Artist: Rich Mullins
Album: A Liturgy, a Legacy & a Ragamuffin Band
In Brief: The rare CCM record from the “pre-alternative” era that still captivates me. Lots of profound and beautiful moments, even in between the undisputed Mullins classics.
It’s funny how an artist’s death can cause us to re-evaluate our opinions of their work. Part of it’s just because it’s typically seen as tasteless to criticize a dead guy (or at least a recently dead one). But the effect is especially interesting when an artist whose work you sort of liked suddenly passes away. It’s almost instinctual – there’s suddenly no room for casual fans, and suddenly everyone who had marginal interest in the guy is lining up to nominate him for sainthood. This is more deserved in some cases than in others, but it begs the question of why the sudden crop of new fans required this tragic news in order to suddenly “get it”, and whether some of them, in fact, do “get it”. As far as dead musicians go, I don’t have much experience with this phenomenon, personally, since most of the big-name entertainers who have bought the farm during my lifetime haven’t generally been cases where I could honestly claim even casual fandom of their work. But I can remember the first significant moment where a musician’s death hit close to home and I felt kind of bad for writing off a lot of his work while he was still alive. That particular dead guy is Rich Mullins, who was tragically killed in a rural road accident in 1997.
For those not familiar with the name, Rich Mullins was a contemporary Christian singer/songwriter active in the 80s and 90s, whose down-to-Earth musical style (somewhere between folk and the light end of pop, I guess) and his knack for making wry observations about the Christian faith earned him several Christian radio hits during that timeframe. He was capable of creating otherworldly soundscapes when the situation called for it, given his ability to play unusual instruments such as the tin whistle and hammered dulcimer. But quite often, his songs were piano or guitar-based, simple and unfussy on the surface. He’s probably best known for a handful of worship songs, particularly “Awesome God”, which is a poor metric by which to judge his skill, seeing as everyone who knows the song either only remembers the chorus, or they know the verse lyrics and they cringe at them. (Even Rich wasn’t that fond of the song in his later years.) But listen to a lot of his less “congregational” musings, and you’ll find a guy who was fascinated by Jesus’s ability to constantly buck our stereotypes, and also a guy who didn’t take himself too seriously.
In many ways, Rich was out of step with the mostly evangelical subculture that had embraced his music – talking about stuff like the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and loving the poor, and giving up the conventional tour circuit to go live with a Navajo tribe in the later years of his life just wasn’t the sort of stuff that moved tons of units. There seemed to be plenty of folks in the biz who genuinely liked the guy – I never heard so much as a negative word said about him. But I didn’t really understand him at the time, so I had more of a distant respect than a genuine close knowledge and appreciation of his music. It was only in late 1996 and early 1997 – less than twelve months before his death – that I finally bothered to listen to some of his music aside from whenever it happened to be on the radio. I picked up his greatest hits collection Songs, which was just a convenient way to get several of his biggest hits without having to fuss with the albums. A friend loaned me Brother’s Keeper and A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, which would turn out to be the last two complete albums he would make in his lifetime. I never did get into Brother’s Keeper, and it took me a good five years or so before I pulled out Ragamuffin Band again and really started to “get it” with that record. At some point it finally dawned on me (and I’m sort of glad that I didn’t force myself to think this right after he died) – this stuff is way better than a lot of the vapid, pre-packaged CCM pop that I thought was great back in the late 90s. Despite Rich being eulogized to a frenzied level that he himself probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with, this is one of those albums that holds its own nearly twenty years later. It’s Christian music that hits you upfront with a lot of substance rather than over-emphasizing style… but it’s still got a style and personality all its own.
