20 Years, 20 Songs: A Rich Mullins Countdown (Part 1)

20 Years, 20 Songs: A Rich Mullins Countdown (Part 1) September 20, 2017


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Part 2 here.

For those who are interested, I have written some thoughts on the life and legacy of Christian musician, writer, wise guy and unofficial saint Rich Mullins at The Stream here. As I write this late at night, it was twenty years ago this night that his life abruptly ended in a car crash. Later, it came out that neither he nor his passenger was wearing a seatbelt–a boneheaded thing, but as those who knew him could have told you, it was typical of Rich’s particular brand of boneheadedness. Most of the time, it just made him a little weird and iconoclastic. This time, it cost him his life. A lot of people he touched are pretty sore about that, including me.

Anyway, there was a time when you couldn’t browse a Christian magazine stand or turn on Christian radio without hearing the music of Rich Mullins. With the state of the CCM industry today, his success feels, in hindsight, like a dream–a weird, miraculous dream, the kind you have once and never have again. (More analysis here, for music and music biz nerds only.) Nevertheless, it has been twenty years, and that dream is fading from the collective consciousness of the American church. The worship choruses and songs Mullins wrote (partly in collaboration with friends) were the fabric of a childhood that I’m forced to admit is long gone. I doubt this would shock him. He was a canny guy, and he understood music business. He predicted exactly when his first smash, “Awesome God,” would be a smash. He also predicted when it would fall completely out of use. That’s part of why people love him: He was a no B. S. kind of guy. He knew exactly who he was and never pretended to be anything else.

I remember when I first discovered Rich Mullins. I was in high school, and I was browsing an old shelf filled with books, CDs, dry pens and cobwebs. My dad had a small collection of discs that he’d bought but didn’t have time to listen to anymore. One of them was Songs, by Rich Mullins. At the time, I had a portable SONY CD player. I pulled it out the other day. It needs new batteries. It sits on my desk now as I write. When I slipped that CD into that player, the first notes to come out were Rich’s spin on Bach’s Fugue #2 in C minor (sadly, transposed to a different key). I was hooked.

The next song was the one and only “Awesome God,” that legendarily cringe-worthy chorus at which my generation winces whenever it floats to the surface of our memory. Some ear-worms die hard. But the verses had always been fuzzy, and I heard them as if for the first time. Those verses, man. So weird. So cool. I find them even more so when I read that they came out of Rich in a spontaneous moment of improv while taking 16 hours to drag a trailer up a hill for a gig that was 8 hours away. He was bored and tired, his buddy was bored and tired, so what do you do when you’re bored and tired? If you’re Rich Mullins, and hence a little weird, you make like you’re an old black gospel preacher and start riffing. You take the Old and New Testaments and make a gumbo out of them. Out of that, you manage to pluck out an insanely hooky chorus. Then you try to remember it all for 16 hours until you can get to a piano and record a crappy demo. Then you hit stop, look up at your buddy and go, very quietly, “I think it’s gonna be big.”

Next up was “Sometimes By Step,” another song I knew only in part. I knew the chorus, written by Rich’s bosom friend Beaker. I didn’t know the verses Rich said he added so Beaker wouldn’t get to keep all the songwriting credit.

By the time I got to track 4, “Creed,” I was bouncing off the walls. Quite literally. I pushed “Repeat” on the player, picked it up and began to dance around the basement with it, which was a really dumb thing to do. To this day I don’t know how that CD kept playing flawlessly. I’m so glad it did.

I’ve discovered much more of Rich’s music since then. I went on to discover the music collected on Songs 2, which I think I might even love more than Songs. But I wouldn’t be without either of them, nor would I be without all the deep cuts that didn’t make it. (I think I could do without most of those first two records he made in the 80s though. Really. I’m good.)

I’m not here to claim that Rich Mullins was the greatest songwriter of his generation. In particular, when it came to writing tuneful melodies to match his lyrics, I will be the first to admit he had contemporaries, Christian and mainstream, who surpassed him. I also realize that even his good albums had their share of cheese filling. There’s at least one or two duds on all of them (except maybe A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band, on which more anon).

Greatest lyricist though? I could make that case. I will put Rich’s best lyrics up against the best of Paul Simon, Billy Joel or Bob Dylan any day, because yeah, they’re that good. Rich was a breed of songwriter you don’t see much of anymore. He was the kind of writer whose work was just as informed by the literature he read and the cinema he watched as it was by the songs he listened to–if not more so. (Though he studied Simon, Dylan, The Beatles, and others.) To write well, you must first read well, and Rich read. He read in the Jeep, he read on the bus, he read backstage, he read morning, noon and night. He annotated his favorite books for his friends and told them to give away any duplicate copies to make him feel better (if only he knew). He read theology, history, American lit, classic lit, children’s lit, memoir, biography. He was one literate dude. And that, more than anything, is what comes through in the songs he wrote, and why I think his best ones still hold up (besides having some really kickin’ production–here’s looking at you, Reed Arvin).

