Remembering Rich Mullins: 1955-1997

The Day the Music Died

By Esther O'Reilly Published on September 19, 2017

I don’t remember what I was doing on the night of September 19, 1997. I imagine I spent the day like any other day I spent at that age — playing outside, watching movies, learning to read, and at night, curling up in bed with my favorite bear and blankie.

I slept, unaware of what had happened on I-39 North, Bloomington, Illinois, when a Jeep careened out of control and threw two men onto the highway. One of them landed out of the path of oncoming traffic and survived. The other man was run over by a truck and died instantly.

I was too young to remember the day we lost Rich Mullins, whose songs I was taught to sing (and sign) from earliest childhood. I was too young to remember the day the music died.

One of a Kind

Rich Mullins. What a concept.

Here was a man who wrote songs with poetry so lovely you could cry, yet was sometimes so abrasive you could smack him (in Christian love).

Here was a man who had infinitely gentle patience with children, the poor and the disabled, yet had a temper that erupted like a force of nature.

Here was a man who laughed deeply and gave joy freely, yet walked in the shadow of pitch-black depression. A man who pursued God with the heart of a psalmist and the stubbornness of a pit bull, yet struggled to his dying day to believe God had not abandoned him. A man who stumbled step by step through life, yet, in the end, rose to proclaim that life was worth the living.

If you tried to make him a celebrity, he would escape the Dove Awards after-show dinner and relieve the dessert server. (True story.)

If you tried to make him a prophet, he would tell you that he couldn’t even find his keys in the morning.

If you tried to make him a guru, he would tell you to come to his concerts for entertainment and go to church for spiritual nourishment.

If you tried to make him a rebel, he would extol the virtues of liturgy, sound doctrine, and old hymns sung out of tune by old men.

That was Rich Mullins: impossible to label, impossible to buy. And sometimes just plain impossible.

Fragile Genius

Some are born to success. Some achieve success. And some, like Rich Mullins, have success thrust upon them. Raised Quaker on an Indiana farm, he spent the first half of his career in youth ministry and retreat band obscurity. But his obvious gifts for writing and playing (he had mastered piano, lap and hammered dulcimer) caused friends to take action and smuggle a tape to Amy Grant’s record label. Rich himself didn’t even know who Grant was. Asked if the song she wanted was copyrighted, he said no, he didn’t suppose it was, but he did write it.

Before he knew it, Mullins was caught up in CCM’s giddy sunrise years, coaxed from behind the scenes to open for Grant in 1986. “I don’t remember the whole thing exactly,” he would later say, “but people tell me it happened.”

To the audience, everything was all smiles and synths and hideous yellow sweatshirts graced by his own song lyrics. But things were not well with Rich’s soul. His twenties had been creatively fertile but, in his words, “very disturbed years,” haunted by a broken relationship with his father and capped by a broken engagement. Now thirty, he trembled in front of ten thousand fans. Backstage footage and friends’ recollections reveal a sensitive, damaged young man who carried his loneliness wherever he went. Bereft of social graces, he made a virtue out of saying the first thing that came to his mind. Sometimes you wanted to hear it. Sometimes you wanted to back away slowly.

So it was that, in typical fashion, show biz took a fragile genius and gave him a record deal.

We know how this story should end. We have seen how it ends, time after time. But thank God, we were not its author, nor its finisher.

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The Cross That Makes a Saint

Rich Mullins was born too early to benefit from the medicine that might have eased his pain. But our God is a merciful God, and God gave him the gift of true friends. When he came to realize there were things in his life that needed to be crucified, he found men willing to take up hammer and nails with him. And so, day by day, he began to die.

While he never hid his pain from his fans, he had the dignity to express it primarily through eloquent songwriting like “If I Stand,” “Sometimes By Step,” “The Love of God,” “Growing Young,” and “Hold Me Jesus.” (The latter, he shared, was written as a prayer for deliverance from sexual temptation.) He could be brutally frank, but he was also discreet. He said just enough to encourage others who also wrestled with God in the dark.

He preached a grace that was not cheap, a grace that cost God His life and would also cost us ours. He urged the Church towards an authentic spirituality born of active obedience, not empty emotionalism.  He reminded us that we never know what we are praying, but “God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding, but according to His wisdom.” He knew well that being loved by God is a painful thing, and you may walk with a limp where He touches you. For, as he sang, “It is the sea that makes the sailor…and a cross that makes a saint.” And when those saints went marching in, Rich said he wanted to be one of them.

Fallen Seed

The fruit of God’s good work in Rich Mullins would fill many pages. I cannot recount all the stories shared by men, women and children who came forward after his death to tell how his joy had met their need. They are too numerous.

