The Versatile American CCM Man

The Versatile American CCM Man

by Jan Willem Vink

Cross Rhythms June 1, 1994

In America's CCM scene RICH MULLINS has done it all, writing songs for Amy Grant, composing popular worship choruses and recording a series of increasingly daring albums of his own. He spoke at length to Jan Willem Vink.

Last year Rich Mullins fulfilled a dream. Together with some musicians/friends he entered a studio in Indiana, USA, for a recording retreat. There he proceeded to record an album, where the whole group of artists were involved in every aspect of the creative process. The result A Liturgy, A Legacy And A Ragamuffin Band, is undoubtedly the highlight of Mullins' career. It mixes enough musical and lyrical creativity to make it highly adventurous and enough commercial accessibility to make it another big seller for Reunion Records. Mullins is a master of his art, in combining the simple with the profound and the heavenly with an earthy reality.

Before entering the studio, Rich commented: "I think that the greatest value of music is not in hearing but in doing it. I would like to do an album where the recording is as much a part of the album as the finished product, where the process is very important and integrated with the finished product. I especially want to work with people that I'm already familiar with because music is a very intimate thing. It's good if you can work with people that are comfortable enough that they can say when someone is playing badly and the person isn't offended, they in fact laugh. Because you have to reach that level of trust with one another, in order to do the exploratory things."

Mullins and long-time producer Reed Arvin selected a group of friends that were 'ragamuffins' by Mullins' standards: "People with enough musical identity that they make lousy studio musicians because they kind of are who they are, and that comes through what they play. People like Jimmy A, Rick Elias, Chris McHugh and 'Beaker', Mullins' travelling companion, fellow on-stage musician and co-writer." Beaker is a non-studio musician who sometimes does things studio musicians wouldn't do because they would think it was wrong. But sometimes the wrong thing to do is the right thing", Rich comments. Part of the whole concept of
A Liturgy, A Legacy And A Ragamuffin Band, was to give musicians instruments to play, they had never played before. Such as Jimmy Abegg, who played all the mandolins on the album. Remembers Rich: "That was fun. Jimmy had never played mandolin. It was a blast; watching him work out a part, then try to play it. When you learn to play an instrument, you learn the roads, how to get around musical problems. And when you don't play an instrument, you don't know how to get problems, so you approach it differently. The same thing with Beaker, he doesn't really know anything about playing any of these instruments. He just picks it up and hammers it out, I kinda like that better. I'm the original anti-virtuoso guy. I think music is not a good place for virtuosity."

A Liturgy... Mullin's Irish roots became obvious. "I've always listened to a lot of traditional Irish music", says Rich. "Americans are not nearly as provincial as everyone thinks we are. I like Russian music. We're pretty familiar with European music and it was fun to hear some European folk music in this setting as opposed to hearing it in a concert hall. I think what has happened is each time I make an album it sells a little bit better than the one before, so that each time my record company gives me a little bit more rope to hang myself on."

The final result of
A Liturgy... is only partly satisfying to Rich. "It didn't exactly work out. Part of collaborating is compromising. It didn't do exactly what I wanted it to do. But then I kinda go: I'm such a critic; I don't know what it would take to feel good about an album that I have done. Some songs were very spontaneous: 'Here In America', 'Hold Me Jesus', 78 Eatonwood Green','How To Grow Up Big And Strong', these really stand out in my memory as being pretty live with some of those glitches and flaws that make live music so much more... I don't know, is 'vulnerable' a good word? How about 'innocent'? I would like somehow to get the listener in the studio but I'm not sure how. Still, Rich is determined to keep recording in this new adventurous vein. "Songs like 'Hold Me Jesus' came out really good. Now I figured out all I have to do is write a lot more songs in that vein. Because when I write a big song, like 'Creed', it's gonna want big sounds and anyone who is producing is going to say 'let's put an orchestra in it. And I go: 'No! Let's not. Let's put a hurdy-gurdy in it.' Of course they felt that that was absurd..."

Side one of A Liturgy... explores the Liturgy of life as a Christian. Liturgy is reciting psalms, singing hymns, saying prayers, sharing communion: the structure of our worship. Rich's liturgy includes 'Creed', his version of the Apostle's Creed, 'Peace (A Communion Blessing From St. Joseph Square)' and 'Hold Me Jesus', a poignant ballad asking for divine comfort.

