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A Legacy of Love: My Rich Mullins Story

Hey, folks. It’s Monday morning, just over twelve hours after the Rich Mullins tribute show ended. It was, for everyone involved, an unforgettable experience. The audience were wonderful, the band just killed it, the guests and the crew and the management poured themselves out. I’m really glad I wrote this intro for the souvenir booklet a few weeks ago, because after last night, I have no words. Many of us have a Rich Mullins story. This is mine.

The first time I met Rich Mullins was right here at the Ryman. Backstage, to be exact, at the exit door by the security desk. I tell you this with some hesitation, because I’m not proud of how it all went down—downright embarrassed, to be honest. It was November 12th, 1995, on the Brother’s Keeper Tour, which featured a full band along with Ashley Cleveland and then-new artist Carolyn Arends. I lived in Florida at the time, and was a persistent (read: annoying) and passionate (read: obnoxious) young Bible college student who had written about fifteen pretty bad songs and therefore felt called by God to be Rich Mullins’s new best friend. Like I said, I’m not proud of this.

I was a student at Florida Christian College, which is now a part of Johnson University, and part of the reason I was in college at all was my discovery of Rich’s music. Three years earlier, in 1992, I had long hair and was playing in a super lame rock band, unsure of the Christianity I had grown up with. Then a friend named C.J. gave me a Rich Mullins tape and asked me to learn “If I Stand” on the piano so he could sing it in church. I took the tape and a boom box to the church late one night to figure out the song. Little did I know I was about to be ambushed. The way I usually tell it, it was as if God reached his holy arm out of the stereo, through the lyrics of the song, and plunged his hand deep into my shadowy heart—then turned on a light switch. All at once I was weeping. Light seemed to be shooting out of my pores. It’s no exaggeration to say that that one encounter with Jesus through the music of Rich Mullins altered the course of my life and led me by the grace of God to this stage tonight.

After that fateful night I dove deep into Rich’s music and found my heart drawn toward Bible college, something that would have been unfathomable even six months prior. I met my wife the first week of school at an ice cream social for the freshmen (since, other than ping pong, that was all we were allowed to do), and Rich’s music was responsible in part for our first kiss. Jamie and I were in her Dodge Daytona on the way to sing hymns with some other students at a nursing home, and I was trying to figure out how to tell her I wasn’t ready to date anyone. The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume II was playing, and the triple-threat of “What Susan Said,” followed by “Growing Young,” followed by “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” drew my attention to the big Florida sun going down over the cow pastures beside the road. I pulled over. We climbed out and sat in the tall grass with our backs to the car, listening to Rich as the sky caught fire. As I explained to her all my stupid reasons for not wanting to get serious, the songs and the sun and her gorgeous hair kept tugging my face closer and closer to hers. “What am I doing?” I said out loud, mostly to myself. “I don’t know,” Jamie replied, “but I wish you’d hurry up and do it.” No joke. While Rich’s music played we kissed till the sun was completely down and a cop pulled over to tell us to go make out somewhere else. We’ve been married for twenty-two years now. Thank you, Rich.

It was during Bible college that I started writing my first real songs and doing my first real concerts, usually at Sunday night church services and youth conferences. Since I only had a few of my own songs I filled in all the blanks with Rich’s. I sang “Growing Young,” “Home,” “Hold Me Jesus,” “Peace,” “The Waiting,” “Sometimes by Step,” “Who God Is Gonna Use,” and more, always fighting back tears as my faith in, love for, and gratitude to Jesus were bolstered by those songs. Singing them night after night was reshaping my heart, rearranging my imagination to make room for the possibility that God was someone worth knowing and that he might actually love me. As much as I loved Rich’s songs, it was the God he sang about that I was enamored with.

