A Christian Songwriter Who Broke the Mold
Friday October 10, 1997
Who was Rich Mullins? Most music enthusiasts who spotted his obituary three weeks ago had no idea, even though the singer-songwriter played the Rosemont Horizon in 1995 and sold albums by the hundreds of thousands.
Wire stories identified the 41-year-old Mullins, who died in a car crash near Peoria on Sept. 19, as a contemporary Christian artist. Yet that label hardly tells the whole story. In his shy humility and sharp humor, Mullins was as far from any self-righteous, Bible-thumping stereotype as a person could get.
In light of his passing, even Mullins fans and Christian music professionals might well ask the same question: Who was Rich Mullins?
Judged against the slick, cookie-cutter acts peddled by many Christian record labels, Mullins was anything but typical. Just as his songs embraced eclectic textures from strident rock to Celtic folk, Mullins' faith reflected a man unafraid to show his warts, wrestle with God and seek answers removed from any moral or political majority.
First, the music. In a career spanning seven albums in 11 years, Mullins matured from a sophomoric-but-ambitious neophyte into a master craftsman who, creatively speaking, deserves the same praise as Sting, the Chieftains and Paul Simon, artists Mullins idolized. And it all began, as Mullins liked to say, pretty much by accident.
The son of Indiana farmers and raised a Quaker, Mullins was in his late 20s and leading a cash-strapped retreat ministry in Cincinnati when his big break came. His uncle lent the ministry $1,000 to do its own album, and somehow a copy found its way to Nashville. There, "Sing Your Praise To The Lord" caught the attention of Amy Grant's management. Grant, already a Christian pop star, turned the song into a hit on her 1982 album "Age to Age"; four years later, Mullins was opening for Grant and signed a deal of his own on Reunion Records.
It wasn't a fluke. With a voice somewhere between Don Henley and Marc Cohn, Mullins was also adept at guitar and piano, and especially stunning on hammer dulcimer, an instrument he played with a weaver's grace and skill. As a songwriter, Mullins will likely be remembered for Grant's hit and for the modern-day hymn "Awesome God," but his later material boasted a lyrical strength few tunesmiths, Christian or secular, can hope to match. Whether exploring emotions or evoking cinema-sharp landscapes, Mullins made his listeners see, feel and soar.
"And once I went to Appalachia for my father he was born there/And I saw the mountains waking with the innocence of children/And my soul is still there with them wrapped in the songs they brought . . ." Those lyrics are from "Here In America," the leadoff track to 1993's sweeping "A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band," arguably Mullins' finest achievement.
As a believer, Mullins hardly fit the Christian music business mold. Unlike many hopefuls who remake themselves in Nashville's image, Mullins came to town determined to be the industry's "bad boy," as he once put it.
Though he eventually stopped rebelling -- "I became so boring trying to be bad that I gave up the pursuit," he recalled in a 1995 interview with CCM Magazine -- Mullins was never comfortable playing by the unwritten rules in "Nash-Vegas," as Christian music insiders call it. The dirty little secret of Christian music is that, like any other business, it thrives on schmoozing, deals done on the golf course and slick marketing campaigns.
So, even as his record sales were climbing, Mullins made a move some considered career suicide: He moved to Wichita, re-enrolled in college and graduated from Friends University in May 1995 with dual degrees in music and education.
Immediately afterward, he set out for the New Mexico desert to live in a trailer. He hoped to teach music to Navajo schoolchildren.
If some Christians praised him as musical missionary, Mullins dispelled any notions of sainthood with a slash of his trademark wit. "God never spoke to me and said, `Go to New Mexico,' " Rich said in a Tribune interview last year. "That's why I think it's so ridiculous when people say, `It's so noble that you're going to New Mexico.' It's no different than when someone says, `I'm going to flip burgers in Pittsburgh.' "
While preparing for his new life in the desert, Mullins continued to pursue a less conventional spiritual pathnot quite Protestant or Catholic, liberal or conservative. He embraced Brennan Manning's "The Ragamuffin Gospel," a book written, according to the original foreword, "not for the muscular Christians who have made John Wayne and not Jesus their hero . . . (but) for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags."
And he revered St. Francis of Assisi, who became something of his role model. "He had a great grasp of Christian joy," Mullins said. "If you really want to be free, you have to be free of things."
Mullins also sought to free himself of blind political loyalties. "I used to be comfortable with the Religious Right supporting candidates who were careless with environmental issues," Mullins said in April. "Now I say, does that really reflect the mind of Christ, or is that the American way? It makes me very nervous about agreeing with the Liberal Left, who have given up on the idea of truth."
In the desert, Mullins did not want so much to bring God to the Native Americans as to make God's love visible through his actions. It did not work out as planned. The school at which he wanted to teach asked him to sign a statement of faith that was, in his view, too fundamentalist. Meanwhile, he wrote a musical about his hero St. Francis, recasting the saint as a starry-eyed cowboy. "Canticle of the Plains" opened to less-than-rave reviews at Wheaton College in April.
There was one high point to the Wheaton show, however. Before the musical, Mullins played an acoustic set accompanied by his protege and roommate, 24-year-old singer-songwriter Mitch McVicker. Laid back and confident, McVicker showed much promise that night, brandishing a breezy vocal style that was equal parts Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne.
On the night he died, Mullins and McVicker were driving back to Wichita to play a benefit concert. Mullins' Jeep spun out of control and both men were thrown from the vehicle. A truck, swerving to avoid the Jeep, hit Mullins and killed him instantly. McVicker survived the accident, but was hospitalized with severe head injuries.
McVicker's recovery has been slow, but his health is improving. Should he someday resume his musical pursuits, it can only be hoped he will pick up where Mullins' shining star left off.