9.01.2015

Rich Mullins Was Weird But He Was Also So Good Christian Radio Had To Play Him

Photo supplied courtesy of © David R Banta. You can find his work at www.davidrbanta.com.
NOT YOUR EVERYMAN KIND OF ARTIST...
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. 

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Related Articles:
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



15 comments:

Melony Pugh-Weber said...

Rich was a friend of my husband's and played the piano in our wedding. Weird, frustrating, AND a dear man.

Steve Page said...

Melony I knew Rich pretty well and you summed him up perfectly. I'm getting a lump in my throat just thinking about how I wish I could talk to him one more time.

Brendt said...

Great article. To be honest, I don't think even Rich's music (complete with his tenure) would make it past the gatekeepers these days.

Chip said...

Chris,

I appreciate your many thoughtful pieces on Rich, having been a lover of his music since '89, when a college roommate told me that I had to sit down right then and there and listen to "this" -- "this" being WOH, SOE. I had actually seen Rich open for Amy Grant on the spring '86 Unguarded encore tour. I was surprised at that time to find him disappointing given that I'd noted him for quite a while as being one of Amy's better songwriters; it would only be years later, after I became a fan, that I'd realize my disappointment came from the fact that the image required of him on that tour (flashy-jacket-wearing dispenser of technopop) really was antithetical to who he was (and evidently, as I read later, caused him some significant internal distress due to that dichotomy).

You might be surprised to learn that COYN actually was an official single -- the third and final one from TWABAIRI Vol. 1 (after BLM, MLY and WYA, in that order). It did quite well on the CCM charts in early '92, as I recall, and was played regularly on local Christian stations when a single. While all of the reasons you mention for radio stations to play Rich are good for those of us who appreciate him, the bottom line still is that Rich got played because he (yes, often astoundingly) had successful singles. "Verge of a Miracle" had gone to #1 in early '87; "Awesome God," which I (probably incorrectly) recall as top five but not #1, was seemingly instantly adopted by congregations and church soloists; "If I Stand" even was #1 by my recollection (a big surprise). In other words, he had several years of a proven track record before COYN was released as a single -- and of the album's two previous singles, BLM, MLY also was a surprise #1 (at least to me). Note also that the nature imagery in COYN is so strong that it eliminates some of the strangeness you discuss; I thought "keeper of the plains" was a poetic image for God until on business in Wichita in 2004 -- 13 years after the song came out!

On another matter, you've rightly identified Rich's theology as "incarnational" (John Fischer did the same in CCM's issue-length tribute to Rich after his death), but I think that two additional necessary descriptors are "liturgical" (particularly in later years) and, especially, (from surprisingly early on in terms of album releases), "sacramental." In your thoughtful review of WOH, SOE, I was surprised that you totally passed over this regarding ". . . And I Love You," a song that directly connects love for Christ with the sacraments (and only the sacraments). Rich's liturgical and sacramental theology -- you might even say, ala descriptions of Tolkien's works, "sacramental imagination" -- are what makes songs like "Creed" and "Peace" understandable. Just this last week, while listening to "Oh My Lord" off of Canticle of the Plains, I only for the first time after nearly 20 years of listening to the album noticed how the lyrics reference just about all 14 (actually, maybe all) of the Stations of the Cross! You could also sum up incarnational, liturgical, and sacramental in one word: "mystical" (not a negative word in this Christian's vocabulary). That term fits songs like "Elijah" and "Be with You" much better than "morbid," I think.

Peace of Christ,
Chip

Chip said...

Addendum: My biggest disappointment with Ragamuffin -- more so than the loss of Rich's humorous side -- was the nearly complete absence of Rich's liturgical/sacramental side. I'll hazard a guess that that aspect of Rich didn't resonate (at least not strongly) with Schultz.

Peace of Christ,
Chip

Chip said...