Back then the internet was a new thing, and the only way to get online was with the one computer in the college library, via a dialup connection. Every day I went to the cubicle and loaded the Rich Mullins fan page, which I think was called “Calling Out Your Name,” to read concert reviews. I ached to see Rich live, and to maybe meet him to tell him how grateful I was for his music. I also ached for a mentor, someone to teach me songwriting, and to help me know how to be a steward of the gift people told me I had been given. The problem was, I was a selfish kid, audacious and opinionated and foolish—and yet, at the same time, I belonged to Jesus and was on what would turn out to be a long and painful road to realizing how terribly broken I was. But that came later. Right then I thought if I could just meet Rich, maybe he would like me, maybe he would see that I had something to offer and would help me know how to offer it.

That was when I drove up to Nashville for two reasons: first, because I was scouting it as a place my new bride and I might move to after graduation, and second, to see my songwriting hero in concert. The show, of course, was wonderful. During her set, Carolyn Arends took a photo of the audience, which was my first clue that the Ryman Auditorium was someplace special. Her music was so good, and I’m glad to now call her a friend. Ashley Cleveland was funny and passionate and slayed us all. But I just loved watching Rich do his thing. Those of you who saw him live know what I’m talking about. There was nothing quite like it. Something about his concerts made it easy to believe that God was real, and that Jesus actually loved us the way the Bible says he does. There was something about the semi-detached look on his face while he sang that convinced us that the God he was singing about wasn’t an idea, but was an actual person—a person Rich knew.

My Bible college roommate Mark had just moved up here and had a job at a little studio on Music Row, so the afternoon before the show I recorded two demos—terrible demos, mind you—of two terrible, terrible songs. But like I said, I was audacious and thought that if I could just get those songs into Rich’s hands, maybe he’d listen and like me and I would have a shot at a career or a mentorship or maybe just a shot at feeling less invisible. So here’s the embarrassing part. I snuck backstage after the show (a small miracle, given the reputation of ushers at the Ryman), stood in a crowd of Rich’s friends, and like a fool tried to get myself invited to the post-show hang. I know, right? I’m horrified now. I wish I could go back and stop myself. I feel like Morgan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption talking to the parole board about how he wished he could go back and talk sense into that stupid kid he used to be. I was a nuisance, and if you were there that night and remember it, please know how sorry I am. I have since prayed that God kept Rich from listening to that demo, and that he forgot me completely.

Fast-forward a year, and I met Rich again. I’m less embarrassed by this encounter, but only just. He and Mitch McVicker played a show for my college, mainly because I badgered the staff guy in charge of concerts. I volunteered to be the food guy, which meant I got to take Rich’s and Mitch’s dinner orders. (They both ordered Outback steaks, by the way, which, now that I think about it, is a strange thing to eat just before a show.) When I met him this time around I just said, “I’m Andrew. I’m the food guy,” hoping he didn’t remember me from before. During the show, Rich told the story about how David only killed Goliath because he was bringing sandwiches to his brothers—and then he glanced at me in the audience and said something like, “There’s nothing wrong with being the food guy.” After the show I gave him a copy of my indie EP, which I sincerely hope none of you will ever hear, and he stuffed it in his dulcimer case. I also remember being intensely jealous of Mitch, wishing he’d get strep or something so I could fill in. Years later, after Rich died and Mitch and I had done a few shows together, I bashfully said, “You want to know something crazy? We actually met years ago.” He nodded. “Yeah, I know. In Florida.” Cue the needle scratch. I was appalled that he remembered. “Well,” I said, “sorry if I germed you guys. I gave Rich a copy of my record, and I’ve always wanted to ask….” I took a deep breath. “Did you guys ever listen to it?” He laughed. “Yeah,” he said with a grin, “we kind of hated it.” I love that story so much.

Jamie and I moved to Nashville in the summer of 1997. I got a job at the Olive Garden, she got a job as a babysitter. In what I believe was the intervention of the God of Abraham, I met the band Caedmon’s Call and they graciously let me open for them at a few shows that fall. The highlight of each show was getting to come out for the encore and sing a verse of “Hope to Carry On.” They were friends with Rich, and I hoped that maybe he’d show up at one of their shows and hear my songs. Maybe that would redeem the fool I had made of myself at our first few meetings. Then on September 19th, just over twenty years ago, Jamie and I got home from a date and a friend who was staying with us at the time stood in the kitchen with tears in his eyes and gave us the news that Rich had died in the wee hours of the morning. Of the many things I grieved that day, one very selfish one was that I never got to hang out with him. I never got to pick his brain about lyrics, or about movies, or about Jesus. I never got to be his friend.