So, if you happen to run across this blog, and you’re a fan, this little countdown I’m going to do will be a blast. If you’re not, but you’re curious, the very first place I would point you is the Countdown Magazine tribute on YouTube. It’s about two hours of pure Rich music and speaking. If you want to get to know the guy, just throw that on and let it soak in. But, maybe that’s not feasible for you. If so, you’re in the right spot, because I’m here to give you a guided tour which can be absorbed in bite-sized pieces. I can’t honestly tell you if his stuff is going to be your jam. Andrew Peterson put it well when he said that Rich’s music resonates on a very specific frequency, and some people will fall madly in love with it while others just don’t get it. But either way, I don’t see how you couldn’t respect it.

Here goes with part 1. Part 2 to follow. The numbering will be fairly loose, and there’s not going to be too much variation in the quality between parts 1 and 2. I said Rich wrote some fluff, but he sustained an impressively high non-fluff to fluff ratio considering he put out an album every year. So this was a little agonizing, but I had a few different criteria for picking these 20. The main ones were contentfulness, complete package memorability, and plain old personal favorites.

Naturally, my cup runneth over with Honorable Mentions that just missed the cut, even though individual aspects of them might surpass some of the tunes on this list. I’m thinking of tunes like “Eli’s Song,” “I’ll Carry On,” (which I wrote a whole half-post about here) “Wounds of Love,”Cry the Name,” “The Color Green,” each one a polished gem of a lyric and a beautiful piece of music, but as songs, they fade a little bit in memory. (You really should watch the video for “Color Green” though. No, I mean really. It’s like the 3-minute cinematic love child of Ingmar Bergman and John Ford. So you just go ahead and do that, and I’ll wait. [Waits.])

Then there are those tight, flawless little numbers like “Hello, Old Friends” and “Who God is Gonna Use” that fill in the corners like dessert after a full meal. And “We Are Not As Strong as We Think We Are,” a delicious slice of pure pop class which answers the age-old question, “What if Phil Collins got saved?” And “Be With You,” a song that sounds cute until you pay attention and realize it’s all about death. And “Verge of a Miracle,” a song written for people who shoot themselves in the stomach. And “Hard to Get,” a boxing match with God set to music. And “Alrightokuhhuhamen,” which… I love to pieces and which speaks for itself, thankuverymuch.

But I’m digressing. So let’s kick this off.


20. Boy Like Me/Man Like You

We’ll start off with something easy, like the Incarnation. Rich puts us in the shoes of his younger self, when he was too young to know they didn’t have water hoses and winter snow in ancient Palestine. Did little girls giggle when he walked past? Did they now? I wonder.

19. Screen Door

As Rich told the story, he picked up this guy on the side of the road and began regretting it almost instantly. The dude smelled. A lot. Then he started smoking. Finally, Rich pulled over and let him out. “I think I lied and said I had to get off at that place anyway, then snuck around and got back on the highway after he was gone.” So then he got a guilty feeling about not walking the Christian talk and decided to write this tune “as penance.” We all make mistakes, but we usually don’t turn them into songs as insanely catchy as this one. Oh yes, in case you’re wondering, that is the cup beat, and yeah, Rich did it first. It’s Christian music’s little open secret. You’re welcome, Anna Kendrick.

18. Creed

If I could put just one album in your hands that says “This is Rich Mullins,” I would give you A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. This is Christian music’s Sergeant Pepper, its Pet Sounds, its Bridge Over Troubled Water. This is a record’s record. With tracks that were recorded live and enriched with Reed Arvin’s string arrangements in post, it’s an American history lesson and a church history lesson at the same time. The songs flow into each other with liturgical purpose. Do yourself a favor: Brew some coffee, sit down with this album, then close your eyes and remember the days when artists and producers could dream big.

The song “Creed” is one of the centerpieces of the project. And boy, am I glad Steve Taylor decided to grab a camera and chase Rich Mullins around the world with it, so we could get the music video I’m about to share. Maybe you’re not a Christian, or even a particularly spiritual kind of guy. Maybe you believe we get one really good run at this thing called life, and that’s the best we can hope for. But I don’t see how you can watch Rich Mullins singing the Apostles’ Creed by a lake on a morning so crisp you can see his breath, singing it while he makes the hammered dulcimer dance under his fingers, while children gather one by one to watch the magic happen, and not feel something. I don’t see how you can hear him sing “I did not make it, no it is making me. It is the very truth of God, not the invention of any man. I believe it,” and not believe that he believes it, even if you don’t believe it. And I think that’s all he would have asked.

(Music starts at 2:18. You *could* skip the intro, but I don’t recommend it.)

17. While the Nations Rage

I’m not sure Rich Mullins ever met a president that he liked. He liked to say they were sent by God to punish voters. He was one of those grumpy hippy types who were still kvetching about Richard Nixon in the 90s (I love those guys). Anyway, he would sometimes dedicate this song to whoever happened to be president at the time. Very subtle. Still, this is a kickin’ tune about the persecuted church. I especially like the use of Pilate’s phrase “Behold the man” to refer to the risen Jesus instead of Jesus being led away for crucifixion.