Addendum 2: Rich will never be replaced -- he was an original -- but in recent years I've concluded that Jason Gray might be closest to Rich in spirit. His Christmas album in particular comes across as something similar to what Rich might have done if he'd released an entire Christmas album.

Peace of Christ,
Chip

Jeff Reynolds/Becky Reynolds said...

A couple of comments on this great article -

First, you mentioned a song based on the Apostle's Creed being unusual. Actually, I disagree. If I remember correctly, Rich Mullins' Creed came out after a different song with the same title by Petra. And that period of time also saw similar type songs like Carman's "I Will Serve Him" and the more informal "I Believe" by Wes King.

Second, just a note. I had Winds Of Heaven And Stuff Of Earth, and Rich did not play the piano on the album version of "If I Stand" - Smitty did.
I really enjoyed this article. Thank you.

SammyBoy said...

"Perhaps Michael Card is better at it, but I would argue (sorry Card fans) his songs themselves are not as good."

I agree, and I think the biggest reason, as I hear it, is that Card often tries far too hard to make a particular lyric fit when it's just not going to work musically.

Rich said...

Appreciate your article. Well thought out. Near the end, you ask, "Who will carry on the legacy?" I believe Andrew Peterson and The Gray Havens both fill the void for my wife and I that Mullins left. Great song writers using wonderfully creative imagery coupled with great musical skill.

Kevin Bowles said...

I actually believe that Andrew Peterson is the modern version of Rich. Between dozens of plainly brilliant songs, the legions of other artists he has worked with and gathered around him, plus his truly brilliant genre-busting Christmas opus "Behold the Lamb of God"... Andrew has proven over time to be every bit the prophetic (if only slightly gentler), word-painting artist that Rich was.

What HAS changed, however, is the musical landscape. CCM radio is beholden even more now to seeking that perfect bubble-gum pop sound, regardless of depth or artistry. They have left brilliant artists like Peterson behind (despite a couple songs breaking through the cracks now and again).

And I think it is exactly his exclusion from the current CCM radio market where we see his similarity to Rich... because, as you mentioned, even Rich would find himself on the outside looking in these days. He would be deeply known and loved, yet by a narrower swath of fans (as is Peterson).

Thankfully, for those who are listening, Mullins (then) and Peterson (now) both made/make the music we need. As Peterson described, in his "All The Poets"...

"You walking wounded of my life
Who bled compassion in the heat of strife
You stood between my heart and satan's knife
With just the armor of a song
You are the heroes and the brave
Who with a slender pen, our passions save
And chisel epitaphs upon the graves
Of all the poets I have known"

Jason Hackwith said...

The legacy of Rich Mullins lives on in many. If I had to list all the artists that I see elements of Rich in, it'd be longer than I have room here to write. That being said: I see Rich's poetic lyricism in the works of Josh Garrels, Chris Rice, Warren Barfield, Carolyn Arends, and Kevin Max. I see his rich theology and hymnody in the works of Laura Story, Leeland, Matt Maher, Kutless, Jeremy Camp, and Ryan Stevenson. I see Rich's prophetic voice speaking truth to power through artists like Derek Webb, Thousand Foot Krutch, P.O.D., Switchfoot, and Steve Taylor. Rich completely transformed my life. I would not be the musician, artist and writer that I am today without his influence. His legacy endures, his fruit flourishes.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of Steve Bell? Www.stevebell.com
Musically, poetically, and theologically astute! And the stories he weaves from stage between songs are deep and insightful and captivating also.
Sadly, you rarely here him aired either...

Chris Marchand said...

I have heard of Steve Bell! But it's been a while since I've checked his music out. Thanks for the recommendation.

John Bickett said...

The first inkling of modern Christian music sung by a lover of God who defied the trend was Tom Conlon. Then Steve Bell. Then Mullins. Oh My! The exposure was and is still revolutionary. I think you'll like Conlon, from what I've read above: www.tomconlinmusic.com

Chris Marchand said...

John, thanks for the recommendation. I've not heard of Conlin. There is always so much music to discover!