Christian Music Industry Remembers Rich Mullins
His untimely death impacts friends, industry, fans, and Christian music
Mark Smeby
CCM Update
September 29, 1997

"God used the music of Rich Mullins - from the No. 1 hits to the most obscure album cuts - to reach beyond denominations, age and race."

That observation from KFTA-FM's Jeff Roberts in Beaumont, Texas, echoes the hundreds of sentiments heard nationwide as Christian music learned of its loss-what Steven Michael, music director for WFTN-FM in Elkhart, Kan., called the "most tragic loss in the Christian music industry in 15 years."

For listeners in areas with Christian radio, the news of Rich Mullins' death on Friday night, Sept. 19, quickly found its way onto the airwaves and quick-acting stations with Web sites. By Monday, stations had opened up lines to allow listeners to tell about the impact Mullins' music had on their lives.

KJIL-FM in Meade, Kan., took song requests all week, letting listeners introduce the song and share its personal significance. "We've also been encouraging listeners to send Email and share these notes on the air," said KJIL's Michael Luskey. "The response has been good and healing."

Mullins, 41, and band member Mitch McVicker, 24 (vocalist on Heaven Is Waiting" from the independent release, Canticle of the Plains), were coming from Elgin, Ill., where they had been recording McVicker's debut album. The two were traveling southbound in Mullins' Jeep on I-39 near Peoria, Ill., to a benefit concert in Wichita, Kan., when, according to Illinois Highway Patrol Sgt. Gregory Jacobsen "the Jeep lost control for no apparent reason, causing it to roll and eject the two men." A semi tractor-trailer driven by Gregory V. Lea of Newkirk, N.M., also traveling southbound, approached the accident shortly after it happened and swerved to avoid the Jeep in the middle of the lanes. "The rig then struck Mullins, who died instantly," Jacobsen said. It is not known who was driving or what caused the Jeep to fishtail. "Indications are that the two were not wearing seatbelts," Jacobsen said. The police report cited no witnesses. Jacobsen, a reconstructionist, will continue investigating the accident.

McVicker was taken to a nearby hospital, then airlifted to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois. At press time, McVicker's condition had been upgraded from "critical" to "serious" but he was still in the neuro-care unit, said hospital spokesperson Chris Lofgren.

McVicker's family has been inundated with people wanting to extend help, said Chuck Pryor at WCIC-FM in Peoria. "This is a real opportunity for us to really be a Christian radio station," Pryor said. "The community has rallied around them, cooking meals, doing their laundry, prayer."

WCIC was by far not the only radio station who attempted to provide healing through its airwaves. Bob Thornton with KTLI in Wichita, Kan., quickly became the point man, updating stations nationwide through mass Emails and daily Website postings. Radio stations and their listeners around the country were clearly impacted by Mullins' life and death, and time was spent remembering:

Mullins had recently signed to Myrrh Records [The CCM Update, Aug. 25]. He was scheduled to go into the studio in October with producer Rick Elias to deliver an album slated for June 1998. A video and book was also anticipated, said Mullins' current manager, Jim Dunning, Jr., who has served as Mullins' CPA since 1989. Mullins had already written and, singing into a jambox, had crudely recorded the new songs on tape. "A lot of us believe this record needs to be made," Dunning told The CCM Update. "It's a powerful album, so we're still considering a way to release it in a manner pleasing to Rich."

"When we were together two weeks ago," said Myrrh Vice President Jim Chaffee, "Rich told me he had 10 songs about Jesus that really expressed his heart. When we've had an opportunity to work through the grieving process, Jim [Dunning] and I will begin to discuss the appropriate way to move ahead with these songs."

Mullins had also began his book, according to longtime friend Kathy Sprinkle of Wichita, Kan., who told The CCM Update about a recent conversation she and he had: "He read me the first reflection for his book and I just sat there. Sometimes he scared me with the things he wrote because I knew they didn't come from him. That's how I felt when I heard this. I told him, 'It's the best thing you've ever written.' He agreed." For Mullins, that was a strong statement, considering his 100-plus songs and the page of prose he wrote each day.

The future of the Mullins-produced album from his and longtime companion Beaker's musical, Canticle of the Plains, is uncertain, said Dunning. The musical, based on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, takes place in the Midwest during the 19th century. The time frame ties the story in with the Navajo Indian Nation in Window Rock, Ariz., where he and Mitch McVicker had been living. Mullins moved to the reservation in 1995 and had been teaching music on the reservation, though not in the schools, for the last two years.

For the past nine years, Mullins had devoted his time to Compassion International and within the last three, began focusing strictly on the U.S.A. ministry, specifically with Native American work in the Southwest. "His desire was to teach students on the reservation," said Alyssa Loukota, U.S.A. ministry marketing and communications director for Compassion. "Due to a lack of funds, many schools on the reservation did not have a music program. That's what Rich hoped to offer them."

Rich Mullins' life and music affected lives unlike any other artist, people note. "For me, Rich was more than just another Christian recording artist," an Email said. Thousands more have followed suit, said Brian William, whose Rich Mullins Website bears more than 1,500 tributes from Mullins appreciators. Additionally, CCM Online has collected more than 200 Emails from 35 states and five foreign countries. For Christian music, many say, one of the greatest influences is gone. Michael W. Smith is among the artists who cite his impact.

"Rich Mullins' life and music has impacted me more than anyone I know. He had the ability to take the mundane and make it majestic. Nobody on this planet wrote songs like he did and I feel we've lost one of the only true poets in our industry. I love Rich Mullins. And no one will ever know how much I'll miss him."

The funeral for Mullins was held Thursday, Sept. 25 at an undisclosed place for family only. The open visitation was at Whitewater Christian Church outside of Richmond, Ind., where he was born. At press time, a memorial service was scheduled in Nashville with Michael W. Smith, Mullins' Ragamuffin band and others participating. A nationwide memorial service in Wichita, Kan., coordinated by KTLI-FM, was to be held Saturday, Sept. 26, in Wichita State University's Henry Levitt Arena. Mullins' family has asked for donations to Compassion International in lieu of cards and flowers. Contact (800) 334-KIDS, P.O. Box 7000, Colorado Springs, CO 80933.

Copyright 1997 by CCM Communications and NetCentral, Inc.

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