Friends Call Mullins' Award Overdue

Former Wichitan won a posthumous Dove Award for Artist of the Year on Thursday, and friends wonder what he might have thought

Denise Neil

April 26, 1998

Cheryl Hurley cried as she watched Thursday night's Dove Awards on television.

Some of her tears fell out of happiness. After 15 years and 12 nominations, her late friend, Christian singer Rich Mullins, was named the Gospel Music Association's Artist of the Year, finally garnering the recognition his friends always believed he deserved.

Others were tears of pain. Seeing that Mullins wasn't in the audience to receive his award helped Hurley reach a difficult realization: her friend of 10 years is never coming back.

"For me, his winning was kind of a closure on everything," said Hurley, a Wichita concert promoter and one of Mullins' former neighbors and close friends.

Mullins was killed in a car accident in Illinois last September while on his way to Wichita for a performance. He also lived in Wichita for several years.

And the many friends he still has here watched Thursday night's telecast from Nashville with great interest.

They were touched by a tribute to Mullins, performed by Christian musicians Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Phil Keaggy.

They were relieved to see their friend win the Dove Award, contemporary Christian music's equivalent of the Grammy Award.

And they wondered what Mullins, an introspective soul who wasn't too impressed with the celebrity lifestyle, would have thought had he lived to receive the award in person.

"The only thing you can know for sure is that you can't know for sure what he would think," Hurley said. "You could always count on that you couldn't count on how he'd feel about something."

Mullins, who grew up in Richmond, Ind., recorded nine albums during his career, which took off in the early 1980s. Singer Grant noticed his first album and then recorded a song he wrote, "Sing Your Praise to the Lord," which become one of her biggest hits.

After attending Cincinnati Bible College, Mullins moved to Wichita in the late 1980s to join the congregation of Central Christian Church. While he was here, he earned a music education degree at Friends University, which he completed in 1995.

He was best known for his hit song "Awesome God." But he was also known as someone who didn't find the business side of Christian music too awesome at all.

Mullins didn't always fit into the contemporary Christian music world, said Kevin Brocksieck, a fellow musician and composer who performed with Mullins when they were students at Friends.

He shunned the pop aspects of Christian music and instead drew on his love of almost every other musical style - gospel, rock, Celtic and classical music, Brocksieck said.

That made him somewhat of a Nashville outsider, said another friend, Bob Michaels, who is program director at contemporary Christian station KTLI, Light 99.1-FM.

In fact, Michaels said, the whole scene made Mullins uncomfortable - so much so that he attended only one Dove Awards show, back at the very start of his career.

And Michaels remembered that Mullins felt so out of place at that show that at a reception, he hid himself behind a buffet table and began serving desserts.

Deep down, Mullins would have been satisfied that his years of work were finally recognized, Michaels said. But the actual Dove trophy would not have meant much to him.

"I think Rich is probably laughing his head off today," Michaels said. "He thought it all was a farce - the whole idea of Christianity and commerce mixed together."

Still, in Wichita and across the country, Mullins' legacy has inspired much commerce since his death.

Better Book Room, 358 N. Main, has become sort of an international headquarters for Mullins merchandise, said music department manager John Overholt.

Just recently, the store sent shipments to seven countries, including Ireland, Malaysia and Australia, and it receives orders from across the nation as well.

People want Mullins' albums, his videos, a recording of the musical he wrote, "Canticle of the Plains."

They want T-shirts. They want copies of his book, "Home," released last month. They're already asking about another album, scheduled for release in late June.

The Kansas Cosmosphere, which debuted a Rich Mullins Christian Laser Light Show just before the singer died last September, originally planned to run the show - which mixes Mullins' music with high-tech laser visuals - through last Christmas, said Karen Siebert, marketing coordinator.

But it sells out nearly every weekend and has been extended, again and again. It's scheduled to continue through the summer.

Although his friends and fans have always known Mullins' worth, Michaels said, the music industry recognition was long overdue.

"People who knew him well felt that even though he was named Artist of the Year, it was more like a lifetime achievement award," he said.

Copyright 1998 by The Wichita Eagle

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