Five years ago this month Christian music lost a beloved singer/songwriter in a tragic car accident. Rich Mullins’ friend, GRAMMY winner Ashley Cleveland, shares about her friendship with Rich and perhaps reveal a side of him very few of his fans ever got to see....
Somewhere around 1986 a friend handed me a copy of Rich Mullins’ debut album, thinking I would like it. I did, particularly the song “Both Feet on the Ground.” I would listen to it repeatedly, thinking, This song is so intimate and romantic. I had never heard a song that expressed the depth and romance of a life hidden with Christ quite like that, and I was charmed.
Rich and I first crossed paths shortly after my introduction to his music, and I found an Irish poet wrapped in this beautiful bundle of head, heart, talent, conflict and contradictions (extremes in compassion and intolerance, for instance). We became friends, though not close friends; we rarely saw one another as he moved from the Nashville area shortly after I met him. But we were able to connect on a fairly deep, initial level and over the years re-established that bond nearly every time we saw each other.
I found Rich to be shocking. It was not because of his inappropriate behavior (and there was plenty of that), but because he seemed to have avoided the cultural seduction that wrecks us all sooner or later. It was shocking to me that he gave away nearly all of his money and put little thought into his appearance. It was shocking that he lived the life of a gypsy; and, although he loved the land, he didn’t seem rooted to any particular piece of it. It was shocking that he didn’t put much stock in advancing his career or being professional; and, although I would argue with anyone who says he didn’t have an ego, I thought Rich Mullins was an artist for all the right reasons.
In her book, Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says true religious art transcends culture and reflects the eternal, but most of us in our lifetimes are caught within the culture. I always thought of Rich as being a little less “caught” than the rest of us. He was the furthest thing from a saint and the closest thing to a true believer that I knew.
In 1995 Rich called and asked if I would like to be part of his “Brother’s Keeper” tour. I was somewhat hesitant because I knew that Rich’s lifestyle did not particularly prize comfort, and I was sure that would show up in the tour logistics. Ultimately the attraction of being with Rich and the Ragamuffins won out over my fears. So I packed up my two youngest children, a nanny and my guitars to drive around the United States in a conversion van. Yes, a conversion van. Rich chose vans over buses and LaQuinta Inns over hotels for our 20,000-mile excursion. For a year following the tour my son, Henry, would cry when he saw a LaQuinta sign and would ask to go home.
Henry was 3 on that tour, and my youngest, Lily, was 8 months and crawling. Rich told me that he knew I would have my hands full and asked what he could do to provide some relief. I told him I could really use a guitar technician. At a show early in the tour, Sonny, my “guitar tech,” handed me a guitar that he claimed was good to go. I walked out to a full house of around 2,000 people and launched into my first song only to find that my guitar sounded like an animal in the process of dying. I had to stop the song, tune the guitar and start over. This is death to a performer—I repeat—death.
Sonny brought me another guitar for my second song, and I found it in the same unplayable condition. I asked Sonny later, “Do you know much about guitars?” He said, “Not really, no.” Sonny was an aspiring guitar player—quite different from a guitar technician.
I went to Rich and told him that I couldn’t use Sonny and asked him why he didn’t hire someone with more experience. Rich told me he didn’t hire Sonny for his skills; he hired him to pull him out of a dead-end lifestyle and to mentor him. My immediate charitable thought was, “Mentor on your own time, pal.”
At that moment I was wishing passionately that Rich was a little more culturally “caught,” that he would get with the program and look for the best people to hire instead of the most disenfranchised. But that was not how he operated.
Ultimately I believe Rich did get the best people—the perfect example being that incredible band of misfits, the Ragamuffins, whose performances on that tour moved my husband and me to tears. The way Rich invested in people was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. And I believe that is what makes the hole he left so gaping. But for me, it would have been enough if Rich Mullins had just been a poet.
Used by permission. CCM Magazine © 2002