Released in 1993, A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band was the rare “concept album” to come from the weird world of Christian music that seemed to work on a holistic level as well as it did on a more superficial, “just cherry-pick the good songs” level. The latter was important to its success and our ability to fondly recall it later, I think. The lion’s share of the singles, somewhat unsurprisingly, came from its “Liturgy” side, which is more or less structured like a church service, with a call to worship, a statement of belief, an intimate prayer or two, and a benediction. The “Legacy” half of the album, while still relatable to your average Joe Christian, focused more on storytelling and personal history and didn’t always spell out its “religious” significance as obviously. I believe Rich’s intent was to pay equal tribute to the rituals and the deeply spiritual practices that bind us together as a congregation, and to those other six days of the week when we simply go out into the “real world” and try to do what we do the best way we know how to do it. Our “secular heritage”, as Rich put it. In a subculture that’s often busy decrying the supposed removal of God from school and work and public life, it’s refreshing to hear a Christian intelligently making the case that God is still as present as He always was – you just have to know where to look and stop assuming the walls of the church are the only place God can be found. I’m sure that entire seminary dissertations have been written on this habit that we Christians have of compartmentalizing our lives into “holy” and “normal” categories (or else trying to shoehorn the sacred into the everyday just by sprinkling a lot of awkward dogmatic language into it), but I’m not quite well-read enough to delve to deep into that. All I can say is that I appreciate Rich’s attempt to bridge the gap a lot more now than when I was a teenager, and I just wanted to hear bouncy beats and cool guitar and synthesizer sounds blasting out of my speakers.
Musically, parts of this album can feel rather easygoing and unassuming, likely an intentional consequence of the ragtag band of musicians assembled to create more of a close-knit atmosphere in the studio than your typical group of hired-gun backup musicians simply clocking in and out for a paycheck. The “Liturgy” section is strikingly beautiful pretty much all the way through, none of it sounding “churchy” per se, but definitely instilling a sense of dramatic awe and tranquil peace in the listener. Chances are, if there’s a classic Rich Mullins song on this album that you’ve heard and just didn’t realize it was him, this is where you’ll find it. The “Legacy” section has its musically juicy cuts, but for the most part the lyrics take focus there, which makes it a bit weird to my ears that it’s the second half of the record. It seems that starting with the “Legacy” and working our way up to the “Liturgy” might have made the record a bit more climactic. There are also a handful of “Legacy” songs where some of the production values and backing vocals and so forth veer a bit too close to the typical adult contemporary pop of its day, in contrast with the mostly timeless feel of the “Liturgy”. My biases are obviously clear, but even the weaker section of the album is strong enough that I feel more than comfortable giving it an “A” grade overall. There’s just too much depth here for me to claim, as I may have once tragically done, that any of Rich’s songs are boring.
1. Here in America
“Just allow me to make this disclaimer, everybody… I’m barely ready to do this.” This amusing admission from a member of the Ragamuffin Band gets a chuckle from Rich, which tells you a lot about the sort of camaraderie he apparently valued over raw talent in his recordings. Which is not to say that there’s an actual lack of talent. This opening song, though laid-back and understated, has a unique sort of beauty to it, with the acoustic guitar, piano, and accordion reminding me of several songs that Jars of Clay and/or Fernando Ortega had not yet recorded at the time. The language is all Rich’s own – a travelogue of sorts, with the various sights and sounds across the country reminding him that “The Holy King of Israel loves me here in America”. Though this song feels a bit out of place since it has more kinship with the “Legacy” side of the record, there’s a subtle theme of awe and worship inherent in the various monuments to the beauty of creation that Rich witnesses in his travels. It’s the moment where the two disparate halves of the record are most clearly tied together, and that’s probably why he chose to open the record with it. Only two things strike me as awkward here – one, his habit of rhyming things with “America” that are a bit of a stretch (“come”, “was”, “brought”), and two, though it was obviously unintentional at the time, his description of trucks as “four-wheeled messiahs” seems a bit ironic considering how he died.
The “Liturgy” officially begins here, with a majestic call to worship in the form of a brief scripture reading over dramatic rolling drums and galloping piano. Actually, I shouldn’t call it a “reading” of Scripture so much as I should call it a “heralding”. The way Rich sings it, stretching out what few lyrics there are as if to make them echo out across the plains, brings a wonderfully dramatic touch to a passage from Isaiah that describes the might and power of God: “The Lord has bared His Holy arm/In the sight of all the nations/And all the ends of the earth shall see/The Lord’s salvation.” Especially when the strings really get going near the end of it, it’s so climactic that it feels more like a grand finale than an introduction to something.