"I became real interested on a more liturgical kind of church experience several years ago" explains Rich, "When I served as a youth minister in a more liturgical church I really enjoyed the (organization of the) liturgy. One of the things that struck me, even in my church, which was not a liturgical church, was there were certain things you do every Sunday. For instance you will have communion, which for me connects me to Paul, Augustine, Luther. All through history people have gotten together and broken bread together. When I do that I'm not only connecting with the other people in that particular room at that particular time, but I'm connecting with people who for two thousand years have said 'no matter what else happens, when we come together, we break bread and we will remember and proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes'.

Most of A Liturgy... was written during Rich's low-key 'The World As Best As I Remember It' tour through Europe, during the summer of 1992.

The Legacy Mullins talks about, has a lot to do with Europe, with his own ancestors, who came from France, Germany and Ireland. Legacy is something handed down from the past, the undercurrents that make us who we are.

"For me it's very humbling to think of my great, great grandfather. He was a stow-away, he was an orphan in France and he stowed-away on a boat to come to America. And I think about that kind of courage. Had he not done that I would have never happened. He never would have met his wife, they never would have had their children, their children never would have met their spouses, they wouldn't have had their children. I would not have existed if it had not been for this man's courage. So we look at the legacy that has been handed to us and I think we should feel some humility in fronting it. The legacy that I've been handed down does two things for me. First of all, it makes me very humble, it makes me recognize that many people have done many great things, in order for me to enjoy the life that I enjoy. Ultimately the thing that has made my life good is the faith that I've been handed down. That faith, that Christian faith, is more important than anything else. So I'm grateful for those people who have known the Spirit of Christ and who have lived in the power of His resurrection and whose lives I look at.

Different people from Rich's family have been an example for him, in other words, have handed their legacy down to him. What people were significant for the singer? " I come from a pretty big family, so there are lots of 'significant people' who are examples to me. My dad was a very emotional man who believed love was a very practical thing and that it expressed itself in practical ways. My mom was (and is) a very quiet, steadfast woman who is strong and gentle and never cold. My great grandparents lived next door to us and great-grandma told me great stories at nap time. My grandpa Dean loved books- My grandma and grandpa Mullins fed a dozen people every Sunday and were very funny and earthy. My Uncle David and Aunt Fiossie have always been avid card players. My Uncle Dick is possibly the most giving man I know - very giving and caring. Jim Lewis - a cousin of mine - was (along with King David) my boyhood hero. My dad's four sisters (we call them the 'four sisters of the Apocalypse') are extremely lively women who have met life head on and though they're in their 60's and up, they are still more fun than most people my age. I could go on forever, but my telling is a shabby telling of their lives and their impact on me. Did I mention my Uncle Glenn?"

Rich grew up on a farm. "We were poor farmers - not by world standards, but by American standards. We had a small farm. We always ate good meals, we had a huge garden, we raised a lot of our own food. For me that meant that we were poor. I had no idea how bad beans taste out of a can. Because I had been raised beside a garden. Now I live in a city and I have to eat like most people that we thought were rich. And I go 'this is awful'. I go home and get beans that are fresh picked and I go 'wow, this is delicious'. One of Rich's many childhood memories is longing to own a piano. "There were people who went to our church that never played their pianos and they only used them as furniture. I can remember thinking 'what I would give to have that piano- just to be able to play it'. For years all of those feelings kind of grew into a real resentment towards rich people, which I still struggle with. Still today, when I'm around people who are wealthy, I don't like them. It's harder for me to communicate the love of God to rich people than it is to the poor people, for I have such a hang-up with wealth.

Rich continues telling stories of his youth. "My dad had to work in a tool shop all day then on the farm evenings and in the barn, repairing tractors and things, until late at night. Work was the man's course and we were taught to value it. Plus, we learned to value each other. I loved music and never had enough time to listen to enough albums or to practice enough piano. Our house was small and I think I drove everyone else out ot it playing every chance I got. I hated school -that's the only thing I remember hating except working so much and having so little - never knowing how comparatively little work I really did and how absolutely much we had. We had woods and fields and cattle and always a dog and lots of cats."

