4.18.2017

The Rich Mullins 20th Anniversary Project is a Big Missed Opportunity

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Alternative title: 
Some Thoughts and Concerns on the Rich Mullins 20th Anniversary Project
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UPDATE: I have begun an podcast about Rich Mullins with Joe Cook of the Ragamuffin Archive. For our first episode we were even able to interview Jimmy Abegg about the Be God's Podcast. You can listen to the episode here or subscribe on itunes  Google Play  Tunein Radio  or  Stitcher




It has been an amazing past several years for the legacy of musician, writer, teacher, and walking human enigma Rich Mullins. 

Most notably, a group of filmmakers made a movie and documentary (Ragamuffin and A Ragamuffin's Legacy) about his life. If you have followed this blog at all you will know that I have given much attention to those projects. On top of the films, a whole slew of "new" Rich Mullins material and stories have surfaced. You can discover all the material for yourself in these other articles of mine: "Online Rich Mullins Library"  and "Caleb Kruse on Meeting Rich". There, you will find out about Elizabeth Snell Lutz's archive of his "old music." You will be introduced to Joe Cook's "Ragamuffin Archive", containing a multitude of interviews, live concerts, and documentaries. And you will uncover Mullins' last concert and the book Caleb Kruse wrote about the time Mullins stayed in his home in the weeks before his death. And hey, if you're feeling courageous you can listen to my podcast interviews with Joe Cook, Mitch McVicker, and Pam Destri, the EMT who was on the scene of his fatal accident. It is all a lot to take in and it is both joyous and sad to immerse oneself in the life and work of Rich Mullins.

Many of us diehard Mullins fans are pretty active in several Facebook groups, some specifically about Mullins and some generally about Christian music. Many of us have been feeling the pull of 2017, knowing this September marks the 20th anniversary of his death. And therefore many of us were not surprised (but no less elated) to find out some of Mullins' friends were putting out a new project containing even more Mullins material: entitled Be God's, it finds Jimmy Abegg, Derek Webb, Don Donahue, and Ben Pearson working on a project featuring (according to their website):

-A 20 song musical project. 10 unearthed demos of never before heard songs and 10 of our favorite Rich songs performed & sung by a collection of musicians who recorded, toured and lived with and around Rich.  
-A beautiful, coffee table style fine art photo book of outtakes, candids, portraits, and never before seen images captured by Ben Pearson, Jimmy Abegg, and Michael Wilson, with written memories & narrative by Rich’s longtime producer, Reed Arvin (plus a never before seen book chapter written by Rich).
-A short film by Ben Pearson of edited together footage from shoots in Ireland, Kansas and Arizona, with an original soundtrack by Rich’s longtime friend Michael W. Smith.

You can visit their Pledgemusic campaign here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/richmullins

There is a lot to choose from in the campaign depending on your financial status, including t-shirts, posters, handwritten lyrics, artwork and concerts by Jimmy Abegg, and prints of iconic photographs of Mullins taken by Ben Pearson. I supported the project myself, getting the CD/DVD bundle, though that fine art book and the vinyl are really calling out my name.

The whole project is a wonderful idea and from the start I was ecstatic. It is projects like this that keep the memory of great artists alive. And yet...after I got through my initial jubilation, I realized I have some serious reservations about the approach of Be God's. The rest of this article will be an explanation of my concerns and some suggestions about how the project could be produced and released differently (or spawn a whole new project). First though, here are two quick points:
1.) I am a huge fan of the work of Jimmy Abegg, Derek Webb, and Ben Pearson. I have followed their careers closely for over 20 years now and have their art and music in my home in various forms.
2.) I do not intend to set myself up as some kind of "Rich Mullins expert." But I do hope to speak as someone who knows a decent amount about art and the historical legacy of artists. You can read my more general thoughts on these issues in these 2 articles:
&

Section #1: 
These "never before heard" demos are not as un-heard as it is being claimed.
In no way do I want to seem ungrateful about this project. I think the short documentary, the fine art book, and the tribute album are all fine ideas. Really, my concerns about the Be God's project lay solely in how the release of his music is being handled. So here is the short of it: 
There is a good chance all of the 10 "never before heard" songs they will be releasing have been online already for years.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Elizabeth Snell Lutz, who attended Cincinnati Bible College with Mullins and was in his band Zion has kept a Youtube page and Facebook group dedicated to releasing many of his early songs. You can find them here:
and here:

Lutz regularly updates the Facebook page with new songs or reminders of songs she has already posted and always includes a brief memory or reflection on the song she is posting. It's a lovely little page actually.




