Heard all around the world, she’s still a small-town girl

Posted on 26 July 2010

PERFORMING AT RIVER TOWN DAYS in May 2010 is Leigh Mullis.

PERFORMING AT RIVER TOWN DAYS in May 2010 is Leigh Mullis.

The small town of Bainbridge, Ga., has been the home of professional athletes, influential state and federal politicians and millionaire businessmen.
It’s yet to claim a famous entertainer as its homegrown child, but there is a young lady who is trying to change that.
Leigh Mullis was born in Savannah, Ga., and was adopted by her parents, Al and Georgia Mullis. While her mom is a Bainbridge native, her dad is originally from Dodge County, a small county of about 20,000 people located about an hour’s drive southeast of Macon. The nearby town of Rhine holds an annual festival featuring bluegrass music, which she learned about from her grandfather, the late Carlton “Bud” Gause.
Her introduction to music came at the age of 5, when her grandfather gave her an acoustic guitar she still keeps as a memento. A year later, her grandfather taught her how to yodel to the classic country song “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” and Mullis became interested in performing.
She began singing at church, developing her talent and musical interests in Bainbridge, where she has lived all her life. Mullis remembers her father played a variety of music on the family’s stereo, including country/rock band The Eagles, 1990s country superstar Garth Brooks and country legend Patsy Cline.
“I used to sing in church when I was younger and started liking old country music,” Mullis recalled. “I remember watching the movie ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ when I was young and afterwards, I knew I wanted to sing and play the guitar.”
Some of Leigh’s first public performances came at the age of 6, when she sang at Attapulgus’ Dogwood Festival, Decatur County Relay for Life and Climax’ Swine Time Festival. As a young girl, Mullis also performed with Lucretia’s School of Dance.

Creative endeavor

Mullis wrote her first original song at the age of 11. It was a pop song she remembers was called “Answer these Questions.” Although the lyrics are foggy to her now, she remembers being affected by the creative experience.
“It was my first full-length song, and I remember being proud because it was so in-depth,” Mullis said. “I had discovered this outlet for expressing my feelings through writing, and I liked it.”
Mullis describes the lyrics of the songs she writes as like reading through her diary.
“Things will happen to me and inspire me. For example, I’ll be driving and see a billboard with a phrase on it that I think could be a good song lyric. I’ll keep working on it, and pretty soon I have a chorus. A song builds upon itself, inspired by life experiences.”
Mullis met Steve Hacker, her future mentor and bandmate, when she was 12 years old, after her parents bought her a new guitar for Christmas and signed her up for lessons with Hacker, who currently teaches music through his local studio.
Still just 13, Mullis joined her first band, Due South, in 2004, and began performing cover songs in concert. As Hacker recalls, Mullis’ first concert saw her singing unexpectedly for Hacker’s former band at a lakeside Fourth of July concert in Fort Gaines, Ga. Just three years later, Mullis was opening for a country superstar in front of thousands of people for a Fourth of July show in her hometown.
By the age of 14, accompanied by her parents, Mullis and her band were performing at bars and night clubs in Bainbridge and the surrounding area. Due South became a popular draw at local clubs and impressed concert-goers with her soulful voice.
After a few years, musicians had shuffled in and out of Due South and the band had evolved.
So in 2006, Mullis and Hacker started her current band, the eponymous Leigh Mullis Band. It too, has seen a couple of lineup changes but is currently a four-piece band, featuring Mullis on lead vocals, guitar, keyboard and percussion; Hacker on lead guitar, keyboard and backup vocals; Leah Elkins on bass guitar and backup vocals, and Les Lonsdale on drums and backup vocals.
With the new band, and Mullis’ quickly growing musical maturity, things really took off for her and the band. Just 16 in 2007, balancing the challenges of high school with performing on the weekends, Mullis expanded on her local fan base.
Mullis performed the national anthem at a Monster Truck rally in Tallahassee in 2007, and gigs in Tallahassee, coastal Carrabelle, Fla., Dothan, Ala., and Southwest Georgia followed.
Her music videos on YouTube, where people can view others’ videos and post their own, drew tens of thousands of viewers from around the world. Her Internet fans found her up-close, acoustic performances of contemporary country and classic rock songs fascinating, posting comments and asking for more videos. Her Internet popularity may have helped her later in 2007, when the band released its first CD, a mix of original songs and covers the band had played at its concerts.
On July 4, 2007, on a sultry South Georgia night, Mullis opened for Nashville star Jason Aldean as part of Bainbridge’s free Fourth of July celebration. Aldean at the time was just becoming a well-known national act, thanks to his hit song, “Johnny Cash.” His song was climbing the charts with hot radio airplay just as the Fourth of July concert approached. The result: an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people packed the Earle May Boat Basin to see the concert and view the fireworks.
Mullis benefited from the exposure, soon after selling its CD at other concerts and on Apple’s iTunes Web site, which now accounts for a significant portion of sales of recorded music. Featuring cover songs and a few original song by Mullis, all set to Hacker’s music, the album was recorded in Bainbridge and Nashville in mid-2007, with help from professional Nashville studio personnel.
While it is difficult to obtain hit status for a song without the promotional help of a major music label, Leigh’s original songs, like “City Limit Sign,” a song about small-town romance, were played on independent radio stations around the world, as far away as New Zealand, Japan, Canada and all over Europe, as well as Internet radio stations, according to Hacker.

