Throw Back: Rich Mullins

Rich Mullins 03He’s been gone for 17 years now; Friday, September 19, 1997. Just a month shy of his 42nd birthday. South of Bloomington, IL, Rich flipped his Jeep Wrangler. Neither he nor his passenger, Mitch McVicker, were wearing seat belts and were thrown from the vehicle. A passing 18-wheeler swerved to avoid hitting the Jeep and struck Rich instead, killing him instantly. Mitch survived. We got the news over the weekend. Speechless. Seventeen years later and words still don’t suffice.

I was in St Louis at the time. Rich had been there just a few weeks prior for a concert at a local church. He gathered all of us involved with the show in a little office before the concert started. Not the senior pastor’s office. More of a closet with a desk and a phone really. We prayed. He looked tired, almost haggard. A couple of days worth of stubble didn’t help. But there were circles under his eyes. And those eyes didn’t have quite the impish sparkle I remembered from earlier meetings when both of us were younger. I got him out on stage, stayed for a song or two and then headed home. And that was my last encounter with Rich Mullins.

I first met Rich in April 1987 in Nashville. At that point he had one album to his credit, the 1986 Rich Mullins which had yielded the minor hit Elijah. Back then he was still largely known as the guy who’d written the Amy Grant song Sing Your Praise To The Lord. It was Gospel Music Association (GMA) week and downtown was crawling with Christian radio guys and artists. A group of us decided to go to The Old Spaghetti Factory. Rich was among us. As we walked down Commerce Street, Rich got out ahead of us and started skipping down the street. Skipping. In the middle of the street.

Rich Mullins 02He could be a bit of an eccentric. Or a flake. Depending on your point of your view and how manic he was behaving at any given moment. But he could also turn a phrase with the best of them. Some of his lyrics are almost Davidic. He’s among, if not THE, best lyricist since they stopped accepting submissions for the book of Psalms. Christian or mainstream. Lennon-McCartney, Simon, Dylan, Springsteen? Pikers.

And with all due respect to Tomlin, Redman, Baloche and their ilk of praise and worship writers, Mullins set the bar so high that most don’t even realize there is a bar. Sing Your Praise To The Lord was only the beginning. Awesome God arguably ushered in the contemporary praise and worship genre. And Sometimes By Step darn near perfected it. Sure the chorus (actually written by Beaker and released first as Step By Step on the 1991 The World As Best As I Remember It, Vol. 1) is kind of, well, chorusy. But Rich went back and added a few verses and put it on the 1992 The World As Best As I Remember It, Vol. 2. That transformed it from a really good praise and worship ditty to an amazing statement of faith in the face of doubt and an admission of human weakness in light of God’s omnipotence.

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that, no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond your reach

But Rich wasn’t a praise and worship artist. It’s not fair to limit whatever it is that Rich was with that simple definition. His was a talent far more literary than the mere praise and worship (with lyrics largely plagiarized directly from the scripture) being churned out today, like the fast food of the music industry.

Rich had that once-in-a-century gift of holding seemingly unrelated Biblical passages and truths up to the light, like a prism, and discovering new colors, nuances. And then he would turn those truths into verse so rich, so lyrical and literary that to this day they take my breath away. And while he exposed truth in new ways, he also embraced tradition. His song Creed, from the 1993 A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band (itself a nod to tradition), is Rich’s version (almost word-for-word) of the Apostles’ Creed, which dates to 390 AD.

Several years after that initial skip down Commerce Street I was back in Nashville at another GMA week. Had to be 1991 or 1992. Rich’s label had rented out a local coffee shop and invited a bunch of radio folks to a concert. Just Rich and Beaker, a dulcimer and a couple of guitars. Pure artistry. Before leaving that evening we each received a special CD that contained both volumes of The World As Best As I Remember It. That is my most prized recording to this day.

Rich didn’t make many videos, and the few he did produce are not that easy to find. But I did manage to come across an embeddable version of Here In America. That song was also on the 1993 A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band.


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