Looking back, I see a young man on the verge of a music career that would wound him in innumerable ways, even as it blessed him tremendously. I see a young man doing his best to follow a calling without having the slightest idea how—other than the example set forth by Rich, who at least seemed to be more interested in following Jesus than anyone’s advice. And yet, what I wanted then, and want now, is to be able to just give Rich a call and commiserate, maybe have a Guinness and talk books, or express to him my befuddlement about the nuts and bolts of following Jesus when all I ever seem to do is fail at it. I’m older now than Rich ever was, but I still feel like that dorky twenty-year-old who has no clue what he’s doing, who most days can’t believe that Jesus loves him.

Since I never got to be Rich’s friend, all I had was the songs. So many of you in this room carry memories of your friendship with this guy, and all I really have is the knowledge that he didn’t like my music. Many times I’ve wondered if the fact that my career began just as his life ended was actually the mercy of God—maybe he wouldn’t have liked me, and that would have hurt a little too much. So instead I got to be one of a handful of artists who have traveled the country for decades and tried to keep his songs alive. I’ve never made it a secret that I’m a dorky fan of Rich’s songs (if we had time I’d challenge you all to a sing off; I know his lyrics better than I know my own), so after I sang, “Rich is on the radio, and I think we ought to take it slow,” on my first radio single in 2000, I got something as good if not better than a friendship with my hero—I got to be friends with his friends. I met the Mullins family out in Wichita with Mitch, I played a bunch of shows with Eric Hauck and Michael Aukofer, two Kid Brothers of St. Frank. I went on Compassion International trips with Keith Bordeaux, sat at the bonfire out at Rich’s Ashland City house with Connie Hawk and Steve Cudworth and David McCracken, and eventually got to know Reed Arvin.

Because they knew I was a fan, people around the country would tell me stories about crazy stuff that Rich did. One person told me he used to show up unannounced at some house in Florida and trade room and board for a concert on their organ; another gave me a handful of acorns from an oak tree in the woods in East Tennessee where he used to sit and pray. I’ve heard hundreds of anecdotes, most of which I can’t repeat. Last year Steven Curtis Chapman gave me an amazing birthday present: Rich’s copy of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, the book that inspired lines in “Creed” and “Growing Young,” and probably more. Kathy Sprinkle and Beth Lutz entrusted me with the lyrics to “Mary Picked the Roses,” and Gabe Scott and I set them to our own music, which amounted to a post-mortem cowrite. For all of these stories, and for all of you who have stewarded them well, I’m profoundly grateful.

In the years soon after Rich’s death, whenever I covered one of his songs, the crowd would go bonkers. But about ten years ago I realized that fewer and fewer people reacted. More recently, whenever I play something like “The Love of God” or “Land of My Sojourn” I have to tell most of the audience who wrote it, and then when there’s still no reaction I have to say, “He’s the guy who wrote ‘Awesome God,’” and then they know whom I’m talking about. There are always a handful of hardcore Rich fans at my shows, but the army is small and getting smaller. This, as you know, should not be. It makes some sense, however, when I go back and listen to the records. They do, in fact, sound a bit dated (and I think Reed would agree), but what music doesn’t? Not only that, Christian music isn’t the same as it was then, so people have to sort of push through their modern pop-worship sensibilities to hear how brilliant the songs are. But on every album, if you listen for it, there’s an undeniable fire of talent burning through the sounds of the 80s and 90s. And with each record, that fire grew brighter and brighter as the production grew more and more organic. By the time the two World as Best as I Remember It albums were out, Reed and Rich (along with Beaker, Jimmy A, Billy Crockett, and the other players) had found a sound that set things up perfectly for the masterpiece that is A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band—as if it was the bottom of the ninth and a perfect pitch sailed toward the perfect batter.

