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When Rich Mullins went home to the Lord, he left behind a spiritual and artistic legacy that touched many. On Sept. 19, 1997, Rich and fellow musician Mitch McVicker were travelling southbound on I-39 near Peoria, Ill., to a benefit concert in Wichita, Kan. They lost control of their jeep and flipped. They were thrown onto the road. The driver of a rig swerved to miss the jeep, but hit Rich.

McVicker, 24, suffered serious head and internal injuries. Rich was dead at 41.

Throughout his career, his dogged grip on what was good and true meant Christians from many different denominations found hope and meaning in his songs and ministry.

Rich Wayne Mullins was born Oct. 21, 1955, in Richmond, Ind. The third of John and Neva Mullins' six children - four boys and two girls - Rich was raised on his parents' Indiana farm.

Rich's musical training began at an early age. His great-grandmother taught him hymns while he learned to play the piano from Mary Kellner. Rich considered Kellner to be one of his greatest musical influences, not only for teaching him to play and introducing him to the great masters, but also for sparking his passion and imagination about what he was learning. He is said to have written his first song on the piano at age 4. As a teenager, he wrote songs while driving a tractor in the fields on his father's farm.

He graduated from Northeastern High School in 1974. As a student at Cincinnati Bible College, Rich joined Zion Ministries and sang in the pop-vocal quartet Zion. Though he was the only member to pursue music as a vocation, in 1981, the group - through a generous grant from Rich's uncle - independently produced an album, Behold the Man. The record, sold almost exclusively at Zion's concerts and long out of print, featured Rich solo on one song, "Heaven In His Eyes." The rest featured either group performances or duets.

That same year, the group performed at Nashville's Koinonia Coffeehouse, and Reunion Records' Mike Blanton heard a tape. He soon signed Rich to a publishing deal.

In 1983, Amy Grant recorded Rich's "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" for Age to Age. Within a short time, the song was seemingly absorbed into the American hymnody. Grant continued to champion Rich as a writer, recording "Doubly Good to You" for Straight Ahead and "Love of Another Kind" for Unguarded.

Rich signed his first recording contract and released Rich Mullins, his debut on Reunion Records (the label founded by Grant's managers) in 1985. The simple cover art indicated his self-deprecating humor, with a cover portrait that included only part of his face and left his name on his T-shirt a tangled mess from behind his folded arms. The album's lyrics portrayed a rare honesty. As Rich sings in "A Few Good Men": Show me someone who knows how to struggle/ Who isn't caught in the hold of his luxuries/ I just need to see/ Someone who was made for trouble/ Who could come and help shape our destiny.

With his second record, Pictures in the Sky, Christian music fans began to notice Rich in earnest. "Screen Door" was an unlikely hit (with its a cappella doo-wop arrangement and catchy "hand-clap-finger-snap-knee-slap" rhythm) that was very different from usual Christian radio fare. "Verge of a Miracle" was also a success, full of crisp, shimmery sounds and words full of optimism without resorting to platitudes.

With Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, Rich learned to express himself in a way that was simpler, yet still had depth. "The Other Side of the World" was a compelling reminder that the Kingdom of God is built by "the least of these." In "If I Stand," he used spare instrumentation to underscore his longing to live a life of faith, grace, and peace. "Awesome God," a simple song expressing the grandest of truths, had the biggest impact: Churches everywhere incorporated the song into their worship, and almost overnight Rich became one of the biggest names in Christian music. While other artists chose to move closer to the inside of the industry, Rich moved away. Having lived in Nashville since the beginning of his career, he moved to Wichita to take part in the ministry of the Rev. Maurice Howard at Wichita's Central Christian Church.

Although Howard passed away a few months after Rich moved to Kansas, Rich stayed on, basing his music and ministry from Central Christian Church. He wanted to coordinate his mission work with his musical career. He moved into a house with lifelong friend and musical collaborator Beaker.

With Never Picture Perfect, Rich delved deeper into his musical heritage and personal experience to make art with a universal appeal. "While the Nations Rage" went hand in hand with "The Other Side of the World" challenging Christians to not turn a blind eye to social injustice. "First Family" offered a tribute to his parents. On songs like "My One Thing" and "Hope to Carry On," Rich mixed in folk instruments like Appalachian hammered dulcimer and mandolin, while more driving rock energy began showing up in his music.

While his "celebrity" status continued to rise, Rich often shifted the focus off himself, stepping out of the limelight. He'd often join an audience before a show. In rural Missouri, Rich came into the auditorium while the house lights were still up, guitar in hand. "The show's not starting just yet," he said, "but while we're waiting, I wanted to teach you this song we'll be doing later. It's a new one, so you probably haven't heart it before." Then he took the audience through the chorus to "Sometimes By Step" one line at a time until they had it down.

He toured relentlessly to bring his music to the public. The shows were almost entirely acoustic (years before "unplugged" became a trend) and featured supporting acts as Rich's band, trading off on a multitude of instruments, including hammered dulcimer, accordian, and all manner of ethnic percussion. For the rhythm on "Screen Door," in a marvelous feat of choreography, they employed bar stools and plastic cups. They usually opened the show with a rendition of Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus sung a cappella and arranged in The Beach Boy's style.