16. My Deliverer

When Rich died, this song was the last ace up his sleeve. His friends pulled out all the stops on giving it the full-orchestra production after his death, and it became a Christmas standard pretty much instantly. I am… not a fan of the fully produced version. It’s a lovely orchestration. A lovely orchestration that I really, really wish Rich himself could have sung to. But it was not to be. So instead we have to be content with this demo, which already has “instant classic” written all over it. If you listen closely to a lot of his songs, one thing that becomes clear is that Rich Mullins loved land. Most of his songs evoke the land of America. Here, he evokes the land of Africa: the Kenyan Heights, the water pouring from Lake Sangra’s broken heart along the banks of the Nile River. All the while, the melody pulses with urgent expectation: Something is coming. Someone is coming.

15. Let Mercy Lead

Written, as several of these are, with Beaker. Rich never married, but he took a keen interest in children, and this song was dedicated to Beaker’s son, Aidan. I give Rich a hard time for his melodies, but this stands out as a surprisingly tuneful one. Additional poignancy is lent to it by a letter Rich received from a couple who named their own son Aidan, only for him to die in infancy. These words were written on his casket. As I look in the comments on this video, I see still others with sons named Aidan after this song. One comes as a particular gut punch: A boy of twelve who committed suicide in 2014. Oh Lord, we do pray for mercy.

14. Hold Me Jesus

Ugh, not another sappy song about asking Jesus to hold us. And from a guy too. Pass. That was my first thought when I saw this one on Songs all those years ago. I always skipped it, just like I always skipped “Verge of a Miracle.” I didn’t get it.

I get it now. Because I’ve seen how a father holds a son, and how a brother holds a brother. I’ve seen how crying boys bury their faces in great shoulders, their own shoulders heaving. And I understand how a man could wake up in the night with a heat in his soul, burning hot enough to leave blisters. I understand how, as Rich describes in this introduction, he might want to take a walk in a strange country and be tempted. Because even if you’re not going to sin, it’s nice to be tempted.

Thank God for friends who won’t snore while we are being tempted. And for Salvation Army bands. And for strong arms to hold broken men.

13. Elijah

Rich once wrote, “In my mid to late twenties I had some romantic, highly exaggerated notions about an early death – taking off at 33 – joining the company of Mozart, Foster, Jesus and other immortals who checked out in their early thirties. But this was a party I didn’t get an invitation to – a gang I didn’t belong in (me not being a genius and all). So, in Chicago I had my own party – celebrating the fun of being alive as opposed to the mystique of having an untimely death.”

Reading between the lines, one can surmise what Rich has confirmed elsewhere–that his 20s were very disturbed years indeed. We’re lucky that he never did check out as planned. Of course, the words he wrote at 40 are sadly ironic given how he actually did go out. It was a grim and ghoulish chariot of fire, all right.

But then Rich also wrote this: “I don’t know if God wept at Moses’ funeral. I don’t know if He cried when He killed the first of His creatures to take its skins to clothe this man’s earliest ancestors. I don’t know who will bury me — But I look back over the events of my life and see the hands that carried Moses to his grave lifting me out of mine. In remembering, I go back to these places where God met me and I meet him again and I lay my head on His breast, and he shows me the land beyond the Jordan and I suck into my lungs the fragrance of His breath, the power of His presence.”


12. Sing Your Praise to the Lord

This song is what happens when you try to get a smart-alecky young guy to practice Bach the way it should be practiced, and he decides he doesn’t feel like it. But because he’s a Christian smart-alecky young guy, a Christian song is the result.

People first heard this song through the voice of Amy Grant, but Rich didn’t mince words about his opinion of her cover, because he knew what nobody else knew until 1996–a whole middle section was cut for time. Also, somebody had helpfully looked at the phrase “madding crowd” and tweaked it to “madd’ning,” a change which must have irritated Rich to no end.

So, it no doubt gave him a certain slightly wicked pleasure when he finally did his own song justice ten years later–a bit rougher and wilder than the way the Christian music world first heard it (or the way it’s anemically, pathetically performed today–sad!) He once said that since he found his singing voice slightly less weird than his speaking voice, he figured he might as well follow that most reiterated command in the Bible.

11. First Family

Rich’s childhood was marked by an odd mix of family stability and family pain. His mother was a saint, and his father was a hard man of the earth. Rich couldn’t farm if his life depended on it. Maybe his life didn’t depend on it. But it seemed, often, as though his father’s love did.

This song is the achingly beautiful sound of a young man who has grown old enough to realize that, in his words, “if you can’t be proud of where you came from, you ain’t got no pride.” It’s made sweeter by the knowledge that a series of brushes with mortality led Rich’s father to initiate some reconciliation before he finally passed on. It encourages all who hear it to find their own first families, their own pride.

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