3. The Color Green
This was one of the first Rich Mullins songs that I ever heard (by way of the black-and-white music video directed by Steve Taylor, which was rife with Irish scenery), and though it was totally out of step with the kind of music I enjoyed at the time, it’s become my all-time favorite song of his. The graceful, rolling rhythm (which I think is 9/8), the intricacy of its arrangement of piano, strings, and tin whistle, and the rousing chorus would capture my attention all by themselves, but when you combine this with lyrics that express, in Rich’s distinctly poetic terminology, how creation rises up in praise to its Creator, and I’m absolutely transfixed. For all I know, many of these ideas may have come from devotionals and ancient texts that Rich was reading at the time, but he manages to mold everyday sights into beautiful echoes of something infinite: “And the moon is a sliver of silver/Like a shaving that fell on the floor of a Carpenter’s shop/And every house must have it’s builder/And I awoke in the house of God/Where the windows are mornings and evenings/Stretched from the sun across the sky, north to south/And on my way to early meeting/I heard the rocks crying out.” It’s a shame that, while the two Songs compilations purporting to contain Rich’s best work pretty much cherry-picked the entire front half of this album, “52:10” and especially this track were left out of the proceedings.
4. Hold Me Jesus
Now here’s a much more well-known and well-loved classic that I just can’t argue with. It’s an almost immediate tear-jerker, with its intimate, prayerful posture and its tranquil, timid piano. Back in the 80s and early 90s, a lot of Rich Mullins’ ballads might have had their fragility drowned out by the common production choices of the era (read: synthesizers), but songs like this make it clear why hand-picking a “Ragamuffin Band” was so important to Rich. The completely organic sound provided by the piano, classical guitar, and accordion complement the prayerful mood without overwhelming it (a point that Rebecca St. James didn’t quite get when she covered it a few years later). Rich’s lyrics cut to the core as he sings of being intimidated by various trials to the point where he’s “shaking like a leaf”, but there’s more depth to it than just being protected from the world. Here, he’s frustrated with his own stubborn habit of fighting for control. His weathered voice makes a dilemma all to familiar to a lot of Christians come to the forefront in the bridge: “Surrender don’t come natural to me/I’d rather fight You for something I don’t really want/Than take what You give and I need.” I didn’t realize how refreshing it was to hear an honest prayer like that on Christian radio at the time. I was too young and naive to have fought that fight yet.
The hammered dulcimer is one of those instruments that is so deeply associated with Mullins in my memory that whenever I hear it, regardless of the musical context, I think of him. This faith-affirming anthem may be his most iconic use of the instrument – without it, it would still be an interesting musical adaptation of the Apostles’ Creed, but the musical distinctiveness of it is what really gives the song “classic” status. It’s the first of a few songs on the record that Rich wrote with his frequent collaborator, the strangely-nicknamed Beaker. It might surprise you to learn that any songwriting was involved when the song recites its creed almost verbatim, but the chorus is what allows Rich and Beaker the chance to put these sentiments into their own words: “I believe what I believe/It’s what makes me who I am/I did not make it, no it is making me/It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.” It’s easy for Christians to just make the circular argument that something’s true because you believe it is. Anyone can claim that. But you can tell there’s genuine conviction behind a belief when you can see how it changes a person in ways that wouldn’t exactly be convenient if they were just making that belief up out of thin air. The point here isn’t to convince others to believe by brute force; it’s to say that those of us who believe need the reminder that the things Jesus did and said should be constantly challenging and changing us, rather than bending and twisting to our own whims.
6. Peace (A Communion Blessing From St. Joseph’s Square)
This is yet another song that I heard on the radio a lot back in ’94 and ’95, but didn’t appreciate at the time. It didn’t help that the radio just cut right into it, leaving out the contemplative piano intro at the beginning and just sort of diving into the first verse. With “Creed” and with this simple but elegant song, Rich seeks to emphasize the communal aspect of worship, the part where we recognize one another as made in God’s image and say “Peace be with you” and respond “And also with you”. (What, your church doesn’t do that? Neither do a lot of modern ones.) Here he’s curious about the face of someone who turns to greet him during service – a stranger who he knows very little about, yet loves as a brother, this act of sharing in God’s body bringing them closer together. Midway through, more traditional rock instrumentation starts to take over – electric guitar, and especially loud drums and bass. It’s not a heavy or edgy song by any stretch of the imagination – but I like that the “live band” aspect of it isn’t buried in the mix. It’s a good bridge between the Sunday morning awe of the “Liturgy” section and the “Sunday afternoon and beyond” explored in the rest of the album.