If you asked him what his net worth was, he couldn’t have told you. He kept a working man’s cut from his songwriting royalties and arranged for his church elders to give the rest away. He once gave a tour’s worth of income to a young Colombian church planter, which bloomed into a thriving ministry to the Bogota slums.

When he realized he needed to go back to college to fulfill his dream of reaching the Navajo Indians through music education, he did so, at the height of his career. There, he forged a special bond with the multiply impaired young daughter of one of his professors. Though she was totally deaf, he liked to whisper his prayers into her ears, convinced that she had “real pull with God.” The unpublished “Madeline’s Song” was dedicated to her.

Tragically, he ultimately lost the teaching job he had worked so hard for, partly over denominational differences with his employers. (He refused to stop visiting Catholic mass on Sundays unless they could provide him with a service of comparable quality at their evangelical parish.) But he settled on the reservation with his ragamuffin band and continued to invest in the Navajo people, whether he was giving concerts for the kids or ministering to the inmates of the men’s prison. His vision for a larger ministry to the Navajos would not come to fruition until after his death.

And the stories go on, and on.

“Be Faithful”

Rich received many fan letters. One day, he got one from a New England college sophomore named Matt. Matt had worn out the records of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and most especially, Rich Mullins. In 1989, he sent a letter and a demo tape to his hero. Then he went back to school, hardly daring to hope for an answer.

When the answer arrived in his mailbox, he paused before opening it, trying to imagine what might be inside. A list of names? A stunned reaction to his songs? Michael W. Smith’s home phone number?

With Matt’s permission, I can tell you exactly what was inside:

Matt:

Winston Churchill was famous for a lot of things & because of his fame, his advice to the student body at his alma mater is famous as well. He just said to them simply, “Never ever ever ever ever give up!”

I am not so famous, but if I could tell you something about getting into writing for Christian artists or growing up in Jesus or whatever, I would summarize a letter Paul the Apostle wrote to the saints in Ephesus. I would say to you,

“BE FAITHFUL.”

Remember, God sees the big picture & is working in you to create something unimaginably great. It is God that does the work and to an end that he alone knows. I do not know if you will be writing for Russ Taff or Amy Grant some day. Make every effort to let the desire of your heart be to write for the Lord. Write honestly. Write the truth as best as you know it. Do not be preoccupied with writing. That will choke out your ability to see what should be written. Be preoccupied with the task & privilege of following the Lord & write as you go. “Throw your bread on the water…” Sing to those who need to be sung to. Memorize for yourself Psalm 137: 4-6… “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

If “Jerusalem” is your desire, Nashville will be just a layover. You can take it or leave it. BE FAITHFUL. Be God’s!

Rich Mullins

Matt never did get the career he was hoping for. He got something far better.

Conclusion

Rich Mullins left behind an enviable professional legacy. It’s the legacy of an artist who bucked the Nashville machine to emerge as a true American original, in lyrics and prose essays informed by a keen literary mind. It’s a body of work that broke the mold of what Christian music should sound like, paving the way for a new generation of artists to forge their own identities.

But when he was asked to name his greatest accomplishment, he replied, “I think that if I…if I can be obedient to God, that would be the greatest accomplishment.”

I love him, though I never met him. I love him because he invites me to forget Rich Mullins and remember the God who made him. When I hear his music, I want to be generous to the poor. I want to be patient with the disabled. I want to look up at blue skies as if for the first time. I want to kneel at the foot of a freshly made bed and pray for the persecuted church. Most of all, I want to know the love of God, though I know that I don’t know what I’m asking.

Rest in peace, Rich Mullins: Singer. Poet. Music-maker. Teacher and student. Loyal friend and royal pain in the butt. Beloved brother. Beloved son.

 

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  • Elizabeth Litts

    His music still blesses, comforts and challenges me to a deeper walk with the Lord.

  • LYoung

    Esther,
    Thanks for remembering him. May a new generation discover the wonder of his music and voice. His songs got me through some dark times and lifted me to heaven. And still do.

  • Linda

    Thanks. I didn’t know any of this background information though I am familiar with some of his songs. People are so fragile and so resilient, both.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      You’re welcome. A movie called Ragamuffin attempts to shed some light on the background, but honestly I think it was really not done well at all–not because I’m freaked out to learn that he abused alcohol and could sometimes be a jerk, but because it simply wasn’t well crafted and didn’t make me believe I was watching Rich. You’re far better off browsing the YouTube archives of interviews and concerts or reading his articles.

  • Great article, Esther. Thank you for writing it!

    • Esther O’Reilly

      Thanks Nate. Everybody, I stole Nate’s idea of calling this “The Day the Music Died.” Props to Nate. That was a good thought.

  • SJPublius

    Thanks Esther – this article was a wonderful blessing on a quiet Sunday. Rich Mullins was a child of God in a very rare and raw form. His courage to speak truth continues to disarm me when I need it most.

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