In the summer of 1997, I was essentially a blank slate. I was purging a lot of traits and habits and try to start myself anew. During that process of redefining myself, I really started to change my musical tastes and search for something deeper to listen to. I was fertile ground for the music of Rich Mullins. I saw him and his Ragamuffin band in the early summer heat and marveled at the musical talent on some of my favorite underappreciated instruments like dulcimers, both lap dulcimers and hammer dulcimers. I laughed a Rich’s cup game as he sang “Screen Door” with his band. I’ll even admit that I teared up a little bit when he told the story of the Irish sweater because in some ways I felt like that sweater that had washed up on the shore, bedraggled and unrecognizable. This was the Gospel told without manipulative altar calls or fancy language, it was just Christ and His love and I ate it up.
I started buying Rich’s CD’s like crazy and I even bought the CD for his musical, “Canticle of the Plains.” I was hooked. I read all about his adventures at Cornerstone Festival that summer in 1997, the impromptu show with Derek Webb, the Canticle of the Plains performed on the Gallery Stage and vowed I would find some way to get there the next year. I was at a real turning point in my life and dealing with a lot of stress, disappointment, and change, and Rich’s music was one of the things I used to get me through that time. By the end of the summer, I was feeling confident again and Rich’s music had centered my focus on God.
A few short months later, I read about Rich’s death on USENET. I wanted to believe it was just another “internet rumor”, but as the posts kept pouring in, I knew it had to be legit. I remember a friend of mine seeing my face of shock as I read the computer screen and asked me what I was reading and I quietly said, “Rich Mullins is dead.” He looked like he had been punched in the stomach. I was numb and stayed that way for at least a week. I went through the motions going to work and to everyone else who interacted with me, I probably didn’t appear or act any different, but on the inside I was dying. I probably listened to some of Rich’s songs every day for the next six months.
I did make it out to Cornerstone the next year and I got to see Sixpence None the Richer, This Train, Mitch McVicker, and Rich’s old band, A Ragamuffin Band perform a tribute concert for Rich. It’s one of those concerts that sticks in my mind and is fresh in my memory even nine years later as other memories erode. Rich has been long gone for years now. I wondered at the time what it would be like to meet people who knew nothing about Rich Mullins or his music, but as time passes that’s become more and more real. Fortunately, I think there are lot of artists still around that bear his influence. Certainly, the music of Derek Webb and Andrew Peterson still bears a lot of Rich’s marks. Cliff Young of Caedmon’s Call once told me some funny stories about Rich. Rich certainly didn’t put on a facade for people, but the people close to him knew a side of him intimately and all the hangups and struggles and he made no excuses for them. Additionally, I loved Rich’s attitude towards the church and Christian music. He was often critical and pointed, but all the same, he still loved people despite all the absurd rules church and the music industry set up to give their stamp of approval.
It’s been 10 years since today that Rich died in a car accident and I still occasionally wonder what Rich would be doing if he were still alive. What would his music sound like? Would he even be making music now? Reading Rich’s essays today always seem eerily prophetic and foreshadowing that he was ready to go out at any time (if nothing else, his song “Elijah” makes that obvious.) I’m glad to have been alive at the same time as him and experience his music and I can’t wait to meet him someday on the other side of the Jordan.