From Troy to Europe: Early James’s unbelievable journey
Published 4:43 pm Wednesday, May 31, 2023
As a 16-year-old growing up in Troy, Fredrick James Mullis Jr. dreamed of just being able to pay his bills and play music, but in May, Mullis – known professionally as Early James – completed the second European tour of his career.
James, who attended Charles Henderson High School before moving to Luverne, grew up listening to an eclectic blend of music in his hometown.
“I was listening to a lot of different stuff,” he said. “ Wilma, my grandmother, listened to a lot of B.B. King and my dad listened to a lot of Outlaw Country and a lot of stuff like the Doobie Brothers and 70s stuff. My mom listened to The Eagles, James Taylor and some more modern music. My sister listened to John Mayer, so I was listening to a little bit of everything.”
Then, YouTube led him to Hank Williams Sr. and his love for music was solidified. A gift also guided his future path.
“Right when YouTube came out, I heard Hank Williams Sr. for the first time and I was listening to it on repeat when I was like 12-13 years old,” James recalled. “Then, right about 15 (years old), I got a guitar (as a gift) and never really put it down. I was pretty sold as soon as I started playing.”
James worked at Super Foods in Luverne following graduation and found it hard to find places to play the music he loved at home.
“I was working at Super Foods and had maybe one gig a month at Sips on the Square in Troy,” he recalled. “That was the only gig I could really get. Nothing against Troy but there’s really only like three places to play and they’re booked up by people that have been playing there for years.”
Then, James’ sister – Whitlee Mullis who previously worked with The Messenger – made a suggestion.
“My sister had moved to Birmingham and started her own business and that was kind of unheard of in my family,” James continued. “She just told me that you can go anywhere in town and at just about any bar there is someone playing. There were so many places in Birmingham that I just started getting gigs to the point where I could quit my job after about a year and I haven’t looked back since.”
James’ roommate in Birmingham, Ryan Sobb, made a decision to move to Nashville, Tenn., which ended up changing James’ career.
“I always kind of joke around that he moved to Nashville for me,” James said with a laugh. “I never had to move up there and most people move up there and spend 10 years or more trying to be heard.”
James said that Sobb met the manager of a mutual friend after first moving to Nashville. That manager was Clay Bradley, the Vice-President of Creative for BMI Nashville and the grandson of legendary music producer Owen Bradley.
Sobb played some of James’ music for Bradley and Bradley, in turn, played James’ music for Dan Auerbach, who is a famous producer in Nashville and member of The Black Keys.
“Clay wasn’t even my manager at the time, so it was kind of weird to have a stranger tell you that they got you a meeting with Dan Auerbach and to meet them in Nashville,” James recalled. “I thought they were going to harvest my organs or something and I’d wake up in an ice bath the next morning, but sure enough it was the real deal and I think it’s worked out for me so far.”
Auerbach went on to sign James to his label Easy Eye Sound and produced his debut album “Singing for My Supper.” James went on to release a second album on Easy Eye Sound, “Strange Time To Be Alive,” and has gone on tour domestically and internationally. When asked if he ever imagined he would be touring overseas or working with acts like The Black Keyes, James’ answer was simple.
“No, not at all,” he emphasized. “I think that’s the weird thing for me, most people want to do that and dream really, really big, but I was so in love with it that I would tell people, since I grew up poor, I know that I could get a normal job and just play gigs on the weekend.
“That’s not something big but I’m still getting to do what I love to do. I probably sounded insane but at least a little grounded at the same time. My mom and grandmother were like, ‘He must really love it because he’s willing to work at a grocery story just so he can still play.’ I just wanted to play in some capacity, that’s all that mattered to me.”
When asked how he would classify his style of music, James pointed to the term ‘Americana’ as a good descriptor.
“I listen to a lot of different music and I try to emulate the stuff I like in some way and I think I’m always afraid that I stole something verbatim,” James said. “To the point where I will ask somebody, ‘Whose song is this?’ when I write something. I try not to listen to one thing or take from just one thing.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what (Americana) actually means when they say it anymore. It’s sort of an umbrella term that somehow millions – or hundreds of thousands – of fans all comfortably sit under. To me, Americana is a term that means the melting pot that is American music. It’s blues, jazz, folk, country and everything in between.”
James has written a lot of songs over his career but was able to point to one that sticks out the most.
“I wouldn’t know this because I don’t have kids but I’ve heard people say it’s a lot like picking your favorite child,” James said when asked what his favorite song is. “I think it changes at times but I wrote this song on the new record, ‘If Heaven Is A Hotel,’ that was about a dark time in my life where I was considering, or thinking about, taking my own life because I was so depressed.
“It was a weird, scary song to write and I often times don’t like telling people what it’s about. On the last show of our first European tour this lady walked up to me and said, ‘I just want to thank you for playing that song. My brother took his life last month,’ and we sat there and talked for about 45 minutes about how she wished her brother had shared more and that a lot of people out there feel the way I did. In that way, I love that song because maybe that will make someone comfortable enough to tell a loved one they’re feeling like that and maybe it could save a life.”
James is known for heavy subject matter in some of his music and he said that’s what his music is all about.
“It’s the most important part of the music to me,” he said. “I’m by no means a famous artist or anything but these types of things add up to where I’ll have a song that touches someone and it makes it easier for them or helps them. That’s one of my favorite things.
“My first record had a lot of songs that deal with addiction and substance abuse and that record came out on March 13, 2020, which is when the lockdown happened. Lockdowns were not kind to people that had maybe even kicked their addictions. A lot of people fell back into that trap of drugs and, with everything going on with the pandemic and everything, it claimed a lot of lives that weren’t even COVID related. Anytime someone tells me that record helped them get through that tough two years it makes me happy.”
While James is enjoying success in the music business, and just completed his second tour of Europe, he still thinks of success in the way his 16-year-old self would.
“I don’t think I’ve moved much forward since 15 or 16 years old,” he said. “I just want to pay my bills, honestly, and I’ve been doing that. I get to travel and pay my bills and I have a lot of cool guitars.
“If you described that to 16-year-old me, I’d be like, ‘Alright, let’s do that. That sounds cool.’ Maybe a boat in the next five years, that’d be cool. That’s an easy goal I think. I’m not very hungry for money, so I just want to be happy and healthy and playing music.”
Before he gets to that boat, James is right back on the road this June but this time around he’s venturing closer to home. James’ Southeastern tour begins on June 15 in Charleston, SC, and he’s back in Alabama on June 17-18. He’ll be playing in Waverly – close to Auburn – at the Standard Deluxe Inc. at 5 p.m. on June 17 followed by a show at the Callaghan Irish Social Club in Mobile at 7 p.m. on June 18. James said he hopes to play in his hometown in the near future, as well.
“Yeah, it’s great to get to play at home,” he said. “I used to try – and still do every now and then – and jump in at Sips in Troy. I’d love to be able to come back to Troy and perform soon.”
Last week, James’ record label re-released a deluxe version of his most recent album, “Strange Time To Be Alive” with three new songs. James’ album – and more of his music and social media – can be found, at https://linktr.ee/earlyjames.