In which I continue the process of spotlighting the 20 songs of Rich Mullins that I think are the most enduring, the most memorable, the “desert island” collection I would hand to someone who was hearing his music for the first time. (But not without a long list of honorable mentions.)
One of the things that impresses me most about the work of Rich Mullins in hindsight is its versatility. He could write classically cheesy 80s pop/rock in the vein of Mr. Mister or Toto. He could write dreamy, Carpenters-style ballads. He could write pop classical take-offs and piano-abusing growlers a la Billy Joel. Here you might interject that you don’t really need that kind of versatility in your life and give him a pass. But that would be a shame, because you’d be missing his nitty-gritty bluegrass, his Springsteenian soul, his country twang, his smart taste in folk covers new and old, and his Dylan-and-Simon-esque treks across the American landscape. And worst of all, you’d miss his unique, sometimes purely instrumental touch on instruments you’d never heard of, like hammered and lap dulcimer (and the inexplicable way he turned such instruments into the stuff of #1 singles).
Part 2 of our countdown continues to showcase that versatility across my hand-picked selection of tunes. Part 1 already included a number of favorites, but I’ve kept what I feel are some of the very best for second.
10. The Just Shall Live
I never see people talk about this deep cut from The World As Best As I Remember It, Volume 2. It showed up on one compilation, but it never shows up on tribute projects. I haven’t seen anyone blow the dust off of it and give it their own spin. But I can’t be the only one who thinks this is a seriously underrated gem in Rich’s catalogue. It’s everything I require of a great gospel song: muscular lyrics, white-boy-got-soul vocals, rock-solid piano and percussion backbone, a giant choir, and lotsa lotsa B-3 Hammond. I mean… any questions?
9. Peace (A Communion Blessing From St. Joseph’s Square)
This is the Communion centerpiece from A Ragamuffin Band. I’ve always had a very vivid story in my mind when I hear this song: I imagine two friends who have been bitterly separated, one of whom desperately longs to reconnect while the other wears the mask of a stranger. But really, I think it’s the heart’s cry of any Christian longing to touch people who seem unreachable. We have the body and the blood. We have, in the words of Peter, which Rich wrote on in this reflection, the words of life. Why will they not come? We can’t answer that question, but the invitation stands.
(Not only is this a beautiful lyric, it’s a strikingly beautiful piece of music. In my opinion, one of the loveliest piano lines Rich ever came up with.)
8. I Will Sing
Rich said he never listened to his own projects, but on reflection there were two that he would pick out as favorites. One was A Ragamuffin Band (which I’ve already hyperventilated about in part one). The other was Never Picture Perfect. I concur. If Ragamuffin Band is peak folk Rich, Never Picture Perfect is peak pop Rich. It’s very close to flawless (I count only two certified duds). This song opens it with an a cappella bang worthy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Yet another one dedicated to the persecuted church.
This one was revived by Caedmon’s Call, along with “Hope to Carry On,” which is fun but was very apparently written in the 70s, hence has been regrettably left off this list.
7. Growing Young
This is another overlooked gem from the second volume of Best As I Can Remember It, a beautiful re-working of the Prodigal Son tale. It may not have the “instant classic” status of “Hold Me Jesus,” but it is every bit as potent for me. It’s unabashedly taking a leaf from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a book Rich loved so much he was known to keep extra copies on hand and give them away to friends and fans. Rich was fascinated by Chesterton’s link between God’s sinlessness and His agelessness. “We have sinned and grown old,” Chesterton writes, but God has the eternal appetite of infancy. So we, too, will grow young when we return to our father’s arms. This is made so poignant by the fact that Rich is clearly thinking of his own younger prodigal self. You can hear the remorse in his voice as he sings, “I’m learning… I’m learning even I can be changed.”
Musically and lyrically, this is perhaps the closest Rich ever came to writing a Keith Green song. The diction is unmistakably Rich, but it also has the open-hearted quality of Keith classics like “Grace By Which I Stand” and “When I Hear the Praises Start.”