Being an American means a great deal to Rich. "As critical as I may be of the United States, I love America. I know many, many good people in America. It seems tragic to me that such good people have come up with such lousy leaders. The US is such a plastic place on the surface. Appalachian culture is SO rich and I am very thankful that my dad was Appalachian. I used to be embarrassed by those roots, because minority and ethnic groups get half a chance here. My dad and his family were able to get out of a poverty situation and experienced some economic and social latitude. If you ever get to the Lincoln Memorial and stand in front of Lincoln's huge likeness you'll likely never feel proud again. You'll feel more like falling on your face and saying, "Great God in heaven, this little experiment has cost us so much and so many giants have done so many amazing things. Can people really live together and treat each other justly. For the sake of those who have tried so powerfully and shone so brilliantly, let me try... somehow."

It is no wonder issues like poverty and richness still play a major role in Rich's life. He is currently studying to be a music teacher at a college in his hometown Wichita in Kansas. When I ask him how he combines singing and studying, he answers tongue-in-cheek" not very successfully". In numerous interviews, Rich has told he wants to quit his career in CCM after finishing college and to become a music teacher to native Americans. "They are the poorest (financially) people in the US", comments Rich. "I am more likely to encounter Christ in an authentic way among the poor and so I hope to live among them. I have another year of school left and then I hope to move. I get increasingly anxious to go there and I suspect that I don't know the whole truth about why.

"Will I end my career? I don't know. I'll just have to see if I can combine being a student and being a singer. No one is more curious about this than me. I have as little notion about how it will come out as anyone."

Rich's social involvement also crosses American borders. For a long time he has been a spokesperson for Compassion International, Christian relief organisation, who have a sponsorship programme for Third World children. This February, Rich travelled to Colombia, where he visited a student centre which he's currently gathering sponsorships for. "The project that we visited is where they give kids a meal and after-school-tutoring. One of the things about a Third World country is that most of the time children are so malnourished that there's actual brain damage done. They're kind of slow. So they're given enough nutrition so they can learn if the opportunity comes up. The idea is to give them some education so they are at least literate and they can at least read.

"I think for me out of the whole trip the thing that was most moving was just seeing the street kids. A lot of them come from the hills, they are Indian kids and their families are too big and they can't feed them. So they go into town. When they get there, they can't get jobs or anything because they don't read, they don't write, they don't have any real opportunities. They sniff glue to take the edge off their hunger and then they get involved in drugs and prostitution and stealing. The cartel that runs a lot of the shops hire their own policemen. These policemen just go down the streets and shoot the street kids.

I saw these kids, who are ten to fifteen years old who didn't get an education, who don't get the right nutrition, they may live to be sixteen. One of the great contrasts was to meet other young people who are working in regular jobs, they are able to read and write, they know that God lives and that He loves them and that He hears their prayers. To see the contrast between kids who were given half a shot and people who aren't given anything was pretty startling for me."

Colombia isn't the first Third World country Rich has visited. "Wherever I've gotten to it's been pretty much the same. It's kind of heartbreaking to see that kind of poverty, really grinding poverty, people literally don't get enough food to keep going. It's heart breaking but it's so exhilarating to see the difference the love of Christ makes to those situations. Sometimes you feel a little angry at God and you say, 'God if you're so good, if you're so loving, they why are so many people suffering so terribly?'. But I'm not God and it's not my business to think like that, God has given us free will and He allows us either to ignore the poor or to meet Him among them. When we choose to ignore the poor not only do they suffer, but we suffer".

Rich recorded a video in Colombia of his song "
Creed" with 120 of the children participating in it. The song will be released on a long-form video, which Rich recorded in New York, Ireland and hometown Wichita, with Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson as producers. "The video was just kind of a side thing", comments Rich. "Being an artist isn't that much of a deal to me. One of the great things that has come about as a result of me being a musician is that I'm a Compassion representative. As far as any real joy in what I do: Of course I like to play music and write and it's a real privilege to be able to make a living doing that. But that wouldn't be enough for me to stay interested very long. But one of the great things that has come about as a result of my music, as a Compassion representative I've been able to raise sponsorships for 1500 kids. What makes me feel good about what I'm doing is to be able to say here are 1500 who otherwise may not be able to have a decent life."