It is no understatement to describe Rich Mullins as transcendent. He was a CCM musician in the heyday of the genre, and he had big hit songs, but his best music was leagues beyond the field in honesty and depth, and his life was so far removed from expectations.
David Schultz’s January release of “Ragamuffin”, a movie based on the life of Rich Mullins, is quite logically followed by a companion tribute album of the same name. This represents only the second major tribute album, which doesn’t seem possible, and unlike Reunion Records’ Awesome God, which was released about a year after his death, Ragamuffin has the luxury of more than a decade and a half of perspective. The album has little real connection to the movie apart from a rather awkward closing commentary track from the filmmakers, but if the movie was nothing more than an impetus for this fine collection it would be worth it.
Don’t mistake this for a “Greatest Hits” set of covers. Of the 12 top ten hits Mullins had, only two are represented here, and no, “Awesome God” is not covered here. This is, instead, an actual tribute album, and Mullins aficionados will find some inspired choices. The album opens with those two chart hits, “Creed” covered by Derek Webb and “If I Stand” covered by Sidewalk Prophets, and they set the tone for the diversity to follow. Webb plays everything on his self-produced romp, which strays considerably from the original but with an entirely appropriate determination and declaration. Ian Eskelin produced “If I Stand”, which is much truer to the Mullins masterpiece. Sung with earnestness by Dave Frey over a lovely piano, the song loses its sage restraint a bit at the end but still succeeds in leaving the listener longing for home.
So, the stage is set for eight more songs that are willing to wander from the sound of their source material but never from the soul. Andrew Peterson is perhaps the single most appropriate artist to be represented here, since he’s been described for years as the heir-apparent to Mullins. “Calling Out Your Name” is a Peterson concert staple and a favorite of many Mullins fans. Ben Shive’s production is lush, and this doesn’t sound like Peterson’s live version, but by the time the all-star background choir steps in, the impending storm feels ready to burst through your speakers.
Audrey Assad has chosen “I See You”, and left out the echo parts in the original. It sounds trivial, but it changes the song from a singalong to a reflective prayer for which Assad’s vocal is perfect. Jars of Clay cover one of my favorites, “Land of My Sojourn”. Their take is sparse, almost hollow, and I was initially a bit disappointed. After a couple of dozens of listens, though, it has become a highlight of the album. The setting allows the lyrics to shine, and they’re sublime.
In fact, one of the album’s strengths – and this might sound trivial as well – is the enunciation of the singers. At his best, Rich Mullins was the single most gifted lyricist I’ve ever heard. (Please don’t think “He ain’t just puttin’ on the Ritz” is a representative sample.) Unfortunately, though, his vocals sometimes made it pretty difficult to understand his words. On Ragamuffin, listeners will likely hear lines they didn’t know were there in the first place, and they’ll encounter Mullins’ brilliance for the first time.
Leigh Nash opens the album’s second half with a good example in “Ready for the Storm”. Her characteristically pristine vocal is tinged with the mix of apprehension and faith found in the song’s lonely sailor. Nash also chose wisely to change one lyric (which is allowed, since this is the only song on the album not written by Mullins). The “Yes sir, ready” line always bothered me a bit, so I’m happy to see it go.
The next two songs are from 1995’s Brother’s Keeper, but they might not be the two selections you’d expect. It’s a pleasure to hear Mitch McVicker, who most know was riding with Mullins during the accident that took Rich’s life. His version of “Wounds of Love” is really outstanding, and it belies the difficulty in covering the original, which has an uneven meter and tricky phrasing. McVicker’s vocal took me back to Canticle of the Plains, and his cover features a hammered dulcimer, de rigueur for an album like this one.
“Cry the Name”, covered by Jill Phillips, might be the most obscure song on Ragamuffin. She’s toned down the original to serve the tone of unbound abandon, and I dare say this is the cover version I like more than the original. Phillips’ husband Andy Gullahorn follows with a similarly understated “Peace”. It’s remarkable that an acoustic guitar can accomplish all that it does on this song, and surprising that I never before realized how exactly right Gullahorn’s vocals suit Rich Mullins songs.
The final cover is yet another example of Mullins’ lyrical profundity, “The Love of God”. Unknown artst Matt Liechty covers, with McVicker producing. Liechty is leading worship at “Ragamuffin Retreats” this Fall. The album closes with two Rich Mullins demos. “Never Heard the Music” sounds identical to the version on Here in America, a 2003 Reunion CD/DVD compilation. I have never heard “Now” before, which is a rare treat. It’s not Mullins’ best, but at this point it could be viewed with the reverence afforded those occasionally discovered unreleased Beatles rarities.
Ragamuffin succeeds in two important ways. For longtime Mullins fans, the way some of the songs have been subtly reimagined and refreshed make this a must-have. It also works for those less familiar with his music, even the ones who only know “Awesome God”. Although there are some lesser-known songs here it makes an excellent introduction to the Mullins catalog, and should effectively point listeners back to the source material and, in turn, to the “reckless, raging fury they call the love of God”.