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Saturday, April 2, 2022

Year Three...

Three years.
It’s been three years since that fateful day and still, sometimes it feels like yesterday. Sometimes it feels like a dream, and maybe it never happened, and it’s just been a while since our last phone call. But reality is always a cold cruel mistress and I remember that day. That day three years ago.
I had just pulled up into my driveway. The driveway of the new house I had closed on only two weeks before. Rick had been so happy for me and my daughter Daisy. He and Linda had been there with me through every hard mile of the previous ten years. He’d encouraged me, given me advice, prayed for me, and as was his style...helped me laugh through the hardest times.
Rick was more than simply a musician whose music I was a devoted fan of. I was more than just a fan who had managed to strike up a conversation with my favorite artist. Rick had become my “big brother.” He was the closest friend I had in Nashville and one of the closest friends in my life. He and Linda were a family to me when I needed one.
Rick and I got each other. Our similar upbringing and Italian heritage bound us in moments of wildly hysterical storytelling, and also the unspoken brotherhood of both of us having grown up without any interaction with our fathers. There were things we could talk about with each other that we couldn’t talk about with very many other people in the world.
I could talk about Rick’s career and his body of work. I could rank his albums in order of my personal liking. I could tell you about the best show I ever saw him play or the people in his universe that he introduced me to. People who were recognizable stars in their genre. I could have done that if I had only remained a fan for the 32 years, I knew Rick.
But a funny thing happened...
Somewhere along the way -and it happened rather early in our relationship—Rick stopped being a musician, or a celebrity in the world of CCM, or the brilliant writer and producer of the “That Thing You Do!” soundtrack.
Rick just became my friend. My dear, beloved friend. My brother.
I was wanting to post some pictures of Rick and I together and I realized that I really only have one. It was taken at the “Creation 91” festival in Pennsylvania. Taken when I was still more fan than friend. Taken when it was somehow a cool thing to be in a picture with Rick Elias.
I am bad about remembering to take pictures with my friends. I guess it’s because I see them all the time and I have so many pictures in my heart that a picture on my phone, or in a scrapbook seems almost ridiculous. I wish I had more pictures of Rick and me. Pictures at the annual Elias Christmas party would be great. Those parties were epic, and nobody was funnier than Rick...except for Tom Howard’s annual gift of “Butterfly Kugen.”
But I only have this thirty-one-year-old picture of a mullet wearing Craig and a very weary Rick...arm in arm and the backstage area of Creation. He had driven all night, with his band, from a gig in Illinois, to play the early evening show. Oddly enough the soundcheck always sticks with me. It was typical Rick...
The stage guys were trying to get Linda’s mic levels right and the guy kept saying “Linda Linda, Linda,” in her mic while the engineer adjusted. Then he sort of started making up stuff to give the engineer more to work with. “Linda, Linda Linda...Linda Lou...Linda...” It went on like this for a while. I think they might even had changed out her mic.
They finally got it right and then moved on to Rick’s mic. The guy asked Rick to talk into the mic so they could set his levels and Rick -never missing a chance to demonstrate his acerbic wit—said.
“Linda Linda Linda...
Linda is my wife!
All you single guys.
Better look the other way.”
It was half song and half military cadence and funny as heck in the moment.
It was typical Rick.
I drove out to New Castle PA to see him at a little church where he was playing a solo gig. He didn’t know I was coming, and I surprised him as he was setting up his gear. It was a wonderful concert. That was the night I heard him play “Man Of No Reputation” for the first time. I sat there in silence when the song ended. I couldn’t move. I had been brought face-to-face with Jesus Christ, in song, more clearly than any other song had ever done in my life.
After the show I helped him pack his gear and we drove to Shoney’s for a very late dinner. New Castle is a small little town and we joked and made “The Deer Hunter” references. If you knew Rick, you knew that quoting movie lines at the perfect moment was one of his great gifts.
We sat down to eat, and he told me that Linda had called him when he got to town and informed him that she was pregnant with Zach, their youngest. Rick was excited and concerned all at once. Excited because he loved being a dad. Concerned because he was a musician and he took his responsibilities as a husband and father seriously, and a musician isn’t always the most stable employment option when you have a family.
