BLUFF PARK, ALA. — Ross Newell steps up to a modest stage, about to serenade some 80 Bluff Park locals at Moonlight on the Mountain—an intimate BYOB listening room in the heart of the community on Shades Crest Road. Judging by the smile on Newell's bearded face, you would never guess his touring van—fondly named Roseanne—broke down just a few hours before.
Lead singer and songwriter for The Mulligan Brothers, Newell says unforeseen hiccups—like the van breaking down—are just part of the whole musician gig. "We're just incredibly grateful that we've gotten a lot of the opportunities that we've had," the Mobile-native says.
The Mulligan Brothers—who are, in fact, not brothers at all—include Newell, Gram Rea, Ben Leininger, and Greg DeLuca. They found each other, and decided to form a band, by happenstance about four years ago. Everyone's paths crossed at just the right time, Newell says.
"Gram and I met through a mutual friend, and were doing some duos in and around Mobile and Mississippi," Newell says. "Around the same time, these guys [Leininger and DeLuca] had recently gotten out of a band and were doing this really cool thing. They were calling themselves 'The Free Agents,' and were basically a rhythm section, a bass player, and a drummer out booking gigs."
After Newell and Rea played a few shows with Leininger and DeLuca, Newell says something clicked. Each musician had a longing to produce music seriously—and they wanted to do it with each other.
"We had tried out bands and made typical band mistakes," Newell admits. "We kind of felt like we all now knew something that we didn't know back then, and very much so wanted to try again and make this creative force."
The four musicians decided to give themselves a "do-over"—or, in golfer terms, a mulligan. Hence the name, which Newell frequently explains during shows, especially since, "none of us are golfers, none of us are brothers, and none of us have the last name Mulligan," he says with a laugh.
Despite their somewhat disjointed origin, The Mulligan Brothers deliver a cohesive sound seasoned with smooth stringed instruments and the occasional piano riff. Their songs draw inspiration from their Southern roots (Newell and Rea hail from Mobile; Leininger and DeLuca claim Baton Rouge as home).
In between sets, Newell charms crowds with stories of the band's travels, and enlightens listeners on how he gained inspiration for certain songs.
"There's a lot of real life stuff in those songs," Newell says. "I like to try to put as much honesty in there as possible."
The band opens their performance at Moonlight on the Mountain with, "Oh Susanna," an upbeat song that paints imagery of traveling to New York City and driving through Tennessee to perform—but coming home to Alabama "because I've got no place else to be."
After playing sold-out shows in Europe, Newell says it's often a humbling experience to return to Alabama and play for the "hometown."
"You'll play this European tour where every show is sold out and it's a wonderful thing. Then you'll come home to that Thursday night gig, and there's a fight in front of you and no one's listening," he says with a laugh. "The hometown does a good job of keeping you humbled."
The band is still relatively new on the music scene. "We're learning stuff every day, and we're learning about this job and what it means to be on the road," Newell says. They are currently working on their third album.
Their optimistic outlook shines in both their lyrics and the way they interact with audiences. After concluding their final set for an attentive Bluff Park crowd, swooned by the band's smooth sound, Newell takes a moment to thank everyone who came out on a Friday night to hear them. "We couldn't imagine doing anything but this," he says. "This is what it's all about."