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 Christianmusic 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 thereThose 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.
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...
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 path - not 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.
Christian Rocker Finds New Life in Desert
Thursday, April 25, 1996
Rich Mullins' den measures roughly the size of a large walk-in closet, but that hardly stops him from squeezing six people, two guitars, a dulcimer and a golden retriever inside for an impromptu concert.
With his shoulder-length hair and two days' stubble, Mullins hammers the Celtic dulcimer opening to "78 Eatonwood Green," and the cramped scene shatters the crafted public image. This is, after all, the same Rich Mullins who played the Rosemont Horizon last October, whose concert tickets sell by the thousands, whose records sell even more.
As contemporary Christian music explodes into a billion-dollar industry, Mullins seems poised to reach the same pop stardom as Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. For the last decade, hits have poured from Mullins' pen, including the youth choir favorite "Awesome God."
Mullins' reputation could soar Thursday if he wins Songwriter of the Year at the Gospel Dove Awards. But instead of grabbing for Grammys, gold records or crossover acclaim, Mullins has turned his back on Nashville to pull what might be called a Mr. Holland's Opus in reverse.
Living a few hundred yards from the Arizona border in this tiny sheet-metal trailer that rattles in the wind, Mullins is putting down new roots in the desert scrub, teaching music to Navaho schoolchildren.
This relocation is no camping stint or publicity stunt. Mullins has spent five years preparing to make the Navajo reservation his home. But in assessing the most dramatic move of his life, Mullins dispels any notions of sainthood with a slash of self-effacing humor.
"God never spoke to me and said, 'Go to New Mexico,'" says Mullins, 40. "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.'"
If it sounds bizarre, consider that Mullins covets a prize no royalty check can buy: spiritual fulfillment. But Mullins' friends in the Nashville scene wonder whether he might be dodging personal demons instead.
"I don't know if it's because other things capture his interest, or he's afraid of success," says Grammy-winner Ashley Cleveland, who finished a 65-city tour with Mullins last fall. "I wish he'd care more about his career, because here's one person who could reach a lot of people with his sharing of the gospel."
"I don't know if I'm afraid of success; I might be, "Mullins responds. "I tend to think success is overrated, that it's something everybody goes after until they get it, then nobody knows what to do with it. Your life speaks louder than your music... I can make records for the rest of my life and talk about love, but it won't mean anything until I love somebody."
The dynamics of new life in New Mexico are as complex as Mullins himself, a man who in conversation reveres St. Francis of Assisi, then forgets the name of the sitting U.S. president; who seeks to quench a spiritual thirst and lives on fast-food milkshakes and Diet Coke; who plays dulcimer with a weaver's grace but dismisses himself as a "mediocre" musician; who is finding God in the desert, even while losing his keys in the living room.
Though it may not be Nashville, Mullins' life on the reservation hardly resembles a monk-in-a-hairshirt existence.
Just as Thoreau thrived at Walden Pond, Mullins delights in desert life. With boyish glee, he spends hours plotting to build two earth-and-log cabins ("hogans," as the Navajos call them) behind his trailer. He indulges his rock-climbing passion at nearby locales that include the Grand Canyon. He has ample time for silent reflection or sleeping late.
Unlike the typical transcendental, Mullins has a phone, TV, VCR and plenty of musical instruments for diversion. And a burger burrito stand is an easy walk from his trailer.
"You have to figure out where you're most alive, most vital, and go there," Mullins said, "For some people, that's a music career or being a housewife. For me, it's being here."
Though Mullins has a mission, he's not exactly a missionary. "A lot of people think I've come out here to save the Indians," he said. "For me, it's much more to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling."
Or tremolo. Mullins' ministry is steeped in melody and harmony, not fire and brimstone. On this weekend, Mullins donates his time for three acoustic concerts in a 24-hour period.
The first is the living-room show for relatives of his roommate, vocalist-guitarist Mitch McVicker, 23. That night, the two musicians render a new song that captures their shared sense of adventure: "Heaven is waiting, just past the horizon / Over the mesas, across the great divide."
Mullins rises the next morning at 8, grabbing the coffee pot before his eyes creep half-open. A quick cup, a shower, and he takes off in his Jeep to the nearby jail, where he performs solo for 50 Navajo inmates.