The Ragamuffin Band album, in my opinion, is one of the finest start-to-finish albums ever made. While some of Rich’s most popular songs came earlier, and while we may have favorite individual songs on other records, I don’t think any of the other albums stand up as complete works of art like this one does. When I describe what I love about the songs of Rich Mullins, I usually reference the album title Winds of Heaven/Stuff of Earth. It’s that mashup of lofty poetic language (“From the place where morning gathers you can look sometimes forever till you see what time may never know”) and gritty, earthy imagery (“Two lonely-eyed boys in a pickup truck, and they’re driving through the rain and the heat, and their skin’s so sweaty they both get stuck to the old black vinyl seat”) that makes his lyrics so uniquely Rich. But it’s not just the lyrics that do it—it’s the music too, thanks in no small part to Reed’s production. I’ve always loved the way songs like “Peace” have such tasteful instrumentation—that gentle piano part, Jimmy Abegg’s melodic guitar lines—right there next to Chris McHugh’s explosive, majestic drums. The same thing happens in “The Color Green.” First there’s that quiet, rolling piano, then there’s the soaring string section. Stuff of earth, then winds of heaven. And that was Rich’s life, too. I’ve heard stories about his vagabond tendencies—his hitchhiking, cigarette smoking, barefoot, unshowered self—right there along with his brilliant Chestertonian wit, his obvious love of literature and film and Scripture and theology. And then he just comes right out and says it in the title of this album: liturgy meets legacy. Ancient Christian worship meets American heritage. A good Midwestern boy on a hammered dulcimer—there is no folkier folk instrument—meets a sweeping orchestra and an Irish whistle. It’s no wonder that Rich loved Chesterton, who always used paradox to convey the mystery of God—who is both the infinite Lord of the Galaxies and the lowly Nazarene.

I never knew Rich Mullins. Most of the people on the stage tonight didn’t. But we knew his songs. And because he was such a remarkable person, sometimes I wonder if the people who were always around him paid as much attention to his songs as we did. Maybe the largeness of his personality overshadowed what he was writing. One thing I’ve noticed is that the people who knew him talk more about him and his delightful oddness than they do his songcraft—evidenced by the fact that when I saw the Ragamuffin Band on tour after Rich’s death, they struggled to remember the lyrics. But the lyrics were all the rest of us had, and they were enough. They were enough because they always pointed us toward Christ, always realigned our compasses toward the God to whom our allegiance is due, the God who is the giver of all good things. There have been plenty of memorials to Rich’s life over the years. Tonight is our chance to remember and to honor his work, and the work of those who were on the journey with him. In the Pursuit of a Legacy film by Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson, he says, “If your ambition is to leave a legacy, what you’ll leave is a legacy of ambition.” Tonight is a celebration of the legacy of love that Rich left us in his music, which is not a love for music, but a love for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

If you had told me twenty years ago, on the day that I found out Rich died, that I’d be standing on this stage tonight, surrounded by such good friends, playing these songs for a sold-out crowd, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are. If you had told me that night at the church piano in 1992, as I wept like a man who was longing for his home, that God would let me sing for him for these twenty years, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t think God could be that good, that generous to the likes of me. I wouldn’t have thought that love could stoop so low. But here we are.

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay called “Meditation in a Toolshed.” In it, he describes the difference between looking at something and looking at its source. He saw a beam of light coming through a crack in the roof, and found it beautiful. That’s a good thing. But if you go and stand in the light and look along the beam, he said, you can see through the crack to the trees and the sky outside. What we’re doing tonight is looking at a lovely shaft of light. Don’t stop there. Come stand in the beam, look through the brokenness where the light gets in, and gaze at what lies beyond it. Behold the world that is more real than the air we breathe, and behold the source of the light, which is the Word through whom all things were made. Remember, I beg you, after tonight is over, after the music fades and the lights go down and you close your eyes, that the stories are true. There really is a God. There really is good news, and it really is worth singing about.

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