The Phantom Tollbooth
Hammered Dulcimer
Rich Mullins Tribute
Cornerstone Festival ’98
Reviewed by Cathy Courtwright

The evening was intended to honor Rich Mullins, who died unexpectedly less than four months after his appearance at this same festival only a year ago. It was a chance for fans to say goodbye at a gathering of his fellow musicians who shared from their hearts what his untimely death meant to them. The three hour tribute was a solemn remembrance--except when it behaved like an Irish Wake, or a New Orleans jazz procession returning from the graveside to a wild rendition of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Death was swallowed up in victory at this alternatively poignant and hilarious evening, a true reflection of the man it was intended to honor.

Cathy Courtwright was backstage during this celebration of a remarkable life--Ed.

I have cooked dinner, hosted concerts, and just chatted with so many of the wonderful people involved in this tribute. However, this tribute was a different type of setting, one I never even dreamt of seeing. It was a great relief for everyone to see each other, to know that after nearly a year, most were doing OK. They still show up late for the sound check, but can still bring a smile to the audience’s faces, and put on a great show.

Dave Mullins, Rich’s younger brother, began the evening leading us in prayer. He said what I think was the most important thing of the entire evening. God works in our lives in ways that we just don’t understand. Sometimes good people do die. But through scripture study, we see that God allows us to go through pain, struggles, and hardships so that he can move, so that we can see exactly why we need him. “Tonight,” Dave Mullins concluded, “I hope that. . . we will pay tribute to Rich, but even more to God. Because the good things that were ever said or done by my brother were not done by him. They were done by the Lord God Almighty. Tonight, I hope you enjoy, I hope you are blessed, and bless, by being here.”

Jordan RichterSixpence None the Richer was the first band. Lead singer Leigh Bingham-Nash sang “In Your Hands” and “Buenas Noches from Nacogdoches,” which she recorded for the soundtrack of Mullins’s musical, Canticle of the Plains. She fondly related how pleased she was to have the chance to do the musical, but recalled Mullins and the guys laughing at her for not being able to hit the high notes. Bingham-Nash admitted this was her first time ever performing songs from Canticle of the Plains and joked about the band learning the songs just three hours earlier. Their hasty education became apparent when she declared the beginning of “Buenas Noches” sounded “kind of creepy” and made the band start over, giggling as she apologized. She was relieved to have the Mullins’s songs behind her: “OK, fellas, now we can relax.” The band played some of their own songs, but my favorite part of Sixpence None the Richer’s section was the last song, “I Need Thee Every Hour,” an acknowledgement that Rich Mullins usually included hymns in his concerts. I think he would have liked their choice.

Alyssa Loukota of Compassion USA introduced the next band. “This Train has been a band that has worked with and toured with Rich for awhile. They are a lot of fun, and they have a lot to say. So I hope you guys enjoy them, and just enjoy the mirth and the laughter, which I think is a part of God that we don't always remember.”

Michael AukoferThe crowd gave This Train a warm welcome as they took their places singing “Screen Door.” Mark Robertson, lead singer, bass player, and Ragamuffin, immediately interrupted with a joke. “Hey! Well, um, we made sure this would be a proper Rich Mullins tribute by not actually learning all the words. If you've seen him, you know what I'm talking about.” Beki Hemingway, a former member of This Train, came on stage to help the guys do the first song that they learned with Mullins, “Somewhere.”

This Train prepared to do their next song, “No, Not One.” Mitch McVicker was supposed to help out, but backstage, we were all frantically looking for him. We looked in vans, in port-a-potties, under everything, anywhere we could think of, while onstage, Robertson stalled for time by telling jokes. We finally had to notify Robertson that McVicker was nowhere to be found! Eric Hauck, a fellow Kid Brother of St. Frank, was within eyeshot
and offered to help the band out. Hauck did a fine job--humming--because he had forgotten the words to McVicker’s part of the song. After the song, with a dead pan expression, Robertson advised the audience to hide from McVicker when he came back. The tent was packed beyond capacity. People were several rows deep outside and no one made a move--except to laugh.

