Mulling Over Life with Rich Mullins
by Kim Benson
Rejoice! Magazine 1993
It's another humid day in Kansas, and Rich Mullins sits on a tier halfway up from the stage at Roxy's, a Christian club in Wichita, talking about his new life away from the stage. Whether playing the keyboards or guitar or hammering away on a lap dulcimer, he's created countless songs of praise that compel audiences to stand and sing.
Just back from a three month Euorpean tour to promote The World as Best as I Remember It, Vol. II, he appears refreshed and invigorated. Earlier last summer, a tired, much older looking Rich premiered the new Vol. II album at Roxy's, introducing and playing cuts with his co-musician "Beaker."
But there's something different about Mullins that makes one wonder what happened during the summer. Maybe he's merely glad to wrap up the tour, to come home and be an everyday Joe, but it's probably his decision to take a sabbatical and complete a degree in music education that makes him seem so animated.
If Mullins the musician was intense, a little eccentric, and hard to pin down ("people want to know what inspired us to write certain songs...they're probably more provoked than inspired," he quipped the night of the Vol. II premiere), then the collegian Mullins is markedly different. His attitude is softer, and he's sincerely concerned about putting something good in other people's lives.
At first glance, he draws a double take. Gone are the long dark locks often tied in a ponytail ("I left my hair somewhere in Holland," he sings with a hint of longing sarcasm), and on this day he abandons his worn-through-jeans/no-shoes look for a t-shirt, running shoes, and a pair of shorts.
He realizes that bowing off the stage means he won't be able to buy everything he wants. Consequently, "I may not be the snappiest dresser on campus, but at 36, being a snappy dresser is a lot different than it is when you're 19."
He also knows the advantages of being an older student. "When I ran out of money in high school, that meant the party stopped. When you're 18 and on your own and run out of money, suddenly your lights get turned off. You find there are more serious consequences. I'm used to being worried about the electricity being off!," he laughs. "It's happened, I survived it, and the world didn't end."
Mullins has been a student for seven years. When asked if he's on the extended plan, he corrects with a slight smile, "It's the extended unplanned plan!" Tongue-in-cheek humor from Mullins is to be expected, but his class schedule this semester is somewhat surprising. He's filled it with seventeen hours of music theory and performance classes: conducting, percussion methods, and cello, to name a few. The ultimate in self-punishment? "I can't think of anything more fun."
The hard part about coming off tour means he has to switch tracks and do weird things like wake up in the same room each morning and make his own bed. "I do like clean sheets, and I do like my bed made, so every morning I have to go through the conflict of, 'Gee, do I want my bed made badly enough to make it? Do I want clean sheets badly enough to change them?"'
He's been on the road so long that traveling doesn't bother him anymore. "I would say we've been gone now for about two or three years, and it's always hard when you come back to the place you live, and it doesn't feel like home. Not because it's not home, but because you've forgotten what home feels like. You forget what it's like to be able to visit with the same people day after day, to know exactly where the laundromat is, so that if you only have an hour to do your laundry, you can do it." He paused "Laundry seems to be a big issue here..."
The home he's returned to is a modest two-bedroom rental house that sits in a quiet middle-class neighborhood of Wichita. The neighborhood reminds him of his boyhood home, though it's far from an Indiana farm. But he's very comfortable here. Why doesn't he trade up for a bigger place?
"I live a very ordinary life because I'm a very ordinary guy. A lot of musicians give themselves a lot of slack because they've been told over and over how exceptional musicians are. I think people are people. An exceptional plumber is as exceptional as an exceptional musician. I don't buy the idea that musicians are a unique breed of people who need to be pampered. I tell them, 'You know what? I get to make a living doing what I love to do. Isn't that favor enough?"'
Mullins seems hesitant to talk about his success. It's not that he takes it for granted, but he believes his life as a musician can be overshadowed. "I think there's much more power in living a brilliant life, in letting every moment be brilliant, than in all the songs I ever wrote, or all of us wrote together. One truly Spirit-filled life will impact the world more than the entire Christian media combined.