6. Bound to Come Some Trouble
This highlight from Never Picture Perfect may lack the ache and the striking edge of “Hard to Get,” but I still find it to be an honest reflection on earthly troubles. I think it rings true for anybody who has dealt with depression, grief, and other things that don’t just run their course and leave you alone, but keep coming back day after day to take one more piece out of your soul. As the bridge says, people say things–“maybe things will get better, maybe it won’t be long… maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow, and it’ll all be gone.” Well, how many of us would be moved to respond, with not a little bitterness, “Maybes just ain’t enough”?As a musical side note, Reed Arvin wrote some of the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear on a Rich record in the musical bridge that makes this tune flow seamlessly into the next tune on the album, “The Love of God.” They are a prime example of what Rich meant when he reflected that Reed had pulled “things out of my songs that I didn’t know were there” on this project.
5. The Love of God
For some reason, Rich said this was not one of his personal favorites, but it’s been one of mine for a long time. The only reason I don’t rank it higher is that I’ve never quite bought the idea of God’s love as reckless. I sense the Ragamuffin Gospel influence just there, and a part of me wants to pull back just slightly. I have always pictured God’s love as a daunting and even a frightening thing, to be sure, but always a very purposeful thing. Still, there is tremendous pathos in these words and this music, especially if one knows something about the anger and bitterness that warred inside Mullins his whole life long. As with many of his songs, these were not mere words for Rich.
4. Here In America
Perhaps Rich’s most technically flawless pairing of lyrics and music, written at only 20 years old. I was once spontaneously moved to pair this together with Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” even before I knew what a Paul Simon buff Rich was too. I still think it’s the perfect answer to that song, and it beautifully showcases Rich’s signature sense of place, already strongly present at that young age. This video, as you may be able to tell, was shot on location… in Ireland, cum obligatory tacked-on shot of the Statue of Liberty at the end.
3. Sometimes By Step
Two of my earliest worship memories are “Awesome God” and “Step By Step.” They were probably already a little bit outdated at the Baptist church where I attended girls’ Bible study, but they always went over well, and they were burned into Memorex along with countless hymns and gospel songs I inhaled at that young age. It wasn’t until later that I learned Rich hadn’t written the chorus. I can believe his story that he dreamed up verses so he could share the songwriting credit (he’s only human), but I also can’t deny that those are some verses. The first verse conjures up images of farmers, people of the earth, people who rise up early to milk the cows and seek the Lord. It also highlights Rich’s lifelong writer’s fascination with skies–elaborated on even more eloquently in this astonishing bit of prose. The second verse then turns to Abraham, echoing the lonely hearts of all those who walk as strangers and misfits in a strange land.
It may not be the most polished, but by far the most moving performance of this song I’ve found is the ragamuffin band’s rendition in the Live From Studio B concert. The monologue preceding it is classic Rich–a little sentimental, a little broken, strangely profound, and deeply affecting.
2. Calling Out Your Name
Oh, for the days when a song like this could be a radio hit. It’s like a mini-symphony of all the best things about Rich Mullins–his virtuosic mastery of the hammered dulcimer, his sweeping Americana word-painting, his prophetic vision of how the Lord takes this world by its corners and shakes us free. If there’s a songwriter, mainstream or Christian, who could paint a more vivid picture in song than Rich Mullins, I don’t know who that would be. I love it all the more when I think about the fact that the “pheasant’s wings” phrase wasn’t in the first draft. He had written about quail instead, but his accountant mentioned that they didn’t have quail in Dakota. “Well, what do you have?” asked Rich. “We have pheasant.” “Pheasant. Okay…” Then out comes the fury in a pheasant’s wings.
1. If I Stand
My favorite Rich Mullins song has not always been a constant thing. Sometimes I would tell you my favorite Rich song was whatever I had discovered last. Sometimes I would say it was a three-or-four-or-five-way log-jam and I couldn’t break the tie. I still feel that way sometimes. Maybe I’ll feel that way again tomorrow. But every time I force myself to pick one, just one, this is the one I reach for, just like no matter how many times my favorite Billy Joel song has changed, in the end I will always reach for “Piano Man.” This is it. This is Rich’s “Piano Man.”
There are two performances of this song that I love. One is possibly the first ever public performance of the song with his young co-writer Steve Cudworth–so youthfully awkward and so vital at the same time. But my favorite is this one, recorded five months before his death. I hear that ravaged chain-smoker’s voice, that shortness of breath, and I could weep. I hear a lifetime in that voice: the rejection, the shame, the mental torment, the loneliness, the longing, and despite it all, the whispered hope. It’s enough to break your heart, and enough to make it glad.