The Phantom Tollbooth

Rick Elias of the Ragamuffin Band
Cornerstone Festival, Bushnell, Illinois
July 3, 1998
By Chris Parks
Pictures by Cathy Courtright

The unexpected death of Rich Mullins some fourteen months ago left many people, some of them fans, others of them fellow artists, with a tremendous sense of loss. Because Rich Mullins had a particular gift for writing songs that described the ups and downs of the life of faith as lived in the everyday world, fans who had never met him felt they knew him well, and his death hit them with all the impact of a friend's death. In the days and months after the fatal accident, people sought in various ways to come to terms with that sense of loss.

For the Ragamuffin Band, that small group of artists who had played with Mullins on his later albums, the loss took on a different dimension. They had been working with Mullins on a new album, an album that Mullins felt would be his most significant work. After his death, the Ragamuffins, Rick Elias, Mark Robertson, Jimmy Abegg, and Aaron Smith, sought to complete that album, as a tribute to their friend, but more importantly to give honor to Christ, as Mullins had intended all along. As the project progressed, additional artists like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith added their talents to the project.

Once the album  was finished, it remained for the Ragamuffins to share the songs with Mullins's fans. One early venue for that sharing was a special concert at Cornerstone 1998.  Thanks to the graciousness of Rick Elias, who was fighting a cold at the time, The Phantom Tollbooth was able to discuss with Elias the Jesus album, the Cornerstone concert, the planed tour, and Rich Mullins's impact as a person and a musician.

PT: How do you assess Rich's impact on your artistry and on your faith?

Elias: Well, he's probably one of the finest musicians I've ever known, and I've known some good ones. Just being around that all the time, you're bound to learn something. Rich loved the church, and that's something I don't naturally do. I love individuals, but I don't naturally love the collective whole. Rich did, and that was inspiring.

Beyond that, his biggest impact on me is that he's one of the few people I've ever met whom I felt could go nose to nose with me in the sin category - as far as arrogance or conceit or vanity or any of the things that plague us all. Those things have plagued me at times.

Rich was like that, but he didn't let it cripple him. He sought out Christ and he did not use weakness as an excuse for sin, which at times I did. You know the attitude: "I just can't help it, God." Rich never cut himself that much slack. He didn't beat himself up over it either, but he counted on Jesus utterly and completely. That inspired me to do the same.

PT: Let's talk about the record. You've said this album is not a tribute to Rich, is not about anyone except Jesus.

Elias: Absolutely. That was his whole purpose for the record. Rich was an educator - not many people know that. And he knew what any smart educator knows: if you want a kid to learn a difficult subject, make it fun. He knew that the only way he was going to get any of us, himself included, to concentrate on Christ for a significant portion of time, was to make it part of our work. It was a brilliant masterstroke as far as motivation goes.

He really felt we needed to make this record. He said, "We're making this because we need to make it. WE need to make it - this group of friends: Jimmy Abegg, Aaron Smith, Mark Robertson, Rick Elias, and Rich Mullins." In that regard it never changed after he died. We were absolutely stubborn about the focus remaining on Christ. Anything less would be a disservice.

PT: Although the Jesus Record includes Rich's recorded demos, you weren't working with raw material; you had a couple of years' head start on this album, this was not something Rich was just roughing out.

Elias: No, no, he'd been talking about it for two or three years.

PT: ... So that had to help, too, in making the record.

Elias: Yeah, but, he didn't always include us in those conversations. About three or four years ago he heard this song of mine called "Man of No Reputation," and he said, "I love that song ... we're going to do that on a record." As time went by, he let me know it was going to be part of this record. Rich picked every song, whether he wrote it or not, and that's so important for people to know. We didn't come in afterward and decide, "Hey, let's do this." Rich created this record, and that's one thing the demo proves, or at least illustrates. We really carried out his wishes.

PT: You've said that, in doing this record, you were trying not to be weepy, you were trying to make it fun, because that's how Rich operated ...

Elias: Fun and healing.

PT: Fun and healing. Was there an element for the Ragamuffins of saying goodbye here?

Elias: Absolutely. Our fervent hope in making the record, and beyond the making of the record - in considering whether to tour, whether it was just this one date or a major tour - is that we as a band, and Rich's fans, experience a chance to say goodbye, a chance for some healing. We realized we'd had an opportunity for that. Rich poured so much of himself into his music, and there are layers and layers of emotion on this record.

