. I have always been a fan of Americana and acoustic music but many musicians would rather be in a rock band. It is hard to find a bass player who will pick up an upright or a drummer willing to play with restraint and add just what the song needs. Part of the chemistry of a band is agreeing on the type of music you want to play.”
In an age of downloads and disposable singles, “The Mulligan Brothers” is a whole album of straightforward narratives with concise original lines and metaphors. There is no reverb, no distortion, and no clichés, just Newell’s honest, sincere voice cutting to the heart in songs that seem as much to himself as to the listener as the meaning of the chorus deepens after every verse.
“There is no better album that has been released this year, and I get albums from around the world every day,” says Tony Plosczynski, host of 92 New that introduces new music on 92 Zew in Mobile. “The Lumineers, Jake Bugg and The Mulligan Brothers are my top three albums of the year.”
The lyrics set the songs apart but it is the rhythm and string melodies that grab attention. Rea started playing the violin when he was eleven years old, was classically trained through high school, and attended college on a music scholarship. “Fiddle players are a dying breed, but I can play everything on the fiddle,” says Rea. “I have been a musician for 26 years and have played all types of music, but this past year I finally stepped into myself.”
The songs needed upright bass so Newell, who has grown up “using cool stuff to build less cool stuff,” built a bass out of old suitcases and the neck of a bass guitar and gave it to Leininger. “I am an electric bass player that played hip hop,” says Leninger. “I had never played the upright bass, but I wanted to be a part of this project. I listened to bluegrass and learned new notes. The upright has different, natural tones, but it is harder to play because the fingering is more precise and needs more hand eye coordination. Playing a bass made out of suitcases is a little more difficult, my right hand plays the stand up bass while my left hand plays electric bass, but playing any kind of music is getting away from the stresses of real life. It is a natural high for me.”
DeLuca had to prove that the band needed a drummer. “I promised I wouldn’t take over with my drums and I have kept my promise for the most part,” says DeLuca. “You don’t always have to do something great because the songs are so good on their own and they make it easy to lay back and have restraint. I like to speed up the beat and then drop off for Ross to builit back up. Playing together is like a team sport.”
On stage, they have set positions in a crescent moon formation as songs sweep out and stir the crowd to dance. Wearing a gray flatcap and black glasses, Newell stands behind his mic and guitar, anchoring the left side of the stage while Leininger and DeLuca provide the dynamics and punctuation from the back. Rea calls out the songs from the right before he drifts and sways along the edge, leaning into his fiddle or drawing cheers as plays it like an electric guitar.
“There is a synergy with The Mulligan Brothers,” says Catt Sirten who was the first to play The Mulligan Brothers on his Radio Avalon show in Mobile. “All of the musicians have played around town for years but somehow it came together for them in this band. I play them on the radio, but I also listen to them in my car. Knowing them makes you like their music even more. They are part of a unique sound that is developing in Mobile.”
The Mulligan Brothers began in 2011, as an acoustic side project with Rea, Newell, and Les Hall, who later moved to Nashville for his own music career. “We started as an acoustic band and I was comfortable with that vibe,” says Rea. “I wasn’t looking for a change, but we added Greg and Ben a year ago and it was immediately right. They make our music better.”
Before the Mulligan Brothers, Newell almost recorded some of the songs as a solo project. “Several times I had talked myself into and out of recording these songs, probably from paranoia, but this was the right time and the right way to do it,” says Newell. “Gram, Ben, Greg and I played together for the first time a year ago at my house and it was immediately right.
The songs seemed to pick themselves as the arrangements evolved and expanded from rehearsal to recording. “We had three months of preproduction and that gave us time to rehearse, play the songs live, figure out the tempo, and create the parts for fiddle, bass and drums,” says Rea. “There were parts that we played spontaneously from the heart during recording and we had to go back and learn them. ‘Lay Here’ was very different when we added drums and bass and sped it up with four on the floor tempo. There was a temptation to add more instruments during production but we wanted to reproduce the songs on stage every night. If we can’t play it live, we didn’t play it on the album, and that shaped our sound.”
“We are still creating our own sound because we don’t want to be like anyone else,” says DeLuca. “We are also learning our songwriting process and getting everyone involved. Ross wrote all of the songs on the first album and we want to take some of the writing pressure off of him for the second album. However, we are playing so much right now that there is little time to write and be creative.”
Newell knows it is time to write again. “Writing songs is one of my favorite things but I take a while to write a song,” he says. “If a line seems forced or anything but honest, then I have to scrap it. I have to live through something or feel strongly about it to add authentic details. Fortunately the songs take on a life of their own and people are willing to listen and read more into the lyrics than what was said.”
Unlike most singer songwriters, Newell does not tell the stories behind each song. He wants listeners to take their own meaning, however, some songs make a stronger connection because of the stories behind them. He wrote “Thrift Store Suitcase” about working as a union electrician at the state docks on a coal conveyor job. “It was miserable, boring work,” says Newell. “I had been romanticizing about being able to play music for a living. If I could just book a few more gigs, then I would have my ticket out of town and get away from everything familiar. One night I walked out of the coal dust area and a guy was holding a sign saying he needed a ride to the gas station. The song is his story. We walked to my truck and he said, ‘I know what you are thinking, I look like Jesus, right? I get that all of the time.’ He had a child with a woman in New Orleans and loved them, but she was from a wealthy family and they gave her an ultimatum to leave him and they would take care of the bills. He left them for the good of his family.”
The old man looks like Jesus, says I get that all the time.
If I were I’d leave the coast and throw away my cardboard sign.
Said I looked like an old friend that he’d lost somewhere down the line.
That if I were his friend and if he were The Lord he’d turn the ocean into wine.
Said I had a family down in New Orleans that just lived beyond me means thought I’d just go out and find my scene.
“Thrift Store Suitcase”
Song by song, The Mulligan Brothers are gaining fans. Lessons learned in first bands create an appreciation for this second chance and their future together. “We have learned from the mistakes we made in other bands such as overproduced albums, or arranging songs when the individual music styles don’t fit,” says Rea. “Now every show is part of building a career playing music as The Mulligan Brothers. We don’t know where this is going to lead, but we want to play together for a long time and keep making songs that people care about.”