I remember where I was when I heard the news.
I was in my work truck, driving to a small job with my best friend. I had the local Christian radio station on and word had just come out of Illinois. Details were sketchy but the one thing they knew for sure was that we had lost Rich Mullins.
My heart broke. It breaks even now, twenty years later, to the very day. I was a huge fan, but even more, I had a connection to Rich that made this personal. One of my dearest friends was an original “Ragamuffin,” and was one of Rich’s closest comrades.
My thoughts immediately went to Rick, and to the other Rags I had gotten to know through him. Mark, Jimmy, Aaron… an All-Star band; assembled to create one of the greatest, most lyrically and musically perfect albums Christian Music has ever seen. Suddenly their friend was gone, and the world –at least the world that knew Rich’s music and felt its’ touch- was never going to be the same.
I stopped at a pay phone (no cell phones at the time) and called my friend Rick in Nashville. I had met Rick Elias at a concert in 1992 and we became instant friends. That same year, Rich, already a friend, asked him to join what he envisioned as a talent-laden group of Christian musicians, for the purpose of creating a landmark album that he had been working on, inspired in part, by his reading of Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel.” The band took their name from this book and the album became “A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band.” You can argue about where it falls in the pantheon of Christian music, but nobody would place it outside the top five. To this day, twenty-four years after its release, it is still the benchmark for what Christian Music can be when the songwriter is knowledgeable, talented, and not trying to fire off yet another album full of brain-dead, lyrically-vapid, “praise and worship” music. The album was beautiful. It was complete. It was seamless. To quote William Gaines in “Pumping Iron” when describing Arnold Schwarzenegger…it was “as finished as a G__ D____ apple!”
Lyrically it was a miracle. Musically it was a triumph. It was perfect.
I thought immediately of Rick and his friendship with Mullins. My only encounter with Rich came during a phone call to Rick’s house. They were sitting at his kitchen table discussing some charts with Jimmy Abegg when I called to discuss a concert Rick was playing at my home church in Delaware. “Hey man…just calling to finalize your hotel accommodations and flight info.” I said. Rick was his typical California cool self, “Hey brother, I’m just sitting here in the kitchen with Mullins and Abegg, we’re finishing up these charts for the tour…”
Just sitting here with Mullins and Abegg. For those of you not familiar with Christian Music of the Golden era, this was like saying “Hey man, I’m just sitting here with Bono and Mark Knopfler…”
I kept the call brief and hung up. I remember saying something stupid like; “Tell Rich I said hello!” Whether Rick did this or not I have no idea, but I can’t imagine why he would. I was nobody. But then again, that was the charm of Mullins. He was nobody too. He was no diva. He was humble. He was entirely removed from the pomposity and arrogance that permeates the current crop of Christian artists we have now. People who just don’t get the truth that nobody has really ever heard of them. Not really. Not in the way secular artists are known. They parade around as if they are someone. As if having a record deal on a Christian label is anything more than just a cut above having your record produced by “Uncle Bob” from “That Thing You Do!” Rich Mullins was probably the most talented artist to ever write Christian music, and he carried himself as if he were some shmo at an open mic night in Smallville.
So, I dialed the number and as I expected, nobody answered. I knew Rick was awake. I also knew he would be in no mood to talk or take inane phone calls from well-meaning friends. So, I left him a message on his voicemail. I told him I’d just heard the news. I told him I was sorry for the loss of his dear friend. I told him I would be praying for him –which all Christians say to each other and somehow, has lost its power among us- and I told him I loved him. My voice broke when I got to that part. It broke because it was, and is, true, and because I loved my friend, I instinctively knew how his heart was broken. Rick Elias is a tough hombre, but if you make it into his circle of friends, he loves you deeply. You’ll have your moments of disagreement as all friends do. But Rick clutches his friends to his chest as treasures and I knew he was in more pain than he would ever be able to express to me anyway…so a conversation would have proven empty anyway.
I hung up before the operator asked me for some more quarters and I walked slowly to my truck. I’d expressed my love to the mutual friend I’d had with Rich, now it was my turn to deal with this. I got in my truck and broke down. I was thinking about all the moments when his music poured out of my heart.
