Songwriter Johnny Mullins leaves Barry County memories

Friday, September 18, 2009
Songwriting legend Johnny Mullins in 2001.

Fond recollections of a gentle man who grew up under very humble circumstances and became widely known have been shared this week following the death of Johnny Mullins. A songwriter nominated for a Grammy Award in 1980, Mullins died on Wednesday at age 85.

A resident of Springfield since 1952, Mullins never forgot his formative years in rural Exeter. He made songs from his memories. Mullins also helped a struggling writer from Monett, Heno Head, Jr., as the subject of Head's first book.

Head, a science teacher by training, wanted to write professionally as a sideline. Today Head has around 18 books to his credit, many written for children. In the early 1980s he was trying his hand at writing magazine articles and pitched the idea of writing a feature on Mullins for "Songwriter" magazine. Mullins worked as a janitor for the Springfield schools. He was known widely, however, as the author of the song "Blue Kentucky Girl," first recorded by Loretta Lynn and nominated for a Grammy after Emmy Lou Harris recorded it.

Head made arrangements to visit Mullins, interviewed him and sold the article to "Songwriter."

"We struck up a friendship," Head said. "I went up to his home several times. He'd play a new tune he had written. Somewhere in there I came up with the idea of doing the story of his life. We tackled it as a project in the summer of 1983."

"America's Favorite Janitor: The Life Story of Country Songwriter Johnny Mullins" was ultimately published the next year by International University Press. Head said they worked with a company out of Independence. Though long out of print, the book could be found for sale this week by for $82.80.

"I wrote it chapter by chapter," Head said. "I didn't think I could write a whole book."

In the process Head became intrigued with Mullins. The first song published was "Company's Comin'," told from the viewpoint of a barefoot boy, standing on the porch of a dirt floor log cabin, seeing someone coming down the road for Sunday dinner. Mullins recalled that scene growing up in rural Exeter.

Mullins' journey into the music business had been gradual. Having left school around eighth grade, Mullins got a hand-me-down guitar about the same time and taught himself to play it. In his 20s, Mullins worked in a logging camp in Oregon.

"It was there he started writing songs to pass the time," Head said. "He'd write about the beautiful scenery and include things about growing up in the hollow outside of Exeter. He took observations of life and was able to turn them into lyrical poems."

In coming to Springfield, Mullins was in the true hotbed of country music, where the Ozark Jubilee TV show was produced. Mullins met Si Siman, Porter Wagoner's first manager, the co-producer of the Ozark Jubilee who brought Red Foley in to lead the show. Siman published "Company's Comin'" in 1954. For a time Mullins went to Nashville, then came back to Springfield, becoming a school janitor in 1957, a job he held until he retired in 1982.

"[Mullins] struck me as a paradox," Head said. "His basic nature was laid back. He was not a Type A personality. But when it came to crafting his songs, he was very precise and really intent on doing it right. He had a way of expressing his thoughts in a visual way. You could just see a song unfolding. That's quite a talent."

Head found Mullins to be good company and was impressed with the warmth he saw with Mullins and his wife, Peggy, and two daughters.

"He kind of had a soft deep voice, a good singing voice," Head said. "Despite coming up from hard times, he still had a soft spot in his heart for Barry County. He was pretty positive about things."

Sticking with Head was the memory of Mullins as a dedicated songwriter.

"That complexity, the inner drive he had to craft his product as top of the line, without that pushiness was neat to see in action. He showed you can succeed and still keep a steady pace and get along. It was a good life lesson to me. His intent of purpose was most impressive. He was going to make sure he gave it his best shot," Head added.

Mullins' music will get one more hearing at the funeral at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Greenlawn Funeral Home East in Springfield. His daughter, Melinda, said a group of family members on acoustic instruments would be singing her father's songs during the service.

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