We finished dinner and said goodbye and I drove back home the next morning.
I remember that morning when I heard the news that Rich Mullins had died. I knew how close he and Rick were and I knew that Rick treasured his friends. I called the house to let him know how sorry I was and to tell him I was there. Rick was shaken and it was hard for him to talk but he appreciated the call and he let me know that.
We moved to Nashville in 1997, and it helped having friends there already. Rick was swamped at the time...” That Thing You Do” he created a world of soundtrack opportunities for him, and he was busy with producing “The Jesus Record” for his late friend Rich Mullins. And he was raising a family and being a husband. But we made time to chat from time to time.
One of the other great memories I have of Rick is his deep abiding love for his friends. He didn’t throw his arms open to the world, but if you made it to his inner circle, he loved you deeply. Late one night he had gotten word that a friend from back in California had passed away. Rick wrote the most heart wrenching post on FB, detailing how he found out this friend had died, and how it hurt him, and how much his friends meant to him. He tagged me and Bob Sale, and Tom Howard, and a few other guys I can’t remember at the moment. He told us specifically, “I love you guys. I mean it. We never say this enough to those we love.” I was floored. And honored. I loved Rick as a brother and now I realized he felt the same way. Rick loved his friends and his family with everything he had. If anything marked him as a man...that, was it.
I remember the phone call in July of 2018, telling me of his illness. I walked outside the building so I could hear him better. I felt my knees buckle when he told me he had a brain tumor. He told me the story of what had been happening leading up to the doctors discovering what was wrong. And -as was his way—he spoke of his love and concern for Linda. He wanted her to be okay. He wanted the kids to be okay. He wanted Reese and Mazy to be okay. He wanted to live. Live for them. But if he couldn’t, he wanted them to be okay when he was gone.
The next nine months were a painful blur. I kept in contact as best I could, while trying to respect his time and the need to be with his family as much as he could. I was in Nashville in October of 2018 and called to see if I could stop to see him, but they were walking out the door to go to the airport and fly to Florida for one final family vacation together. So, we chatted for a minute and planned on getting together another time.
Time was the enemy all along. We talked a lot. I tried putting together a fund raiser here in Lynchburg. Those plans were altered when we tried to arrange flying him and Linda up here to speak at Liberty. But his health, and the preparations for the Ragamuffin show in January 2019 never opened that door.
So, all we had were phone calls. We talked about once a week or once every ten days. We ended every call with “I love you.” The last call we had, I sensed something had changed. He had worsened. Rick was always optimistic, at least publicly with his friends, about his illness. But something in his voice sounded the slightest bit resigned. I was sitting in the Kroger parking lot, about to go grocery shopping and I had called him on the drive to the store and sat there in my truck until we said our goodbyes.
I told him what he meant to me through the years. I recounted some great stories we’d shared. He made me laugh, as usual. But there was sadness under it all. I didn’t know it was the last time I’d talk to him...but I knew.
About a week later, I got a text from our mutual friend Paul. Rick was back in the hospital, and it was grave. Then at 5:30 that afternoon, as I pulled into my driveway, Paul texted me again. Rick was gone.
I sat in my truck and cried. The movie of our friendship played in my head as I tried to sort out my world without Rick Elias.
I went in the house and told my daughter. She cried too. She loved Rick because she is a musician and a gifted singer and Rick had taken time and shown interest in her through the years. Her dream was to take his songwriting class at Belmont one day. Now that was not to be.
It’s been three years. Three years and some days it’s like it just happened. I still have a hard time listening to Rick’s music. It is too full of memories. And it’s too final. There isn’t any more of it and because of that, it reminds me he is gone.
I miss my friend. I miss funny conversations and watching the Superbowl with him and Linda, and, he loved Christmas!
I miss his deep love for Jesus. His sensitivity and his occasional profanity. His surgeon-precise truthfulness, his acerbic wit, his hysterical rants...and the amazing depth of his heart. I miss the love he had for his friends.
I wish I had more pictures with Rick. But I have a million of them in my heart and that will have to do.
Three years gone and I still miss you like it was yesterday, my brother.
Thank you for all you gave this world. Thanks for loving me back.
See you soon...