All in the family

In 2008, Mullis’ star continued to be white-hot, with support from her family. Her aunt, Beth Gause Hollis, coordinates public relations and booking and assists with merchandise. Mom Georgia sells CDs and merchandise at the band’s concert and Dad Al oversees the band’s electrical and lighting setups. Mullis’ boyfriend, naturally a big fan, is currently overseeing the band’s sound setup. Together with Hacker, who enthusiastically praises Mullis and her fellow bandmates to anyone who inquires, Mullis’ family and friends keep the busy schedule of travel, performing and building for the future at a manageable pace.
Along with keeping up her regular appearances at regional clubs in 2008, Mullis traveled to Savannah, Ga., to perform at the city’s enormously popular St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
In April, she opened for Nashville artist Daryle Singletary, a Southwest Georgia man who had a string of country radio hits in the 1990s, for a benefit show in Bainbridge. The same month, she opened for a bonafide 1990s country star, Aaron Tippin, at the Vidalia Onion Festival in Southeast Georgia.
Mullis took two trips to Nashville in 2008, meeting with music industry representatives while also taking the time to perform at the city’s legendary honky-tonks, including the Cadillac Ranch and Tootsie’s.
In 2009, Mullis continued to tour and was again invited to open Bainbridge’s Fourth of July concert. Showing off an increasingly polished, professional sound, she and her band played an hour-long concert before up-and-coming Nashville artist Danielle Peck took the stage.
Even though she began attending Florida State University on a full music scholarship in the fall 2009, Mullis’ career shows no sign of slowing down. In May 2010, her band opened up the River Town Days concert for the popular Georgia-based country rock band, Kinchafoonee Cowboys.
See and hear Mullis and her bandmates in concert, and you can understand why she has drawn comparisons to Taylor Swift, who won numerous awards, including a Grammy for Album of the Year, for her 2008 album “Fearless.”
Just a year and a half older than Mullis, who was born in 1991, Swift took a long-gestating ride to the top of the music industry. She was signed to a Nashville songwriting contract at the age of 14 but it took two more years of hard work before her first album was released in 2006.
Although she’s already had a good measure of success, Mullis’ friends and family hope her really big break, like Swift’s, will come at just the right time.
Mullis’ rich Southern accent gives flavor to her songs but it’s her musicianship that sets her in a class of her own, according to Hacker. Her pretty face and dark hair would also seem to lend themselves to helping Mullis reach broader commercial success.
But for now, Mullis is staying grounded, hopeful for her future, musically and otherwise, but conscious of the fact that she may never get a big break like Swift’s.
“My first goal is to get done with school, but I’m prepared to follow the musical road wherever it takes me,” Mullis said.
Like any talented young performer, Mullis has had a taste of the big time and dreams of performing to ever-larger audiences like Swift or one of her other favorite performers, Kenny Chesney. Onstage, she’s at-ease, rocking out to songs like the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen to the Music,” swaying back in forth in her blue jeans as she sings and plays her guitar.
But if she can’t reach the stardom she strives for, it’s cool—she has a backup plan.
She’s majoring in choral music education at Florida State, which makes sense when you consider that she was formerly part of an award-winning trio of female singers in high school literary competitions, was a student conductor in her high school’s choral program and was a drum major in the Bainbridge High School marching band.
One of her future goals is to give young students the same opportunity to be exposed to a variety of quality music, just as she was growing up.
“I think it’s important for kids to get involved with music. Music education has become looked down upon in schools but I feel like, the more you know about music and art, the more well-rounded of a person you will be.”
It’s that kind of positive outlook and willingness to help other young people that makes it easy for Mullis’ friends and family to support her and recommend her to people who are finding out about her music for the first time.
Her maternal grandfather, Bud Gause, who passed in 2003, and her maternal grandmother, Anne Gause, who passed in 2009, were the people whom Mullis called her biggest fans and among her best personal influences.
“I’ve still got that first guitar my granddaddy gave me. It helps me realize how much love and support I have, it’s what keeps me going.”

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