Image: Hugh Mitchell

Birmingham native Hugh Mitchell has a history with Jackson. “A weird and unexpected history,” he says.

The Florida-based singer/songwriter “met” the Magnolia State capital by way of The Subway Lounge, a “juke joint” on the outskirts of downtown.

“It all started with my friend who went to Millsaps [College] who took me to the Subway,” Mitchell recalls. “I came, maybe 15 years ago, and it was one of first times I saw music like that. It was such a wonderful place, all the ghosts in the room with you. It was a shiny beacon of what music came from.” (His song, “Two Lane Highway,” talks about the experience).

Jackson was also the spot from where he ditched a Nashville job. [I was working in a pizza place], one of those ‘awful and great’ things that really makes you want to become special at something else,” he laughs. “I had gotten in a band with another pizza chef and we were on the road. I called in from Jackson [to work] and said, ‘I’m not going to be in. I’m in Jackson; I’m sorry.’”

Mitchell opens for Michael McDermott this week at Duling Hall. As a solo artist, he’s played Jackson three times before — kicking off the Candlebox acoustic show, a taping of MPB Amped and Wired, and as an opener for Willie Sugarcapps.

And he was just in town two weeks ago, a very low-key street performance at FFT that made an impact on him. “I played electric and sang for the first thirty minutes with people trickling in,” Mitchell tells. “Then I played acoustic and people didn’t dig it as much. I switched back to electric, and, by the time I got done, guitar enthusiasts were all around, asking me about my guitar and my pedals. No one had ever done that to me. So I finished up and called my girlfriend and said, ’I guess I’m going to play electric now.’”

You can say that he’s been surprised – pleasantly – that Jackson has become such a part of his story, a story that’s built up over the years… a story he’s still writing today.

Mitchell began playing guitar as a hired musician in Nashville, a job he had for six years. While working on his own solo project in 2010, he lived in Michael McDonald’s studio (yes, that Michael McDonald), a legend he calls a “genuine and giving” mentor.

But being the hired gun wasn’t fulfilling. So much so, Mitchell left the business to become a line cook. “I walked away from music for a year. It was a good time for me to consider my life and what music means to me.” A year and a half ago, he picked up and left Music City. Now, he’s on the road playing his own songs. He says, “You have to love what you do.”

What will we hear in this week’s performance? “I love orchestral music and so I write like that. I have an EP with Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo) that’s releasing soon. It’s very beautiful, quiet and orchestral, with strings on a couple songs. I love soundscapes – lush things. I’m having so much fun playing music right now really expressing myself for first time in a long time on stage as myself. I feel like everything is different.”

Hat tip to Chad Barber for this story suggestion. Mitchell says of Barber, “He’s worked his ass off to help get me going.  And he makes unbelievable barbecue.”