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A little while ago I was doing some "research" for a Rich Mullins article I was writing—that is, I was listening to his music. The song playing was "Calling Out Your Name" from The World As Best As I Remember It Volume 1. I have heard the song countless times now and it might be in my top 5 Rich Mullins songs ever. Nonetheless, as I listened once again to this masterpiece I could not help but think "man, this song is weird...how in the world did it ever get played on Christian radio?"
To my knowledge "Calling Out Your Name" was never an official single for Mullins and yet it still got played on my local Christian radio station throughout the 90's and for a few years after his death (WCIC). Consider how strange this song is:
1. It contains a 1 minute, 15 second instrumental intro, prominently featuring a hammered dulcimer. Think of the state of Christian radio today in 2015 and then think of how crazy it is that a song like this would even be considered appropriate for air. Sure, Mullins was known for his proficiency on the hammered dulcimer and everyone loved its sound and the mesmerizing things he did with it on his songs. Even so, what the heck even is a hammered dulcimer?! Of course, I have known what what the instrument is for over twenty years now, but I owe that knowledge primarily to Mullins.
2. The lyrics, despite being an overt praise song to God, are frankly quite strange. They are a mashup of Biblical, American, Pastoral, and Native American references and imagery—in other words, a Rich Mullins song. Only Mullins could allude to a huge Native American sculpture in Wichita, Kansas and not have anyone bat an eye that it was still a legitimate praise song.
But here is the thing: The song was so good Christian radio had to play it. Its brilliance and genius could not be denied.
This was the case for nearly all of Mullins' work. His songs were either too quirky (think of the odd verses on "Awesome God": "When he rolls up his sleeves he ain't just puttin' on the ritz"), too broken and raw ("Hold Me Jesus" "Not As Strong As We Think We Are"), too morbid ("Elijah" and "Be With You"), too abstract ("If I Stand", "Jacob and 2 Women"), or contained too odd of concepts (an entire song that consists of almost nothing but the Apostles Creed?!). His music was too folky and not conventional enough for pop-centric CCM radio, at least it was later in his career. His personality and personal behavior was a little too out there for the Christian industry. He was always saying something inciting and he was more than a little rough around the edges for a variety of reasons (I'll leave you to speculate). On top of all this, a lot of people did not think his voice was all that great. It did not contain enough of that pop star gleam for a lot of people, as noted in numerous reviews, like this one from CCM's Bruce A. Brown on his first self-titled album: "although not a dazzling singer, Mullins seems to know just how far he can reach without overstepping his range." That might sound like a patronizing statement for someone who would go on to be one of "Christian" music's foremost artists and vocalist, but fans of Mullins know exactly what this reviewer was hinting at: he simply did not fit the CCM mold.
AN ARTIST THAT CAN'T BE DENIED
Even so, his songs were so great, they begged to be played. Adult Contemporary radio would have been fools to pass up the rare gems he was offering them. What exactly made his songs so great? The reasons are simple, one having to do with his music and two with his lyrics:
1. The Music: While you could certainly argue there were Christian songwriters as good or nearly as good as Rich Mullins, I would make the case he was in the upper echelon of songwriters in his generation, Christian or not. His melody lines and the accompaniment he wrote for them were simply outstanding. Whether the dulcimer parts to "Creed" or "Sometimes By Step", the piano lines to "If I Stand", "Hold Me Jesus", "Peace", and "Nothing is Beyond You", or the guitar/lap dulcimer parts to "Where You Are", "Hello Old Friends", or "Let Mercy Lead", Mullins' compositions were and still are fresh, the rare "Christian" artist who created their own unique sound without pandering to the masses. Mullins did not need to pander because the songs were that good. He certainly had a lot of musical help over the years too, (from Reed Arvin, Jimmy Abegg, Billy Crockett, Rick Elias, Beaker, Phil Madeira, Mark Roberston, and many others), which means it was not always him playing those amazing parts on his songs. Nonetheless, we can be sure he was the musical driving force behind his songs and he was the one who came up with the foundational musical ideas for them. There are certainly other Great with a capitol "g" Christian songwriters, including Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Larry Norman, Terry Scott Taylor, Annie Herring, Phil Keaggy, Michael Card, John Michael Talbot, Mark Heard, Toby Mac and the DC Talk team, Peter Furler, Steve Taylor, Steven Curtis Chapman, and yes, even Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant (the list could go on, including Wayne Watson, Martin Smith, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, Twila Paris, Fernando Ortega, Don and Lori Chaffer, etc.), but Mullins was certainly in the far reaches of the upper echelon of that upper echelon in terms of his ability to craft a melody and a harmonic structure.
