Rich Mullins' Last Musical Vision

Lou Carlozo

June 28, 1998

On a carefree day late last summer, Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins entered an abandoned church in Elgin, cheap boombox in hand, to record demos for his next album. Mullins was excited about the material, a collection of songs about Jesus. But he was also absent-minded, and forgot to release the pause button.

Faced with starting over, Mullins could have left the recording for another day. He had an open invitation to tape his songs at the fancy recording studio next door, where his roommate Mitch McVicker was completing his first album. But Mullins had taken a shine to the fire-damaged chapel, and he didn't want to interrupt McVicker's project. So Mullins ran through the songs again, then took the crude tape home with him to New Mexico, where he played it for Myrrh Records executives and producer Rick Elias.

"He put it in one cassette deck and it wouldn't play," Elias recalled. "The tape got caught in the deck; he stared pulling on it and there was all this tape coming out. I rewound it with a pencil and said, `You'd better put it in another deck before it breaks.'"

Last year on Sept. 19, Mullins, 41, was killed and McVicker seriously injured in a car accident near Peoria. And that nearly eaten tape, made less than three weeks earlier, now stands as the last recording of original music Mullins made.

Now, Mullins fans will get to hear the tape for themselves. On June 30, Myrrh plans to release "The Jesus Record," a two-CD set with Mullins' demos on disc one, and studio versions performed by his backup band the Ragamuffins on disc two. Guest vocalists include Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant (Mullins penned her 1982 hit "Sing Your Praise To The Lord"), Phil Keaggy, Ashley Cleveland and Elias.

While many posthumous releases smack of a last-chance cash in, "The Jesus Record" is clearly cut from a different cloth. By all accounts, Mullins had insisted before his death that the record needed to be made. It was also the first time, as far as his backing musicians can recall, that he had demoed an entire project from beginning to end.

Mullins had given the demo tape to Myrrh vice president Jim Chaffee, who took it with him to Nashville to make copies for studio musicians and label personnel. After Mullins death, it was immediately cleaned up and transferred to compact disc to preserve it.

By keeping rough demos and polished studio cuts on separate discs, "The Jesus Record" gives listeners a fascinating glimpse into the bookends of the recording process. It also unveils eight new compositions written or co-written by Mullins. The Ragamuffins and friends also contribute two tracks that Mullins had hand-picked for the disc.

Mullins' solo tracks, performed on acoustic guitar and piano, may contain bumpy moments, but they are far from throwaways. His voice bristles with desperation on "Hard To Get," a psalm of lament against God's silence. And it's haunting to hear Mullins sing the upbeat refrain of "My Deliverer": "My deliverer is coming/ My deliverer is standing by."

On the studio disc, Elias does a commendable job of translating Mullins' vision into a fitting coda. His production style is more commercial than Reed Arvin (Mullins' longtime producer) and occasionally overwrought, but Elias has a knack for matching the guest vocalist to the right song. Cleveland turns in a showcase performance on "Jesus," and Keaggy brings abundant Beatlesque joy to "All The Way To Kingdom Come." Credit Elias for rendering an album that could have easily drifted to the maudlin or sentimental side, but stays crisp and upbeat.

Copyright 1998 by the Chicago Tribune

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