Mark Robertson“A Million Years,” a hit single from This Train’s new album, was co-written by Mullins, Robertson, and McVicker. As Robertson fondly recalled, Rich Mullins was very generous when it came to songwriting credit: “Co-writing with Rich usually meant you were somewhere in the room and added maybe one word.” Nonetheless, it was one of the biggest honors of his life. Backstage, a couple of songwriters grinned and nodded their heads in agreement.

“Great Atomic Power” found Beki Hemingway and Eric Hauck graciously helping out This Train again, this time because special guest Ashley Cleveland was missing. After the song, Robertson reminded the audience that last year at this festival, on the same stage, This Train did the same song, with Mullins and the Kid Brothers of St. Frank helping them out. Rich Mullins had borrowed a keyboard that was in a different key, Robertson reminisced: “. . .and I have a videotape of Rich just kind of looking puzzled at this piano, and I'm just hoping no one here read lips. If you know Rich well, you know nobody could throw a tantrum quite like Rich Mullins could. And he would always catch himself when it would get really ridiculous and over the edge. He would catch how dumb it was, and would turn [it] into this amazing black comedy piece. And I think I probably miss his temper as much as anything I can think of, because watching him blow up and then make fun of it for the next hour. . . it's funny the things you wish you had back.”

Aaron SmithKid Brothers of St. Frank's Eric Hauck introduced Greg and Rebecca Sparks. Hauck read the introduction from Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel, which was such an inspiration to Mullins. He spoke of Jesus’ love for the poor, the oppressed, and his compassion. Hauck also reminded us that in seeking to love purely, we grow closer to God.

Rebecca Sparks was the spokesperson for her family. “It's wonderful to be with you tonight, and pay tribute to a dear man that we had wonderful times with on the road traveling, and wonderful times sitting in hotel rooms talking. It was a privilege to have him in our home and a couple of family situations. We've spent time at gravesides together, we've spent time crying about the passing of family members, and we've spent lots of time laughing at just about how weird life could be. We're going to attempt to totally ruin one of his songs right now.” They encouraged the audience to help sing “Hope to Carry On” because in keeping with precedent, they had forgotten some of the words.

Beki HemingwayRebecca Sparks joked, “Rich wrote, like, way too many words for me, so...I'm claiming old age and stupidity.” They sang some of their songs that Mullins liked to join in on. “He was kind of cute that way. He'd just walk up on stage and join with you whatever you were doing, whether you wanted him to be there or not.”

Greg Sparks added, “What'd he say? ‘It's my daggoned concert!’”

They performed “Homeland,” written for Greg's father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease over ten years ago. “And Rich spent days and days--we thought he would never leave--at the family farm up in Michigan,” Greg recounted. “This is dedicated to both of them. Rich is a little further over the river than Dad is.”

Greg & Rebecca SparksBackstage, as the humidity continued to rise, Michael Aukofer of the Kid Brothers concentrated on tuning his hammered dulcimer. I took advantage of his intense concentration to snap a quick picture. Evidently, he was already thinking about tomorrow being the Fourth of July, and the poor man freaked out. He explained that he thought the flash of the camera was a fire cracker!

Aaron Smith, the Ragamuffin drummer, introduced the Kid Brothers of St. Frank: Mitch McVicker, Eric Hauck, and Mike Aukofer. He spoke of being a Ragamuffin, not only in the band, but as a follower of Jesus. “We're all ragamuffins, you know; we've been saved by the grace of God and put back together in the way, in the form, that God always intended us to be.”

The Kid Brothers' first song was “Calling Out Your Name.” McVicker told the audience, “We wanted to start with that song because Rich wrote it when he was living in Kansas, and we're all Kansas boys in our own different ways. I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and Michael grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and Eric grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio.” Hauck pipes in to tell us that he was born in Hillsboro, Kansas, but the crowd had already enjoyed the joke.

