Just nine days before his automotive death, contemporary Christian artist Rich Mullins recorded nine new songs on a cheap, battery-powered recorder that were to be the basis of his next CD, an album he hoped would unfold the Jesus that many believers quickly gloss over, a raw, rough Jesus with dirty fingernails who hung out with the drunks and whores and loved them just as they were. In early 1998, the members of his band that had recorded and toured with him for the last five years decided that the music needed to be heard and went about recording the last songs of Rich Mullins.
The result is a two CD set called The Jesus Record. The first CD is by the entire band, the songs fleshed out with all the Celtic and folk instruments you would expect to find on a Mullins CD (hammered dulcimer and accordion included). Various members of the band, along with "guests" Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, sing the songs and overall, the result sounds like a Mullins album: acoustic, eclectic, rough around the edges yet pleasing and lyrics that are equal parts sage, child, scholar, and sinner. The music retains its freshness after dozens of hearings due to his writing style. Look at the printed music for Mullins' songs and you will find a literal catalog of chords and variations that keeps the attention of musicians long after the song is memorized.
It is not until you hear the second CD that you realize how unique Mullins really was. This CD contains the demos Rich made just before his death. They are rough, wrong notes are hit and sometimes there is distortion from the tiny jambox, but these sparse recordings of Mullins' voice backed by an acoustic guitar or piano reveal the soul and longing of a lonely man, a man who never found a wife, a man who spent the early hours of the morning alone with his music. When Rich sings "I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my years/All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret/I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here/Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led", you know he not only means these words, but feels them deeply. And it is the rare listener who does not also feel this lonely longing. There is no hypocritical piousness here, just gritty reality made all the more real but the gritty quality of the recording, and that awful truthfulness is what makes his music stand out.
This article first appeared in WhatzUp, February 1999.