Granted 350+ views (at the time of publication) isn't all that many, so I guess you could say it is a "nearly almost never before heard" song. Even so, 2012 is in the somewhat distant past, at least in terms of internet time. Mullins fans have been missing the opportunity to listen to this song for 5 whole years!

But here is my point: I am going to make a guess and say that all of or nearly all of the 10 "un-heard" Mullins songs to be released on Be God's are available to be streamed right now for free. And thus the Pledgemusic campaign is not being truthful to fans. I am grateful those 10 songs are going to be cleaned up, mastered properly, and released in an official version. But what about the 100+ other songs that Lutz has up on her page?! And there really are that many. What deserves to happen to them? What should be the fate of these priceless archives of Rich Mullins' work?

I have some ideas...

Section #2: 
Three, Nay I Tell You Four Ideas For Mullins' Unreleased Song Archives.
There are several options for how Mullins unreleased music should be released, which I will line out here. But first let me say this, so that you do not think I am a naive idealist:

The Christian music industry has some serious problems. They do not know how to take care of nor preserve the legacy of their veteran and most respected artists. One of the main reasons for this is there is not overwhelming fan support for reissues and remastering of classic albums. In other words, there is not enough market support to justify going through the effort to re-release the great albums of CCM past. People keep buying Queen's music. People eat up re-issues of U2 albums that feature a second disc of extra songs, demo versions, and remixes. Pick any "secular" artist and go through Music Directs vinyl section to see all the glorious re-issues available for purchase. Simply put, there is enough of a market base to justify every re-issue of those albums. But not in the Christian music world. To be sure, there are many dedicated old-school fans (I talk with a lot of them on Facebook all the time!), but apparently not enough of them to warrant say...I don't know...releasing A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band on vinyl, which in the secular world would have been a foregone conclusion.

I have been told numerous times that the market isn't there for these kinds of releases within CCM, but these are exactly the kind of releases I am positing. So be it. I think they're great ideas, better ideas in fact than the 10 songs us fans will be getting when Be God's is released. 

But this pessimistic outlook on reissuing CCM albums isn't exactly true. A number of classic bands have attempted and funded similar campaigns for releasing some of their classic works. This would include Daniel Amos, the 77's, and The Prayer Chain. Their campaigns worked because their fanbase is loyal enough that they purchase almost anything their beloved band puts out. My guess and my hope is that Rich Mullins fans are very much of the same caliber.

Here now are my ideas. I start with the simpler and most feasible and work my way on up to the most ambitious. 

Idea #1: Rich Mullins Anthology Vol. 1: The Early Years and Rich Mullins Anthology Vol. 2: The Recording Years.
Before I explain this first idea, let me establish something: Rich Mullins is the Bob Dylan of Christian music and he should be treated as such. His work should be chronicled and ordered and archived out of respect for the genius he was and the art he birthed into the world. Bob Dylan gets extensive Bootleg albums released of his "never before heard" material (12 volumes so far) but Rich Mullins gets 13 songs from the 2003 release of Here in America and 10 more songs from Be God's. Based on the amount of material available, this is a gross injustice. I'll explain more about that estimated amount of material in the next two ideas, but first let me explain this first idea.

This idea is simple: a la The Beatles' Anthology or Dylan's Bootleg series, release a two volume work, divided into his "early years" and his "recording years." I know the "early years" could easily fill up 2 discs. I am not sure about how many extra songs did not make it onto albums from his "recording years", but I do know there are a number of live recordings with interesting versions of his well known songs (again, I will say more on this below). Here is what I do know: producer Reed Arvin has a few Mullins songs that never made it onto the albums. I also know that he has some demos for the albums he produced. For instance, I heard a beautiful version of "Sometimes By Step" with the strings playing by themselves. It was stunningly beautiful. This exists and would be worth it for everyone to hear. I wonder what else Arvin has that would be worth hearing? Mullins also wrote and recorded a few songs with other artists, namely This Train and Mitch McVicker, which I am sure many fans are not aware of or do not own copies of. These would fit well in an anthology series.