7. 78 Eatonwood Green
The “Legacy” section starts with a short but rousing instrumental, built around acoustic guitar, accordion, and hammered dulcimer. It’s got a slight Celtic lilt to it, sort of like “The Color Green”, but sped up. You could do a little jig to it if you wanted. The significance of the title is anyone’s guess, but I like to imagine it’s a street address – perhaps a home that was a warmly familiar place during Rich’s childhood. I’m sort of reminded of Nickel Creek when I hear this one – just replace the dulcimer with a mandolin and it’d fit perfectly into one of their albums. (Of course, the members of Nickel Creek were just entering their teenage years at the time… not that it would have stopped them from being as ridiculously talented as everyone who performed on this track.)
Here’s where the music gets kind of simplistic for a few tracks. Rich is pretty much in coffeehouse mode here with his easy-going guitar-picking and some bongos… though as the song unfolds it starts to take a bit of a wrong turn into typical CCM territory due to the intrusive backing vocals that don’t really add any value, in my opinion. It took me a long time – possibly up until the last few years or so – to start to appreciate this one. Not that it isn’t cleverly written… it’s just that Christian radio played it to death back when I first started listening to it, and every time I heard Rich’s voice suddenly bust in with “Well, I am a good Midwestern boy, give an honest day’s work if I can get it”, I just wanted to tear my hair out. I secretly suspect that some of those deejays enjoyed the next two lines of the verse without catching the self-deprecation that would soon follow it: “I don’t cheat on my taxes, I don’t cheat on my girl/I got values that would make the White House jealous.” (Those were the Clinton years, after all.) The point of course, is that it’s easy to use others as a measuring stick and think you’re not doing too shabby in the whole righteousness department, only to look at the heroes of faith in the Bible and suddenly feel like you’re completely missing the point. (And Peter and Paul had their share of screw-ups, too.) The bottom line, which Rich states rather repetitively in the chorus, is that “It’s hard to be like Jesus.” I think I’ve grown to like this one more since I’ve learned the hard way to shed some of my own self-righteousness… growing up will (at least hopefully) do that to a formerly naive young Christian. And for all of my indifference about the “workmanlike” sound of this song, I’ve gotta admit, there is a rather tasty guitar solo in the bridge.
9. I’ll Carry On
I heard this one a lot in the days when “Hard” was finally starting to wane in popularity. Not quite as much, but still, to me it might as well have been “Hard Part 2” at the time. It opens with a similar gimmick of the vocals coming in from nowhere and the backing band slowly joining in, which makes the first verse drag a bit, and the song never seems to quite get to the emotional climax that it’s using this slow burn to build towards. That isn’t for lack of trying – the chorus aims to be a bit of a sing-along, and the instruments get all big and loud during the final sprint to the finish, and there are even these majestic touches like bells and so forth that aim to make the song feel like some sort of epic seafaring tale. Something about the pacing of it just feels a bit off, like it never quite gets off the ground. I also feel like Rich is tying to cram too many words into his little tribute to the hometown that he had to pick up and leave in order to become a full-time musician. Everyone here feels like they’re having a bit of an off day, turning what could have been a crowning conclusion to the album (it’s only track 9, but with the right treatment it would have made a great closing track) into its weakest track.