2. Theologically Astute Lyrics: I would like to make a case that no other Christian songwriter, apart from our great hymn writers of old have incorporated as much Biblical and theological depth and breadth to their songs as Rich Mullins did. Perhaps Michael Card is better at it, but I would argue (sorry Card fans) his songs themselves are not as good. The Scriptures permeate Mullins' work. Indeed, throughout every single one of his albums Mullins demonstrated the Scriptures permeated him. Hardly a song goes by without some Biblical reference expertly woven into the lyrics—just go back and look at all the passages he specifically quotes in the liner notes to his albums. And though harder to prove, I would also argue Mullins' songs demonstrate he was pretty well-read in works of theology. From Chesterton, to Kierkegaard, to Lewis, to liturgical theology, his songs reveal both a scholar and an artist who could incorporate high-minded thinking with artistry and powerful imagery.
3. (Miraculously) Non-Cheesy, Overtly Christian Lyrics: Non-cheesy Christian lyrics might be Mullins' greatest achievement of all, especially with a number of generations being proudly fond of declaring "I don't listen to Christian music. Can't stand the stuff. It's just copying off of mainstream music anyway...But I do listen to Rich Mullins..." Rich Mullins managed to use the language of faith, a language common to all or most Christians in a way that did not seem trite or cliched. Honestly, I have spent hours thinking about how he did it as I listened to his music and I am still at a loss as to how he accomplished it, other than he was an outlier, a gifted genius with capabilities far beyond the norm. To my mind, nobody was able to capture the complexities, the beauty, the truths, the narratives, the grand ideas, and the struggles of Christianity better through song than Rich Mullins. Reed Arvin, Mullins' longtime producer said it best in an interview I did with him a few years ago: "He was the best writer in Christian music, and remains so to this day. He is untouchable lyrically. He possessed that particular combination of gift and fearlessness that equals genius. Lots of people have one or the other. It's the combination that's rare."
WHO WILL CARRY THE LEGACY ON?
Since Mullins' death in 1997 I have often wondered if anyone has come to replace him on top of the Christian Music Songwriters' Heap and whether they get any time on Christian radio. Many have attempted to take up his mantle, striven to ascend the hill of his artistry, making powerful music that sings about matters of faith overtly enough that everyone would know it is "Christian" (see here for my thoughts on what that word means), but hardly any of them get played on a middle of the road Christian station. There are certainly some great songwriters on the Mullins path. There is Derek Webb (of Caedmon's Call) and Andrew Peterson who I believe each have a horcrux of Mullins embedded in them, with Webb receiving the bold prophetic side of Mullins' personality and Peterson the beautiful word painter side. Neither are as brilliant as Mullins in both music and lyrics, though try they might. Sometimes it seems like they are reaching for a depth that is not there. Webb and Peterson have had some success on Christian radio, Peterson more so. Nonetheless, they are not CHR mainstays, which is quite frankly amazing considering their prominence in the Christian music community and their large faithful followings. I think this lack of presence is indicative of a combination of the current mass homogenizing of Christian radio, which only allows a certain sound through to the airwaves, but also to the fact that their songs are simply not quite as good. They are pretty good, but they are not Demand To Be Played Good as Mullins' songs were. Other mainstream CCM contenders for the Mullins mantle could be Chris Rice, Fernando Ortega, or Audrey Assad but again, I do not think they have ascended to his heights.
Other renowned current songwriters more on the periphery of the "Christian" music spectrum would include Matthew Perryman Jones and Josh Garrels and perhaps even Michael Gungor (of Gungor). Honestly I have not immersed myself in enough of their music to know how they compare to Mullins' brilliance (although I am pretty familiar with Gungor's work) but I would venture to guess their music and lyrics are not accessible or overt enough for the Christian radio gatekeepers to get airplay, brilliance notwithstanding.
All this is to say I believe Mullins existed in some near unattainable sweetspot of both time and artistry. He came along in an era when there was some open-mindedness as to what could get played on Christian radio, and thus was able to gain wide recognition, whereas if he came along ten years later he might have only been a niche artist like the artists in the previous paragraph. He was a little weird but he was also undeniably a musical genius, his songs all but begging to be played. And his words, despite their often challenging themes and theological astuteness were also incredibly clear in expressing the intellect, emotions, and spirit of the Christian faith. I am not sure if there will ever be another artist to come along like Rich Mullins, and if there is, with the state both the Christian and general music industries are in, I am not sure we would even be able to discover them.
Take a look: The vast online Rich Mullins library
When Will the Christian Music Industry Get Its Act Together?
Rich Mullins and America As Promised Land
The Theology of Rich Mullins
So...They Made a Movie About Rich Mullins