I was skiing in Vermont in February 1994. The Ragamuffin album was only a few months old. I’d played the thing so often that I had memorized literally every sound it rendered. My family and I were skiing a nature trail; a long, ambling trail through miles of forest. Not very challenging but full of incredible views. We rounded a curve on the trail and I glanced to my left and saw enormous oaks, barren from the snowfall, with their branches all reaching toward the sky…like giant sinewy arms grasping at Heaven. Instantly a line from one of Rich’s songs came to mind. It’s from “The Color Green” it says;
“And the wrens have returned, and they’re nesting. In the hollow of that oak, where his heart once had been. And he lifts up his arms in a blessing. For being born again.”
I saw those oaks living out the words from Rich’s song and my eyes flooded with tears. I glided through the Vermont mountainside, singing those words and raising my own arms in a blessing for being born-again in that moment.
In years that followed, it was Rich’s music more than any other Christian artist, who got me through the hard times that befall a man of my heritage. When I was dating my wife, it was “The River” from “The World as Best I Remember It Vol 1” that put my longing, passionate heart to music. When we married, her processional was the opening Hammered Dulcimer solo from “Calling Out Your Name” When we divorced…it was “We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are” and when those long nights of homelessness would not yield to sleep…it was “Hold Me Jesus.”
Rich’s music was painfully honest, in ways that endeared him to real human beings. And it was supremely talent driven. I have not listened to Christian music since he died, save for the albums my friend Rick put out occasionally in the years after. I can’t. Current Christian artists are empty. Their songs are just one long, empty continuation of every other song on Christian radio. They write formulaic lyrics. They are driven by cash. They can deny this all they want, but not one of them stands apart from the others. They hear a song on the radio and set out to duplicate it as fast as they can to cash in before the trend changes again. They spend their time trying to get a record deal and have themselves added to a tour. Rich honed his craft by throwing his gear in the bed of a 1965 Chevy pickup truck and hitting the road with no-one but his best friend Beaker.
These new breed hit clothing boutiques and consult style coaches where Rich spent his last four years living six months each year on a Hopi reservation, teaching music therapy to Native American children. They’re pretenders, this current brood. They aren’t worthy of lifting the cover of Rich’s keyboard, and the sad thing…most of them couldn’t name three of his songs.
The last time I saw him was at a concert he played in Nashville in 1994. The Ragamuffin Band had been on the road for a lengthy tour in support of “Brother’s Keeper” an album Rich hated but served the purpose of getting him out of his record deal. (Something he wanted ever since Reunion was purchased by Provident Music)
The show was a masterwork. Those were some of my friends on stage and I felt their triumph. Two years later, he was gone.
Rick Elias has shared so many wonderful stories with me about Mullins. Always at a time when I think he was missing his friend and needed to share thoughts with those who truly got Rich, and weren’t just the average, not-musically-astute Christian music fans. We would talk about the story behind the lyrics Rich wrote. The humanity. The truth. The reckless way Rich wrote about pain in an industry that refuses to let its worker-bees discuss the topic. Rich’s friends sure loved him. In as much as I could, I loved him too. I knew him only vicariously through my association with some of his inner circle.
Five years after his passing, I was living in Nashville. Brian Mason, a Christian Radio legend, put together a memorial show featuring the Rags. They would play a song or two and then someone would tell a Rich story. Somewhere toward the end, the great Phil Keaggy –himself a legend in music- had this to say about Rich Mullins:
“Rich was the most ‘One-foot-in-the-grave-and-one-foot-in-Heaven’ person I’d ever met. He truly didn’t fit here. I think Rich knew this, and it was what drove the greatness and the longing in all of his songs.”
I am 54 now and sometimes I think of that quote and wonder if in my own way…it doesn’t apply to me as well. I wonder where I fit. I wonder –even now in my fifth decade- where my home is. Rich seemed to always feel that way.
In the twenty years since that awful, fateful morning, my music collection –once burgeoning- has shrunk. The voice that gave me songs I cannot stop singing has not sung them in years. At least not in a venue where I can hear him.
He is home. Home where it seems he always wanted to be anyway. And we who loved his gifts, and those who loved him personally are still, twenty years down that road, trying our best to fill the void.
The peace we have, if we have it at all, is knowing that we will sing with him again one day. But for now, we still weep.