Others are less obvious outreach candidates, though their need is just as great. Eleven-year-old Jarrod Damon is a cheerful 6th grader who can rattle off constellations in the desert sky the way some boys parrot lines from "Beavis and Butt-head."
Mullins, who met Jarrod three years ago on an earlier New Mexico trip, said the boy's shining personality obscures a past tragedy.
"His father was killed several years ago." he said. "But one thing Jarrod has that a lot of kids don't have is an extended family and involvement in the church."
The boy also has Mullins, who after moving to [New Mexico] last May took Jarrod under his wing.
Jarrod attends a mission Christian School, where 200 elementary students anxiously await Mullins' arrival this fall. The school has no music program, no instruments, no instructor.
"Adding music will be wonderful," said Jilanne Misiewicz, a 1st grade teacher at the school. "A lot of people here don't really know Rich. A lot of the older teachers say, 'Oh, he's just a musician.' They don't understand what we're getting."
Rich Mullins began his music career by accident. The son of Indiana farmers, Mullins was in his late 20s and leading a cash-strapped retreat ministry in Cincinnati when his big break came. "My uncle loaned us $1,000 to make a custom album so we could fund ourselves," he recalled.
That modest fundraiser began a music miracle. The disc found its way to Nashville, where the song "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" caught the attention of Amy Grant's management. Grant recorded it, netting Mullins a Dove Award nomination. Three years later, he was opening for Grant and recording his first album on Reunion Records.
"It all seems ironic and weird to me," Mullins said. "I'm thankful for it, but I never had any ambitions in Christian music."
"I have no doubt we could be pretty wealthy," says Gay Quisenberry, Mullins' long-time manager. "But we're not trying to buy Rich a bigger house. We're just trying to build him a hogan, and maybe get some music stands."
That Mullins has wandered into the desert when he could break his career wide open "is frustrating at times," Quisenberry said. "But this has been in the game plan for so long."
Mullins first hatched the idea of a full-time mission eight years ago on a trip to Asia. Subsequent tours brought him through the Navajo reservation and clinched Mullins' decision to settle there.
To prepare for teaching, Mullins enrolled at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. He rented out his Nashville home and lived in an attic until graduating last May with degrees in music and education.
These days, what time Mullins has left for the music business seems to exhaust him. Answering gushing fan letters, he admits, gets tedious. Juggling a month's worth of photo shoots, studio time and concert dates takes on the last-minute urgency of filing taxes.
How or whether Mullins will keep it up are questions he leaves wide open. "If it continues, that'd be fine." Mullins said. "If it doesn't, that'd be fine. I've had more than my 15 minutes."
Rich Mullins: A brief discography
Rich Mullins' music has blossomed in depth and texture since his self- titled first album in 1986 (**) and 1987's Pictures in the Sky (**). Both are notable for their piano-and-synth pop charm, though saddled by a low-budget stiffness typical of most 1980s Christian music. There are standouts, though: the vivid ballad "Elijah" from the debut, and the quirky a cappella gospel rave "Screen Door" from Pictures.
Winds of Heaven . . . Stuff of Earth (***) marks a confident leap forward, with the modern-day hymn "Awesome God" and a tender acoustic cover of Dougie McClain's "Ready for the Storm." Never Picture Perfect (**1/2) from 1989 - Mullins' first album to place four songs on the Christian charts has a more commercial feel than its predecessor.
Mullins' next two discs, The World As Best As I Remember It, Vols. 1 and 2 were mostly recorded together, though released in 1991 and 1992 respectively. Heavily orchestrated and unified by a "faith walk" concept, Vol. 1 (***) and Vol. 2 (***1/2) show Mullins and producer Reed Arvin as craftsmen capable of knitting rich textures around heartfelt melodies such as "Sometimes by Step."
Mullins' 1993 release A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band (****) is his finest achievement. It flows effortlessly from symphonic to Celtic to strident rock (Think of Paul Simon meets The Chieftains, Marc Cohn and Don Henley).
Brother's Keeper (***) is Mullins' first album without Arvin at the helm. Here, Mullins takes a satisfying dirt-road turn, stripping back the sound on country-tinged songs such as the title track and "Let Mercy Lead."