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From Johnny to Melinda Mullins: Passing The Torch of Ozarks Music

Melinda Mullins and Bo Brown prepare for the Johnny Mullins tribute show. Photo Credit-Shane Franklin

Accomplished Ozarks’ songwriter, author, poet, and member of the American Writers Hall of Fame, Johnny Mullins, will be honored Friday in Springfield.

KSMU’s Shane Franklin recently spoke with Johnny’s daughter about the event, and has this story of passing down a rich musical tradition, and a piece of Ozark’s history, from one generation to the next.

Melinda Mullins, local musician and daughter of Johnny Mullins, spent the evening of her most recent birthday rehearsing for Friday’s show at the Library Center in Springfield, where local musicians will pay tribute to the works of her late father.  

Mullins may best be known for songs like Grammy nominated “Blue Kentucky Girl,” or “Success,” but since his death in 2009, Melinda has unearthed many unheard works.

This was one of t hem. Originally untitled, Melinda has named it “Snakebite.”

She says there are about one hundred tapes recorded by her father in his study, and include different takes and different lyrics to both famous and unknown songs.

Other tapes may only have one or two songs.

“And it’s so cool because you can hear him. He had a stool and a wooden floor in his study. He had a big reel-to-reel tape machine, and you can hear him getting up and walking across the room after he turned on the tape machine. His stool was squeaky too, and there’s that [chair squeak]. He always called it his getting hitched up to the pony sound, and he’d always knock his guitar with his arm, every time,” said Melinda.

Melinda says listening to these tapes brings her joy, and at the same time it reminds her of the great responsibility she has in keeping her father’s music alive.

“I realized that I had all of these demo cassettes that he used to make. It’s just a treasure trove of songs. He had the songs that were known. He has songs recorded by Porter Wagner, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Faron Young, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Sinead O’Connor, Elvis Costello, and the list goes on. I hope it keeps going on,” said Melinda.

She said in addition to these songs, though, it’s the numerous songs her father wrote that people still haven’t heard that really get her excited.

“I started pulling out cassettes that were blank, that had no labels on them. I would stick them in a cassette player, which I still have, and all the sudden I’d hear this song that I have never heard before and my eyes would just get so wide open and my mouth would fall open and I be like, oh my gosh, this is a good song,” said Mullins.

The initial goal of the project was to preserve and archive her father’s extensive works. For the daughter of Johnny Mullins though, it isn’t enough to just preserve his music.

She wants his work to live and to be sung and shared with musicians and music lovers alike.

Like straight out of her father’s song, “Baby Lamb,” when Johnny knew his health was fading, he passed the musical torch onto Melinda.

“Dad gave me his guitar two years after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and it was a really heartbreaking thing. I was really excited because I loved his guitar, but he said, I just don’t think I’m going to be able to use this anymore,” said Mullins.

It took Melinda a couple years before she started playing his songs in public, but once she began playing with other musicians, she found they would frequently approach her asking if they could play one of her daddy’s songs.

“Oh course,” she says. “Of course.”

That’s what Friday night is all about actually. It’s a celebration of Johnny Mullins’ music at the Library Center on South Campbell in Springfield. The show starts at 7p.m. and will feature Bo Brown, Barak Hill, Shannon Stine, and Kasey Rausch.

For KSMU News, I’m Shane Franklin.