The spirit of these shows was closely reflected in Rich's two-volume album The World As Best As I Remember It. The first disc opened with the strains of bagpipes and a boy soprano singing the plaintive prayer: O God, You are my God/ And I will ever praise You/ I will seek You in the morning/ I will learn to walk in Your ways/ And step by step You'll lead me/ And I will follow You all of my days.

Rich expressed on these discs a glimpse not only of the state of the world, but also of himself, from celebrating the incarnation of Christ in "Boy Like Me/Man Like You" or "The Maker of Noses" to the broken spirit longing for eternity in "Calling Out Your Name" and "The River."

During this period, there were rumors of Rich's retirement from music. He often spoke of his interest in being a missionary and teaching music to children. When Beaker married and moved away in 1993, Rich cut back his concert and recording schedule to study music education at Friends University in Wichita. He then moved in with Friends' campus chaplain and theology professor Jim Smith and his family.

For A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, Rich retained much of the musical spirit of his previous two records, while drawing on the influences and musical friendships of his "Ragamuffin Band." Each of the members - Jimmy Abegg, Rich Elias, Phil Madeira, Lee Lundgren, Aaron Smith, and Billy Crockett - had musical careers of their own. The high profile band spread the spotlight around, making Rich less the focus.

The record consisted of two parts: Part one ("the Liturgy") was destined to convey the idea of a liturgy, or an order of worship; part two ("the Legacy") was conceived as an expression of the tension of being a Christian in America.

"Growing up in a non-liturgical church," Rich had said, "we though we were non-liturgical. But when I look back, we definitely had one. You know, like the Call to Worship, Hymn of Praise, Prayer Hymn, Prayer Time, Offering, Sermon ... this thing that we follow. There is something very exciting to me about singing hymns that people have been singing for generations."

He said if we believe in the communion of the saints, then it is not only communion with the saints that are still in the Body, but also with the saints of old. So, he said, it connects us with a lot more people.

In 1995, after receiving his degree in Music Education from Friends University, Rich took a big step: he moved to the reservation near Window Rock, Ariz., to teach music to the children on the Navajo reservation. One of his goals was to organize a choir that might go on the road with him.

His life at Window Rock was represented somewhat on Brother's Keeper, is second record with the Ragamuffins. The album featured artwork and photos inspired by and taken on the reservation. It was also the first record where Rich held the producer's credit, shared with the other members of the band.

The words captured a compelling picture of grace and redemption, as in "Wounds of Love": Well, if passion can lead to prayer/ Then maybe prayer can give us faith/ And if faith is all we got/ Then maybe faith is all we need.

Once the record was out, he put that faith to the test, cutting most of his ties to the first decade of his career. He ended his decade-long relationship with Reunion Records and with his longtime manager. He spent a good deal of time just concentrating on his work in New Mexico and playing a few shows here and there.

Reunion issued Songs, featuring many of Rich's biggest hits, plus three new recordings (a remake of Rich's personal favorite, "Elijah," his own recording of the ever-popular "Sing Your Praise to the Lord," and the buried gem "We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are").

During this independent period, Rich wrote and recorded Canticle of the Plains, a musical based on the life and legend of St. Francis of Assisi, set in the American Old West. While most of Rich's records had some underlying theme, this was the first to have a "story" sketched out in the liner notes and fleshed out as a drama. He produced the record with Ragamuffin and This Train bassist Mark Robertson, and wrote the songs with Beaker and Mitch McVicker. However, Rich didn't actually sing on this project; the "parts" were sung by the different cast members. Mitch sang the role of Frank, a disillusioned veteran of the Civil War who returns home seeking God's greater plan. Michael Tait sang the role of Buzz, a former slave anxious to find the meaning of freedom. Kevin Smith portrayed Ivory, a childhood friend of Frank's intrigued by the change that has come over his friend. Leigh Nash rounds out the cast as Clare, the love who gives Frank up so he can pursue the purpose laid before him by God.

A month before his death, Rich signed a new recording contract with Myrrh Records. He was scheduled to go into the studio in October with Rick Elias to work on The Jesus Record, for June 1998. He submitted a demo tape of rough home recordings of the songs to be included on the finished disc.

As a tribute to Rich's legacy, the Ragamuffin Band (headed by producer and guitarist Rich Elias) plans to record and sing the songs themselves to help continue the work Rich began during his lifetime.

There were four memorial services held for Rich. On Sept. 26, a Nashville service was held at Christ Presbyterian Church. The next day, a service was held at Wichita State University's Henry Levitt Arena with more than 5,000 people in attendance. On Oct. 13, a memorial service was held on the reservation in Window Rock, Ariz. Then, on Oct. 15, a final service was held in memory of Rich at the Compassion International headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Canticle of the Plains was the last project Rich completed during his life. As with all of Rich's concerts, Canticle of the Plains ends with a period of worship to the Father. It is fitting that Rich would leave us with this final admonition to keep our attention and our adoration squarely focused on our Creator, Redeemer, and Inspirer.

Rich told the truth.

And now he is free.


Copyrighted by VoxCorp, Inc, 1998


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