Dave MullinsMcVicker was Mullins’s sole traveling companion the night of the tragic accident. He sustained serious injuries that required months of rehabilitation. Damage to his vocal chords made his participation in this event uncertain until two weeks beforehand. His rendition of his first song, “New Mexico,” was well received. It is on his newly released self-titled album, co-produced by Mullins and Robertson, completed only hours before the accident. He was in good spirits. Untangling himself from all of the cords on the stage, McVicker introduced “The Lemonade Song.” When he first wrote it, he thought it was stupid and, “Rich agreed.” But after playing it a while, McVicker decided that it was profound. Hauck asked if Rich agreed again and McVicker chuckled and said, “No, but he still let me sing it in concerts.”

The Kid Brothers of St. Frank sang two songs from Canticle of the Plains. McVicker explained that he always thought “Heaven is Waiting” was significant and now, since Mullins’s death, even more so. McVicker commented about St. Francis of Assisi, the subject of Canticle:“Francis probably followed Jesus more literally and more radically than anybody. Radicalness is not so much in the color of your hair or how many body parts you have pierced. I think the most radical you can be is to follow Jesus.” They flowed into the song “There You Are” then “When You Love,” an early Rich Mullins song that the two were originally going to re-write together. With Mullins gone, McVicker decided to go ahead and redo it on his own. Michael Aukofer played a hammered dulcimer arrangement of the song “It is Well with My Soul.” Most people who had seen a Rich Mullins concert could recall him leading the audience in this, his favorite hymn, and they quietly hummed along.

Jimmy AbeggAukofer, Hauck, and McVicker together did a song McVicker recently wrote for Mullins called “Rich's Song.” Then McVicker stood alone and told the audience, “I want to end with this song. It's a song that Rich wrote, and I would love it when he would do it in concert. I think it's a terribly true song, and I think it's really relevant to this particular situation. And I can't think of a better song that better sums up how Rich saw things. It makes me think of him, and it's called 'Bound to Come Some Trouble.'”

McVicker introduced the Ragamuffins (Aaron Smith, Jimmy Abegg, Rick Elias, and Mark Robertson) and Ashley Cleveland for the Tribute finale. The Ragamuffins began with a bang--“My Deliverer”--from the just released the Jesus record, Mullins's last album, realized posthumously by the crew on stage. Standing right next to the speakers, it almost blew me over. The colored lights flashed to the beat of what I believe was the most powerful song of the evening.

Continuing with songs from the Jesus record, Rick Elias, who produced the album, warned that he didn’t know if they were really ready for this, but they proved they were by going directly into “Surely God is with Us” then “Hard to Get.” The Ragamuffins left the stage for Cleveland’s solo, “Jesus.” I studied the main Tribute players. They were no longer playing around having a jolly time; they were silently serious. Dave Mullins sat in the back of a truck just looking toward heaven. Robertson watched Cleveland, Smith sat without saying a word, and Jimmy Abegg stared at his glass of water.

“You Did Not Have a Home” brought all the Ragamuffins back on stage, but they were not joking when they warned of not being ready. One of them mumbled some words, causing Robertson, Elias, and Abegg to all start laughing. Elias announced to the audience it was participation time: “Well, the sitting part of the show is over--we've done our part. Now you guys are gonna have to help out, because, quite frankly, we can't go on without you.” McVicker, Hauck, Aukofer, and Cleveland returned and together with the audience everyone sang rousing versions of “Creed” and “I See You.”

The honest but under-prepared Elias instructed the assembled to, “Sit down, but you guys just keep going. We have a couple of other songs we're gonna need your help on.” “It is Well with My Soul,” “Sometimes by Step,” and the doxology followed. The musicians quietly left the stage one by one during the doxology and the audience finished alone, bringing back memories of the many times Mullins would end his concerts in much the same fashion.

Realizing the end was near, the crowd’s sustained applause faded into chants of "Awesome God.” Once more the musicians took to the stage, and Elias cried, “OK! Uncle! Let's do it! ... All right, all we know is the chorus, so sing along. Let's go!”

“Our God is an awesome God…” rang out over and over through the darkness. Loud cheers and a mad rush to personally thank the artists closed an emotion-filled celebratory farewell to a much-loved, much-missed artist.