"If the impact of my life at best is gonna be similar to the impact of the lives of other Spirit-filled people who have lived in the vitality of that Spirit, why would I waste a large amount of energy and create a lot of tension around a career that will be less successful than my life? The problem is, in my life now, my career is much better than my life. I've talked to people about commitment, about being a good neighbor, and I've seen other people practice it. I just want to see if I can do it."
Somewhere between here and Europe, Mullins decided to come out of his comfort zone, to let people in. "I had this sharp realization that, 'Wow! This was the first time I sat down and had a conversation with a non-Christian for a long time, that I really have become real picky about doctrinal issues that I don't think are real essential issues. And when that happens, that indicates to me that my focus is way off. And whereas I may be doctrinally correct, I am not focused where I ought to be."
He thought about what he wanted his life to be like for the next two or three years, the kind of person he wanted to be. "I want to be a loyal customer. I want to trade at the same grocery store. I want to get to know people by name. I want to go there a couple of times a week when I go and buy my potatoes and Corn Chex, and say, 'Hey, Sally!' to the girl at the check-out stand, and 'How's school going, Billy?' I want to give them some self-esteem."
As a kid, Mullins was exposed to people who drove by him as he toiled away. They refused to look at him, he says, because hard work was somehow beneath their dignity. He recalls a four-year stint as a cashier in a parking garage. "There were people who went out that never looked at me. They'd hold their money out the window and never slow down on their way out. They were regular people.
"Later on, other people told me, 'Man, we used to hang out and wait until the rush was over so we could come out and talk to you, because we loved to sit and talk.'" All this made him realize there's no such thing as someone who's just a cashier, that everyone and everyone's job is important.
"If I can communicate that to the people in the grocery store, the mechanic, my neighbors, the people in my church, the students at my school, then that's the kind of person I want to be."
For Mullins, ministering to people doesn't end just because he's put his guitar in the case. While he thinks performing is a great opportunity to minister, he also believes simple things like going to a restaurant or even planting a garden give the same opportunity. "Beaker planted a garden a couple of springs ago, and we never got to eat anything out of it. The nuns next door came over and ate our tomatoes. Different people from the community took them and ate them. And I think, 'What a terrific thing!'"
The really exciting times, he says, are when the concert's over, "and you've gone into the lounge at the hotel, and you're sitting there having a Coke, and you end up talking to the bartender, and he tells you how he was in Bible college, and how he got from Bible college to bartending school, and he opens up to you about the confusion he really feels about his faith, about the guilt he has. He really opens up and shares with you, and then during some point he says, 'Man, I have no idea why I just told you all of this.' "And you're able to say, 'Well, I know why. Because you needed to tell someone. Because in a sense, if you take the Bible seriously, I'm a priest, and I came in here to take your confession, to tell you the blood of Christ still washes away the sins of the world; that there is no sin committed too great that cannot be forgiven, and to encourage you, that the Lord hasn't given up on you yet.'"
Although Mullins takes his church membership seriously, he admits to not attending regularly since many concert dates have fallen on the weekend. Pursuing a career in music education would mean leaving the Midwest, and his church as well. "I think that when you join a church, you pretty much throw your stuff in with theirs, and it's kind of like, 'I'm here for the duration.' I hope that the church will continue to be supportive of me when I leave and that my commitment will not be something they thought lightly of. Very honestly, I'm not as committed as I should be, and very honestly, that's part of the reason I came off the road. Because, man, it's easy to talk about accountability when you're on the road. But it's impossible to have, unless you're making the kind of bucks where you can take your elders with you or something. Staying home is where the rubber meets the road for me."
Success has come quietly but steadily to Mullins since Amy Grant recorded his Sing Your Praise to the Lord, earning a nomination as song of the year in 1983. Since then, he's produced a string of top-charted singles for Reunion Records. His long list of nominations for Dove Awards (Awesome God has been nominated three times since 1989) without ever winning is perplexing.