These anthologies could contain extensive liner notes. Reed Arvin is already writing an essay or essays for the Be God's project, but in my mind this is an injustice to Elizabeth Snell Lutz. She should write the intros and reflections to all the songs on the "early years" volumes and she should invite others who were part of Mullins' life in that time period to write their own reflections and help her fill in details. What could be more fitting? Then, after Vol. 1 Reed Arvin would certainly be the best candidate to write similar reflections for the "recording years." 

So, here's the idea: 2 volumes, possibly 4 discs of material, with extensive liner notes.

Here's what this does, and this is important: it gives Mullins' "un-heard" songs a historical context. My greatest concern about the 10 songs on Be God's (whatever they may be) is they will be handed over to us sans a narrative or placed within history. Think of The Beatles' Anthology volumes. Each song was given a recording date, a description of how the recording was made, and any other relevant or noteworthy historical anecdotes. It was brilliant. I salivate just thinking about it. Having Mullins' "un-heard" songs divided up into 2 volumes will help place us as listeners into the different eras of his life. We will get to place ourselves into his college years and hear what his nascent songwriting was like. Then we will get to place ourselves in the recording industry years when he lived in Nashville, Wichita, and New Mexico/Arizona.

All of this makes sense to me. 10 songs robbed of their context does not make sense though. This is the simplest and least ambitious option. Rich Mullins is our Bob Dylan and we need to treat him as such. (I'll be expecting that Nobel Prize awarded to him some time soon...)

Idea #2: Re-Issue all his studio albums on vinyl, CD, and streaming and embed all "un-heard" songs and material within the re-issues.
This idea works because it starts with what people already know. He released 9 official solo studio albums in his lifetime. These albums could be remastered and repackaged with all the "extras." Here I will list some of these known "extras" or "un-heard" material. Some of it I have listed above, but here I will line it out specifically for all to see. It is potentially, gloriously, marvelous. 

1. Elizabeth Snell Lutz's "early music," some 100+ songs from the college and Zion years. There are really that many.
2. In Worship of the Coming King live concert recording, which you can listen to in full here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5ioF05HTiVmsNgWQp6hbgw
3. Zion's Behold the Man, which you can listen to in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ta_zsrRYkvk&list=PL1818AEABEF15E1AE
4. 1982 and 1984 and 1989 studio demos, featuring numerous songs that made it onto his first albums and some that did not. You can listen to the demos now:
1982
1984
1989
5. Various live recordings (in both audio and sometimes video) from the 80's on up to his death, including performances with Zion, the Deep Valley Christian Camp recordings from '83 and '84, live from Holland in 1994, and a live acoustic set on Moody Radio's "Open Line" show from 1995. You can find the setlist for the Deep Valley show here: http://www.audiori.net/richmullins/concerts/deepvalley84.html
6. Whatever Reed Arvin or Reunion Records has in their archives from the recording years, both unreleased songs or alternate versions of known songs.
7. Other unreleased demo recordings of songs available on the Ragamuffin Archive.
8. Songs recorded with or by other artists, including Mitch McVicker, This Train, Third Day, Hokus Pick, Carolyn Arends, Charlotte Madeliene, and Choice Lifestyle, a band he produced and recorded with. On top of this there are also artists who recorded songs he wrote, most famously Amy Grant but also Cynthia Clawson, Pam Mark Hall, and Tony Melendez. Finally, we shouldn't forget about his cover of Keith Green's "You Are The One" from the No Compromise tribute album.
9. Canticle of the Plains, his musical on the like of St. Francis and which features Kevin Max, Michael Tait, and Leigh Nash on vocals, and is now out of print.
10. Interviews, interviews, and more interviews—one of the most rewarding parts of the online material are the interviews. There are lots of them and they are illuminating and thought provoking. You can go listen to them right now of course, but I the whole point of this article is to question whether or not they should be released in a more official format. Think of this: every album re-issue could contain an interview, the CD versions would probably need to be shorter, but the downloadable and streamable versions could contain the longform interviews. There really are so many to be listened to and they really are what made Mullins a fascinating and captivating artist. Here is a playlist of them, in case you absolutely want to listen to them now: https: //www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLRNKXbnlKN7P3e4kY2isZdGTr2VV_8i6d

Just so I am clear: I am in no way saying everything on this list needs to be included on an "anthology" or a "reissue," but I wanted to list everything out in order to show everyone just exactly what all the options would be. Listing them out like this makes the 10 songs to be included on Be God's sound all the more absurd, and I don't think it is too harsh to say it that way.

