ReleasExtra Interview with Roberta Croteau
Copyright 1994 by Release Magazine, reproduced with permission
He drives around town in a 1966 bright red Chevy pick-up he's dubbed "Ruby". Today, the outside is spotless. Inside, well ... let's just say, you're likely to have a few Diet Coke cans roll out when you open the door. There are pieces of his days strewn across the seat - a few pens, books, and papers. A gym bag tossed in for good measure; some cassettes and a raft of sheet music. The spare tire lying in the back is flat. If I was more of an archeologist I could probably read Rich Mullins' whole life in this truck.
But then again, there isn't much left to dig up on Rich Mullins. He pretty much lives his life out in the open and is painfully honest and up-front as any friend, colleague, or fly-by-night interviewer could tell you. If he has any secrets, you'd never know it talking to him. The proverbial open book, he flits easily between thoughts about his life, his fears, his music, his politics, his friends, his loves, and his aggravations - it's usually open season on anything ... anytime, anywhere.
Today his conversation centers around a not-so-new revelation in his life. "It seems," he confesses, "that I always am and always have been an outsider. I've never really fit it." As he says this, a car rolls by, honking, with a friend frantically waving. Two minutes later, the scene repeats. It would seem that "fitting in" in hometown Wichita hasn't been a problem.
As he turns the corner nearing home, though, I'm beginning to see how this man really is a study in contrasts. At thirty-eight years old he still sometimes seems like ten, with a boyish giggle and disarmingly impish grin. Almost everything seems to hold a child-like wonder through his eyes. Other times ... he's old beyond his years - a tad cynical, a little burnt-out and worldly-wise. He does a marvelous impersonation of a classic red-neck. Sometimes, though, it's more frightening that it is funny.
His attic apartment is surprisingly neat - and modest. A guitar and dulcimer lean against one wall, some low, crammed bookcases sit under a window that overlooks an Anytown America suburban neighborhood; deep blue walls with some scattered Indian art and a white gabled ceiling envelope a decidedly small living space. You probably wouldn't guess that this was the home of one of Christian music's most successful song-writers (remember, he penned Amy's mega-hit, "Sing Your Praise To The Lord," along with "Doubly Good To You" and "Love Of Another Kind") or the working abode of the artist who's brought us "Awesome God," "Sometimes By Step," "My One Thing" and over seventy other tunes that are indelibly etched in Christian music's short history. I don't suppose I expected a guy like Rich to live in a posh penthouse kinda place, but still, it was a striking scene. You just don't always expect someone to live as simply as they sing. You just don't always expect to come face-to-face with the real thing...
These days Rich finds himself a student again (working on two degrees at once, no less) and remembers that school the first time around was where this "fitting in" thing all began. "I was always too religious for my rowdy friends (they thought I was unbelievably hung up," he laughs, "and too rowdy for my religious friends (they were always praying for me)". Growing up had its good times though ... Mullins was brought up on a farm in Indiana, the middle son between two older sisters and two younger brothers. He speaks wistfully of his childhood, remembering scenes and moments like a southern writer spinning yarns on a back porch. There were lessons learned while collecting eggs, his daily chore. The family's tree nursery taught him how to identify any kind of tree by its bark - a talent he can still demonstrate today. He recalls the day he watched with his father as a fox wandered amazingly close to the house - something very rare from this usually shy animal. To carry the theme of the hour, I asked him if found he was the "artsy-creative" kid amidst a farm family that maybe didn't buy into the whole creative process. He's quick to point out that his father was probably one of the most imaginative people he knew. "Farming takes amazing creativity. Unless you're rich, you have to figure out ten different uses for one tool. And not only that, but farmers have to understand agriculture, economics, mechanics ... everything just to survive. My creativity in my family is unique in that it's a real non-practical, fantasmical kind of thing - but then that's what music is. People can live without it - but why would they want to?"
Indeed. He laughs again when we talk about his music and his conflict today. "Some people think I'm a real art freak 'cause I kinda do enjoy a lot of cultural junk. But art freaks tend to think I'm a garish and unsophisticated flake. See? I'm never 'one of the group'!" He continues, "I never know if I'm a commercial writer or an art writer." The rest of us would probably think that's a nice middle ground to live on. After all, as an artist, Rich Mullins has managed to earn much respect as a serious poet-musician type, while at the same time garnering amazing commercial success. Not many creative people, whether within Christian circles or out, have managed to find the best of both of those worlds.
His eyes light up like a kid with a great idea ... "Sometimes I think I'm going to do something so artsy, all those art types are gonna fall down and worship me." Then, he roars, "I think I'll write an album that sells so many copies they can't print them fast enough." He settles, back in his chair and rolls his eyes, smirking. "The long and short of it is I would do both those things if I had the ability. Sometimes I forget that I'm vain and I start to think I'm being treated unjustly. And then I remember, no - this isn't a matter of them not recognizing your genius. This is a matter of you putting too much stock in it."
His self-awareness is uncanny. His self-depreciation is hysterical to listen to. Beyond all that though, there is something almost surreal about this man. Watching him, listening to him, knowing him, you almost begin to believe that maybe God actually does use mortal man as a conduit of His grace. Rich is as human as they come. And maybe his admitting it, is what makes the grace of the God he talks about that much more tangible. I ask him what's next? He sighs, and stares at the ceiling for a mo ment...
"I'm not sure I have anything left to say. Of course I always feel that at the end of every album. I always go, okay, that's it. I've kinda already said everything. Then all of a sudden I go, no, I want to say this - I forgot to tell you. So you run back in and make another album..."
We can only hope that that trend will continue. For four years now he's been dogged by rumors, largely self-inflicted, that he's leaving the music business. The truth is, he's not sure himself whether his future will put the kibosh his music career, or just slow it down. He's one year away from earning both his degrees in music and in education, and expects to then begin teaching music to children on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. They're waiting for him to arrive even now. For a man who's been haunted by being an outsider, perhaps this will be his greatest challenge. Most of the kids there probably won't even know that their teacher once played his songs for close to half a million fans and that his albums are in thousands of homes around the world. I have a hunch they'll just see him as the guy who came into their world and taught them to love music and to see God. He once, in a song, described his parents as having "worked to give faith hands and feet, and somehow gave it wings." In one short decade he's managed to give faith wings to a listening audience through his transparent life and compelling art. I can't imagine him giving his students any less.