One of the legacy's that the late Rich Mullins left us was a fantastic band of musicians who had been on the fringes of the contemporary Christian music scene until he brought them out, from underneath misunderstanding, as his band. When he passed on, they continued his legacy with The Jesus Record and are now about to release a new album called Ragamuffin Prayers. Steve Stockman, frequent host to Rich Mullins in Belfast, Ireland (look for him in the Homeless Man video) interviewed two of the "Rags," Jimmy Abegg and Rick Elias.
Stockman: It's been an interesting journey for you Ragamuffins. First you do an album that Rich was a part of in that he wrote the songs. Then there's a tour of those songs without him. Now you're on your own completely. Could you tell us a bit about each of those little journeys?
Abegg: The Jesus Record was a fantastic experience. It found a wounded group of musicians and brought healing and perspective. To tell the truth, it felt a little like the disciples when suddenly their leader was hanging out on a tree and they were left with promise they knew to be true, but had as many questions as answers. Not to over blow it, but we were shocked that we were allowed to proceed with the record after his death and were surprised by the outcome.
Stockman: The tour especially. How were you received?
Abegg: The tour was well received. Lots of folks there to bask in the beauty of good songs, lots there to wish Rich well in his passing and tons of people for whom The Jesus Record was their first taste and had to find out what the 'Ragamuffins' were. The tour was good, sold out, well attended and lots of fun.
Stockman: When did the idea of the follow up to The Jesus Record appear?
Abegg: When several labels expressed their interest in a Ragamuffin record. We were perceived as a band because of the tour and success of The Jesus Record. Finally the folks who can help realize such ends were seeing Rich's intentions with the band.
Stockman: How did you come to focus it on prayers?
Abegg: I had attempted to do a new record several years ago with that as the theme and felt we would thrive given parameters to define our writing. It is part of a bigger plan that may include theme projects for a few records yet to be made. It adds substance and proportion like The Jesus Record did. It becomes a tool to inspire deeper thinking rather than a collection of unrelated ideas gathered only for the purpose of meeting a quota. i.e, ten songs.
Stockman: Did you all go away and write at that point and then come back and throw in your songs?
Abegg: Pretty much that's the way we did it. Although most of it was collaborative after we knew which songs we wanted on the record.
Stockman: Any songs left off?
Abegg: One by me entitled "Teach Me to Pray" We ran out of time to finish it.
Stockman: You are really making your own legacy now. Did Rich's ghost make any appearances in this project?
Abegg: None that I can put my finger on.
Stockman: Tell us about the book.
Abegg: The book is designed to go with the theme of prayer. It is a photo essay meant to evoke thoughtful consideration. It includes writing by many of my friends whom I consider Ragamuffins, even though they are not in the band, and photographs to reflect on. There are maybe 25 contributors, you being one. Lots of folks who are known for mostly other things. I thought it would be fun to pry a little and see what goes on inside their heads. Creative folks all and so far a fairly broad approach to prayer. It is set to be released in March of 2000. It will launch round two of promotion for the Prayers record. I am thankful for it.
Stockman: Are there plans for a tour and even another album?
Abegg: I hope so, but nothing concrete that I know of. I think Rich would be tickled about you guys working on. Like a boy band he manufactured! Yeah, I think he's laughing his butt off!!!
Stockman: Yourself, are you a songwriter, guitarist, painter, photographer or author?
Abegg: A little of each apparently. Funny, lately I've been doing a bunch of music videos as well. God is good. He's decided to let me do all the stuff I wanted to do when I grew up. Don't ask why because I don't know.
Stockman: Any new albums yourself?
Abegg: I'm actually working
with Phil Madeira on a bunch of new songs but I don't know what we'll do
with the results. I'm under contract to Myrrh so they would be welcome
to a stab at it but the material is quite demanding and hardly CCM in most
Stockman: Ragamuffin Prayers seems to me to be a real fulfillment of Manning's introduction to Ragamuffin Gospel. Yet there seems something more here. It's as though through the grace and mystery of Mullin's life and death, you guys have been given a real platform. Ragamuffin grace incarnate. Is that a sentimental myth on my part?
Elias: First off, thank you. We really hoped this project would not only do Rich's considerable musical legacy justice, but be a step forward on our own as well. We will forever stand on his shoulders musically, so to speak, but we knew that we had to take responsibility for creating something new and distinct if the Rags are to continue.
Stockman: The ordeal of Rich's death, recording his songs and then touring without him must have been an experience.
Elias: Certainly. Both the making of the record and the subsequent touring were emotionally charged both for Rich's fans and us. To a certain extent, we each had to keep a lid on our own emotions, or we wouldn't have been able to accomplish the task set before us. This was not without a toll. I know that personally, I have been working through some belated grief. The songs on the new album reflect some of the joy, sadness, doubt and increased faith I think we've all experienced over the last couple of years.
Stockman: Beyond that, how do you reckon that the material of the Jesus Record effected you guys spiritually?
Elias: Immensely. At least for me, and I believe the rest of the guys as well, although I wouldn't presume to speak for them regarding this. I have rediscovered, through all the duress, the sadness, the ups and downs...the face of Christ reflected in my eyes when I care enough to open them. The peace of Christ, sometimes, actually flooding my heart. But mostly, I guess, that I am on a journey, that I have not arrived, not yet, and that I don't walk alone.
Stockman: Where did "Man Of No Reputation" come from?
Elias: The description of Christ as a "man of no reputation" is in Phil. 2 King James Version. This is not a version of the Bible that I read often, but this one particular time I happened to be reading it, and that line just jumped off the page at me. So, the obvious happened, I began thinking about this truth as compared to my life. At the time, we weren't doing so well, I was feeling like a nobody, a nothing, and both hating and fearing the fact that it might be true and that I even cared if it was. I didn't know which way to turn. . . and this reminder that our Lord and Savior not only embraced people who felt and were, according to the world's standards, failures, but came as one Himself both humbled me, and reminded me of who it is I serve.
Stockman: Am I right in thinking that was the catalyst for the whole Jesus Project in Rich's head?
Stockman: I love the solo work of all you ragamuffins, but this Prayers album seems to me to have brought out the very best in your songwriting. Any reason for that?
Elias: We knew the album had to have a central theme, as the Jesus Record did, because our musical contributions would probably be so diverse. I think that caused us all to dig a little deeper and attempt to communicate something besides just our feelings . . .
Stockman: Any books or resources you used to inspire the writing process?
Elias: Yes actually. I had a stack of about 10 books I was reading the entire time I was writing, and I know the same is true of the guys. From the Book of Common Prayer to a book of Catholic prayers, the Oxford Book of Prayer to several books on Celtic prayer.
Stockman: How far is the album autobiographical and how much did you take on the role of a Ragamuffin?
Elias: Well, I am a ragamuffin. I believe we all are.
Stockman: "My Heart Already Knows" was a co write with Mark and Rich. Was it from a fragment of a Rich song that you wrote recently or a song written together?
Elias: Rich and Mark had begun it sometime ago, I don't know exactly when. . . then Mark and I completed it just recently.
Stockman: Any more Rich songs hanging around?
Elias: We almost recorded a song of Rich's called "Madeline's Song". . . might do it in the future.
Stockman: And what about you. What else is happening outside the Ragamuffins? Soundtracks? Co-writes? A follow up to Blink?
Elias: Nope. Just the Rags.
Maybe later, but this is my passion and task for the time being.