Ragamuffin Reunion - Remembering Rich at the Ryman
by Mark Geil
CCM Magazine October 1, 2017
There are concerts, and there are events, but then there are occasions so sublime they become the “I was there that night” stories we tell the next generation. September 2017? The tribute concert at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium honoring the legacy of Rich Mullins? The one where they played the entire Ragamuffin album, note-for-note? I was there.
In 1995, songs from Rich Mullins’ masterpiece, A Liturgy, A Legacy, And A Ragamuffin Band (buy) were still charting when he released and toured the follow up, Brother’s Keeper. On November 12 of that year (while on the cover of CCM Magazine) Rich and his band played the storied Ryman in Music City, U.S.A.
A young musician named Andrew Peterson drove from Florida to the Ryman to see the show. And though he’s embarrassed to tell the tale now, he even snuck backstage to try to meet the man whose music had changed his life.
Two years later, Rich was gone.
Twenty years have now passed since that jarring September day when an abbreviated life made its magnitude and its magnanimity known by its void. Peterson and his ilk have carried the Mullins mantle, creating songs that capture the space between the winds of heaven and the stuff of earth. He’s occupied that space so well that if a Mullins fan were to dream up the most fitting way to honor a fateful anniversary, it would be this: Andrew Peterson and his friends, playing the Ragamuffin album, at the Ryman.
So it was that on Sunday night, September 24, 2017, some mendicants wandered off into a cathedral, and their prayers were whispered, and their song was sung.
Peterson took the stage, shared a welcome, and stated with a hint of apology that not everyone would get to hear their favorite song and that we should get one out of the way at the outset. Then he couldn’t find his guitar cable, and the opening became funny and awkward. Then the congregation sang the chorus to “Awesome God” a cappella like only Nashville can. It captured the sentiment of a Mullins show, all disheveled and unscripted and beautiful.
It’s one thing for an audience to know the chorus to “Awesome God,” but still another for them to know, on cue, the tribal background vocal to “Calling Out Your Name.” This was no random sold-out crowd; this was a house of pilgrims not unlike the wandering Andrew Peterson of 1995.
Following these opening songs, Peterson acted as emcee, introducing each performer and sharing how he was connected to each by way of Mullins’ music. Before Jeremy Casella sang “The Howling,” Peterson shared a story. “When we were rehearsing the other day, he was like, ‘I just realized this song is about the Holy Spirit.’ And I thought, ‘That’s amazing.’ Twenty years and I hadn’t realized this song is about the Holy Spirit!” Such was the relaxed first set: a group of friends sharing—and sometimes geeking-out—about music of such profundity that it reveals new meanings two decades hence.
Another moment conveyed the technical acumen needed to pull off a show like this. Andy Gullahorn introduced “Hard To Get” with a disclaimer: “Our brains are kinda fried from trying to learn the songs for the second half of the show.” Then he called Gabe Scott to the stage before realizing out loud, “Oh, I never gave you a chart!” Undaunted, Scott watched for a verse and then added his subtle dobro to Jill Phillips’ background vocal while Gullahorn brought a deep, emotional silence to the room with Mullins’ most vulnerable song. These were supremely gifted musicians, and they treated their source material with a reverence befitting an audience with the Most High.
The songs in the first set were at times obscure, like Leigh Nash’s wonderful reprise of one of her track from Mullins’ Canticle Of The Plains. There was also the whimsy, as when Brandon Heath attempted the cup routine from “Screen Door” with fleeting success. But more often than not, there was a mix of wonder—seen in unabashed smiles and celebratory fist pumps just offstage—and poignancy—seen when Mitch McVicker, who barely survived the wreck that took Mullins home, willed himself to sing, “There’s bound to come some tears up in your eyes.”
To close the first set, Peterson told stories of encounters with Rich and his music, and shared the only non-Mullins song of the evening, “The Good Confession.” That song, which speaks of his encounter with Christ while his father preached at his Florida church, then gave way to the song that was his first encounter with the music of Rich Mullins, “If I Stand.” Even as the tears choked his voice, each chorus grew stronger as the audience took over. “If I weep, let it be as a man who is longing for his home.”
The ensuing intermission was a family reunion. Friends and strangers alike were cousins tracing their lineage to a common connection to Rich Mullins. Fitting, then, that Peterson took the stage a few minutes later to usher folks back their seats with “Hello Old Friends.”
And then, finally, the Ragamuffin album. It was no trivial thing for Peterson to decide to gather musicians and play this extraordinary, intricate, challenging album start-to-finish. There are over a dozen instruments listed in the liner notes, and as many players and singers, and few of the parts were charted. The Ryman’s stage was cluttered with instruments. Gabe Scott had two hammered dulcimers at the ready, since two tunings were used at different parts of the album. Infinitely gifted band leader Ben Shive’s keyboard stand doubled as leaning post for an accordion and a lap dulcimer. Peterson observed of his capable cast of players: “I heard several of them say that they’ve never worked so hard on a concert before.”
Andrew Osenga delivered the quiet “disclaimer” that precedes “Here In America,” and Peterson counted the band in with his best Mullins impression. The audience settled in, with a quiet reverence and smiles on their faces, and did not just listen to the songs but absorbed them. Most had never seen Mullins live, and this was their first chance to see these songs played, to see the pianist’s fingers make the waters fall or the dulcimer hammers declare belief. The delivery was remarkably faithful to the original. And for one song, the delivery was the original, as longtime Mullins producer and song-shaper Reed Arvin took to the grand piano for “Creed.”
Song after song, the album was delivered with a tender respect. Different vocalists took the lead, different instrumentalists were featured, but the stage was community. The players were enjoying themselves as much as the audience, even through the occasional missed notes and imperfections that were somehow just right.
There was Liturgy (and the passing of the peace), and then Legacy, and there was a raucous, ragamuffin Osenga-[Ashley] Cleveland electric guitar party on “Big And Strong.” And then, we knew it had to end. We paused, like you might pause before turning the last page of a treasured book because you want to read the end but you don’t want it to end. The page was turned, and “Land Of My Sojourn” closed the album in all its brilliance.
One final glorious celebration ensued, with the sing-alongs “Sometimes By Step” and “I See You,” and a gentle, heavenly Doxology. Skye Peterson took the stage, and a father covered his face to hide tears as his daughter sang, “O God, You are my God, and I will ever praise you.” The music of Rich Mullins, and the Scripture that inspired it, were so passed to a generation not our own. A legacy.
On the walk back from the Ryman to the parking deck at the Nashville Public Library, I heard songs in my head, and the voice I heard was not Peterson, Gullahorn, or Osenga, it was Mullins. We turned a corner and there, in the sky bridge connecting the Renaissance Hotel to the parking garage, hanging lights and a series of odd reflections made the shape of a cross. A garish, warped, incandescent cross, but a cross nonetheless: this city’s best answer to the last Sons of Thunder. It was a fitting symbol of a night so permeated by Rich Mullins, a man who found the Glory in our glitter, the Beauty in our brown bricks, and who longed for Home.