We've experienced all those emotions, and it was a wonderful gift to us from him. We believe it's going to be the same way for his fans.

But it doesn't end there. I think the record has a lot of singularity of focus, of theme. If you've never heard of Rich Mullins, and you hear this record, you're going to know a little bit more about who Rich was, but, more importantly, you're going to know a little bit more about who Jesus is. And that was our tribute to Rich.

PT: At this point, then, you're still talking about a tour in support of the record?

Elias: We're doing more than talking about it. We've got some dates set up. We just have to figure out how much of a tour we're going to do. There's been a lot of speculation about how the record will do: Will people even care? Will it be well received? Nobody really knew.

Frankly, the infrastructure of Christian music is cynical, probably one of most cynical fields I've ever worked in. I don't find as much cynicism in Hollywood, or on any of the various other projects I've done outside Christian music. I don't know why that is, but it is. So there's a lot of this attitude of, "You show me that this will work. Show me. I need to see it four or five times over."

I think some people haven't been that way about this record, and they've caught the vision early on, and we're thankful to them.

We [the Ragamuffins] don't know whether we're going to do five dates or 50, but we'll go wherever we can afford to go. We really think there are a lot of people out there who still need that healing, who want a chance to say goodbye. And we want to see them. We want to see them one more time, because we know this is it for the present.

We miss Rich, and we're going to miss his fans. We want a chance to say goodbye together, and that's why I think [the tribute concert at Cornerstone '98] is going to be wonderful. It really has nothing with how good we play or how bad we play - we're not really ready to play [laughs] - it's going to be a little rough around the edges, but ...

PT: Rich could be like that.

Elias: Well, yeah. When we played Cornerstone last year, it was the last time we played live with him, and it was one of the worst gigs ever, musically. But Rich had the ability to transcend that. His music had the ability to transcend that, too; it wasn't just him. He was remarkable.

PT: So, at this point, you have no firm plans to do anything as the Ragamuffins after this?

Elias: That's not really so. There's been some talk of us doing our own record. Rich wanted us to do an album, and we want to. We think we're a good band. We became a band in spite of ourselves, and because of him. He picked each of us to play. And he kept saying, "You know you guys are a good band. You're a good band." And after a while we became one, just from playing with

We'd like to do a record, and we'll see where that takes us. Right now our total focus is on the Jesus record, at least until the end of this year.

PT: And you all have your own projects.

Elias: We do. Most of us earn a living in other areas. But I think one thing we found in the making of this record was that we were forced to step up a lot more and play as a band. That was going to happen anyway, even had Rich lived. We knew this record was going to be much more of a cohesive package.

Some of the Ragamuffins didn't play on the last album, Brother's Keeper, and some of us did. That was really an unfocused record. Rich wanted to have this album stand apart from the rest of his stuff.

PT: And be a Ragamuffin record, not Rich Mullins with the Ragamuffins.

Elias: He considered himself a Ragamuffin.

PT: Okay.

Elias: Of course, it would have been billed Rich Mullins and a Ragamuffin Band. He really saw us as a band, and we did too. The lineup had solidified over the last few years, and we were excited about it. And that's exactly what happened, even with him not here. As we saw that, we felt good about it. If the opportunity comes up to record for a label, we'll want to make a record. If it doesn't, we may just do it on our own. We'll see what happens.

PT: Last question: Do you think this is how Rich would want to be remembered?

Elias: This record?

PT: Yeah.

Elias: Absolutely. He felt if was his most significant work. And that is to be distinguished from his best or his most commercially successful. That's a very subjective assessment, but I have to agree. Having played on his last couple records, and having played out live with him, and having played the length and breadth of material from his entire career, I feel this is probably one of the most compelling whole works he ever did. It's right up there with A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, and that was a great record.

PT: That was my introduction to Rich.

Elias: It was the first record of his that I played on. I think it's a great record. But that record was a bit more internal; this one is more outwardly focused, toward Christ, although this one does have its moments.

Rich was really more of a filmmaker than he was a songwriter. To listen to his music, you almost have to listen to it as a whole piece, and understand that there are close-ups and there are panoramic shots, and that there are big themes and little sub-plots. He was one of the few artists, certainly in Christian music, who do that. You know, most Christian artists are constantly chasing after the next hit, and that's not always their fault. In the industry, you kind of have to do that; it's the nature of the beast. But Rich never bowed, never compromised on that.