Rocker Finds New Life in Desert

Christian Rocker Finds New Life in Desert

by Lou Carlozo

Chicago Tribune - 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."