Born in Richmond, Indiana, between two older sisters and two younger brothers, he counts himself blessed to have Christian parents. The solitude of growing up on a farm perhaps stirred in Mullins a desire to look beyond the obvious, to appreciate things usually taken for granted, and use his imagination to amuse himself.
"I spent many afternoons and evenings all alone, back in the field. There were times I was terribly lonely, but I think isolation is good for kids. One reason I have an imagination that is still pretty active is because I was really dependent on my imagination. I didn't have MTV. We didn't watch much television. I think one reason I became a writer is because I spent so much time on a tractor, and I would make up songs and rhymes and dirty limericks and anything else to entertain myself while I was working. It made me a very bad farmer, but that was possibly the beginnings of what a lot of people say is a pretty creative streak."
The first job his father gave him was counting calves. This, he points out, was a brilliant teaching technique. Not only did he learn to count, he learned to distinguish heifers from steers. It was the start of a very wholesome appreciation for sexuality. "Wow! Talk about getting the facts straight! By the time you're ten on a farm, you've seen every animal breeding in every kind of position imaginable. You're pretty much aware."
When the work was done, there was time to learn the rules of fair play. "You couldn't be really picky about who your friends were, and so you learned how to have arguments, how to fight and then have the winner ride you home on his bicycle, that if we didn't work a friendship out, we'd just be without friendship, and that at times it's better to be by yourself than to have to endure someone else's hang-ups."
He thinks that being involved with natural things might also take away some naive notions about prayer. "I think it's possibly easier for people who plant to pray because when you plant, you realize you're not gonna harvest until the right season. Sometimes people view prayer like it's a slot machine; if you put in the right amount of money, cry the right amount of tears, believe with the right intensity, then God will automatically - in the next five minutes - turn the world around to suit you."
Mullins has thought long and hard to find the right words to describe his best friend, Beaker. "One of the things that is most attractive about Beaker is also the scariest to a lot of people: he places a very high premium on honesty. And I respect that very much. It does make him into a bit of a skeptic. On the other hand, he's not gonna dish out a lot of stuff he doesn't believe. He's not gonna tell you what you want to hear, unless you want to hear the truth.
"He's kind of quiet. He's a lot more off to himself than I am. He wouldn't talk only because he had an interview, but only if he had something to say. So he has a very different approach to things than I do. And I definitely respect his approach and love him because of his values and because of the integrity I see in him. That's a rare thing to find.
"Beaker's even more accidentally a musician than I am. He really has no interest at all in being a musician, of becoming a great rock star or a contemporary Christian star. He's planning on being an English teacher. He does like to play the guitar, and to me, that makes him more interesting to talk to and to work with. He enjoys trying new things. He's not afraid of challenges. In these ways, he's one of the funniest people I've been around."
The only thing not fun about Beaker, Mullins says, is his harrowing pursuit of truth (as he begins to explain, an impish grin creeps across his face, and it's as if he's about to burst out in laughter), "because I can sometimes be real full of bull. And he's got a detector on him that doesn't let me get away with it. So I can go into a Sunday school class and fool every kid in there that I am this great spiritual giant, and then I get back in the truck and Beaker goes, 'Wow! Good job!'"
There are still a few things Mullins wants you to know about himself: that he shouldn't be taken too seriously; that magazine articles about himself sometimes make him look too perfect, like Superman; that there are times when he wishes he were married, and a lot of times he's glad he isn't; and that he admires the Irish for their love of poetry and song, and their adamant stand against change, but any amount of Irish in him is probably pretty negligible.
If you come to Kansas and pull up beside an old pickup at a stoplight, and there's a couple of big dogs in the back and two ornery guys up front, it just may be Mullins and Beaker. If it is, you can smile, knowing they're more than just two ordinary guys with ordinary lives.