10. You Gotta Get Up (Christmas Song)
This is one of those songs that is almost overbearingly cutesy, and yet it totally gets away with it. Just to add to the audacity of it, it’s a freakin’ Christmas song buried right in the middle of a non-seasonal album. How is it that I even like this? I think it’s because Rich plays the role of a little boy so well here (his lyrics sound like the sort of rushed, excited story that a little boy would re-tell to every single aunt and uncle showing up at a family gathering), plus there are these classy little musical touches like the brief interpolation of “O Come All Ye Faithful” in the intro and the tin whistle that pops in between verses. Aside from that, it’s mostly a solo piano song, with a lilting melody that would lend itself well to a more upbeat arrangement (Five Iron Frenzy made a not-too-shabby attempt at this on a Christmas compilation a few years later), but here the production mostly stays out of the way. This is the rare Christmas song that touches on the secular and scared aspects of Christmas without either one seeming cloying. Many of us can remember being excited about the presents we might get and the possibility of hearing Santa Claus on our roofs late on Christmas Eve, while being told the old Bible story that would come to mean more to us than the gifts as we got older. Rich phrases it like a kid in a nativity play might – “Oh, I hope there’ll be peace on Earth, I know there’s goodwill towards men/On account of that baby born in Bethlehem.” Man, I’ll take this over “The Christmas Shoes” any year.
11. How to Grow Up Big and Strong
The last two tracks of the “Legacy” side are probably the ones least likely to get heard outside the context of the album. On this one, which has a dominant rock feel to it that almost seems jarring given the rest of the album mostly avoiding anything remotely aggressive, Mullins pays tribute to Mark Heard, who died pretty much right before I got into Christian music. (So nowadays, that makes this song a dead guy covering a dead guy. Eerie, huh?) From what I’ve heard about the guy, I might have not had much exposure to his music at the time anyway, since he seems to have straddled the line between Christian and mainstream music in such a way that neither side really knew what to do with him (which ironically sounds like a lot of the musicians I like nowadays). Strangely enough, this same song was once covered by Olivia Newton-John, but this version is the only one I’m familiar with. The lyrics shoot for folksy and land way beyond it in the realm of broken English, by way of not conjugating any verbs: “Strong man strangle universe /He drown the stars/Blinded by the mission of a thousand wars/He fit and dominant, not wonder why/He heed the battle cry.” It’s fitting that a song about the pure, animalistic, violent instinct (or is it God’s wrath? Discuss amongst yourselves.) would be centered around a raw, simplistic drum beat and electric guitars and not a whole lot of production gloss. There’s an ever-so-slight bluesiness to it that makes me think Ashley Cleveland could have had some fun with a song like this.
12. Land of My Sojourn
The closing song almost feels like an echo of “Here in America”, trading the accordion for dulcimer and bright, glistening bells. It floats along with a gentle grace that perhaps puts “catchiness” at a distance, so while it’s not going to remembered among Mullins’ most outstanding classics, it’s a tasteful way to close the album. What’s interesting here is that Rich avoids the language of nature’s beauty and broad, panoramic vistas that made “Here in America” and “The Color Green” work so well. His words are concerned with the machines and monuments created by man – both majestic ones like cathedrals and the statue of Liberty, and the ugly ones like dirty alleys and asphalt highways and belching smokestacks… and the state of New Jersey. To Rich, these things represent the groaning of a land longing to be reborn – the pangs of creation, if you will. It’s an unusual song, to be sure, but there’s something about Rich’s ability to wring poetry out of humdrum imagery that I find strangely compelling.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Here in America $1.25
The Color Green $2
Hold Me Jesus $2
Peace (A Communion Blessing From St. Joseph’s Square) $1.25
78 Eatonwood Green $1.50
I’ll Carry On $.50
You Gotta Get Up (Christmas Song) $1.75
How to Grow Up Big and Strong $1.25
Land of My Sojourn $1
As this album comes to an end, I’m reminded that my album collection is woefully short on Rich Mullins. I once had a copy of Songs on cassette, a potential jumping off point to several albums that I never got around to exploring. The aforementioned Brother’s Keeper was one of those that I bought second-hand and sold similarly. Beyond that, I never got the chance to dig into albums that it seems like so many old-school Christian music fans remember fondly, like The World as Best I Remember It or the posthumous Jesus Record (which was completed by the Ragamuffin Band shortly after Rich was taken from us). I really need to do something about that, don’t I?
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.