I am completely spitballing here, but here is how this could go down. Each album will be reissued in a remastered edition and will contain a second disc or a deluxe edition for downloading. So, for instance:
1.) Rich Mullins, his self-titled first album, could be paired with a number of his "early music" songs, some of the '82/'84 studio demos, and Zion's Behold the Man.
2.) Pictures in the Sky could be paired with more "early music", more '82/'84 studio demos, and a live concert.
3.) Winds of Heaven Stuff of Earth could be much the same as the first two, except that we could include the covers of Michael W. Smith's "Awesome God", and Jars of Clay's "If I Stand." We could also include any extra songs from the recording sessions. The next few albums could follow this pattern, featuring "early music" that finally got recorded on a later album, studio extras, and live recordings.
4.) Moving to later in his career, Brother's Keeper could be paired with a number of earlier demos of songs appearing on the album, along with alternate live versions of the songs. Or it could be paired with Canticle of the Plains. The Jesus Record could be paired with the "early music" that relates to the album, such as "Heaven in His Eyes", along with "Madeline's Song," and the songs he recorded with other artists late in his career.

You get the idea.

Here is what this does: This idea releases all the "extra" or "never before heard" material within a package that is already familiar to people, namely, the studio albums. It also makes sure all of his studio albums get released on vinyl (which is important!). Finally, it ensures other important works, like the Zion album and Canticle get a chance to be heard again.

Idea #3: Release the Anthologies as in idea #1, but then also release all the stand alone works separately 
In this idea volumes 1 & 2 of the anthologies are still released, but almost all live recordings are taken out of them. This idea proposes that the Zion album, the Canticle, and a few of the live recordings are all released as separate works. I like this idea as it preserves the integrity of the individual works, but perhaps it does not work as well from a marketing perspective. A lot of people, for instance, will not know what Zion is, and thus not have their interest piqued enough to purchase it.

Or maybe idea #4...?
So I have one more idea for how to release all of Rich Mullins' "unheard music," and perhaps it is the one I prefer above them all. It's a combination of ideas #2 and #3. Mullins' studio albums are slowly remastered and re-released with a second disc of all the demos and private recordings. But then a number of stand alone works are released, namely the Zion album and a number of live recordings that span his career, such as In Worship of the Coming King, Deep Valley Christian Camp, and a number of later live recordings. You could do 4 volumes total, or 2 volumes, each containing 2 live albums. A guy is allowed to dream, right?

This idea focuses on the re-release of the studio albums, but then gives people the opportunity to buy some of the special stand alone works.

Section #4:
Here's Where Things Get Complex...
I of course realize that none of these ideas would be easy to bring to completion. The first layer of complexity, as mentioned above, is whether or not there is enough market support to warrant all the money it will cost to re-mix, re-master, and then physically produce the Rich Mullins "Anthologies" and reissues.

The next layer of complexity though is: Who owns the rights to Mullins' music?

If you go to this website and search "Rich Mullins" it would appear a vast majority of Mullins' songs, especially early in his career, including many that he never officially recorded, are owned by Capitol CMG: http://www.capitolcmgpublishing.com/LicensingPages/SongSearch.aspx

However, it seems that Beth Snell Lutz or the Rich Mullins estate (which would consist of his family) owns the rights to his "early music," as they designate on their pages, labelling the songs as: (c)richmullinsongs

Now, perhaps there is a nuance here that I am not aware of and (c)richmullinsongs
owns the copyrights to the recordings of those song, but Capitol CMG still owns the publishing rights. A relevant (and confusing) example of this occurs with the song "Never Heard the Music" a demo of which appears first on the 2003 Here in America album and is copyrighted to "BMG," and then next appears on the Ragamuffin film tribute album from 2014, but is this time copyrighted to "Rich Mullins Old Music."

I point all this out only to say that since it is not exactly clear who owns the rights to Mullins' music, his unreleased material may get tied up in copyright purgatory way before it gets officially released.

But in all of this hear is what really needs to be said: in an ideal world this should have all been taken care of already. The record labels should have been on top of it and had projects like this in the works for years. Classic "secular" artists live in that ideal world. CCM artists do not. Instead, it takes friends of the artist, as in Mullins' case, working their hearts out on an independent basis to see a project like this through to fruition. It's beautiful that Jimmy Abegg wants to see this happen but it's also an unfortunate situation.

Conclusion(s):
Let me again state that I believe the spirit behind the Be God's project is wonderful, but I also think it's an incredibly wrong move. Too much time has passed for there to merely be another 10 songs and another tribute album released. It is time to give an artist like Mullins the legacy he deserves. I could be wrong, but Be God's feels like a one-off project, instead of the start of re-issuing his studio albums or something like the Rich Mullins Anthologies.

There is a storied tradition within popular music of fans "bootlegging" the unreleased and live songs of their favorite artists. This has happened most famously with with The Beatles' Let It Be sessions, Dylan's and The Band's Basement Tapes, The Beach Boys' Smile, and numerous live recordings of The Grateful Dead, Phish, Pearl Jam and of course many others. Rabid Rich Mullins fans can continue slinking around the internet partaking of all the wonderful songs and concerts and interviews that have been preserved and uploaded, streaming them on Youtube or downloading them from strange websites. We are grateful for Elizabeth Snell Lutz and Joe Cook at the Ragamuffin Archive for all the time they put in insuring that his music and thoughts find a larger audience. And yet there is this conviction that something more should be done. Many of us are mourning the implosion of the CCM industry, if only for the reason that a larger project like Mullins deserves (as well as other artists) has now been made impossible. Be God's is great, but it's not enough. I am hoping the gate holders of Mullins' music and legacy come to the same realization.

UPDATE: In reading through various comments on this article and even getting a few private messages, I have a reflection:
Either my ideas about this project are:
1). the common sense thing to do, the ideas that will benefit the most amount of people.
2). the ramblings of a naive idealist, or
3). a woeful lament of what can never come to be.

Related Articles on Rich Mullins: 
1. So...They Made a Movie About Rich Mullins...

2. Interview--Reed Arvin: Recording Rich Mullins' 

A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band 
My interview with Reed Arvin was originally published in a shorter form on 
Christianity Today's website and can be found here:
The Legacy of Rich Mullins's Ragamuffin Band

3. Celebrating 20 Years of Rich Mullins' 

A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band

4. The Theology of Rich Mullins


5. Movie Review: Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins


6. Take a look: The Vast Online Rich Mullins Music Library

7. Rich Mullins was weird, but he was also so good Christian radio had to play him

8. Rich Mullins and America as Promised Land

9. Interview: David Leo Schultz on 

Directing the Rich Mullins Movie (text version)


4 comments:

Marlee Dubnow said...

I think your assessment of Rich being our Bob Dylan is spot on. My husband is not a avid Dylan fan, but he has every Grateful Dead live and studio recordings ever made!
I for one would love to have access to a collection that honored Rich Mullins from his earliest days up to his death. Not sure how possible or practical your ideas are, though I hope they are both. Thank you for having the heart to take this on. Bless you!

Joy Seward said...

Hi Chris!
Wow! So much great info you have put together! Thank you!
I am wondering if there are plans for a concert of people covering his music with opportunity to sing along for all us fans to come and enjoy together for his 20th? A good Midwest locale perhaps? I would love to attend something like that and his memory certainly deserves such an evening. Do you know of anything being planned?
Greetings from fellow Illinois neighbor in Mahomet.

Joy said...

Well---I did discover the upcoming September 24 concert in Nashville headed up by Andrew Peterson with tickets going on sale today! I am there!

Thomas Cunningham said...

Chris:

These are some great thoughts. I can tell you another that I would pay a fair sum of money for: original accompaniment tracks. How many times after slogging through some vapid, unsingable worship song (you cover that elsewhere, I note) would I love to just pop a track into the player and sing something that actually says something, that inspires one deeply! I have been hoping something good would come out for this anniversary, and I hope the labels can find it in their hearts to do something memorable.