A Ragamuffin Band: A band that's more than a tribute

Saturday 1st April 2000

Two of them have recorded solo albums, while the other two are veterans of Christian rock teams. But it's their association with the late, great Rich Mullins that has catapulted A RAGAMUFFIN BAND to national CCM attention. Rick Elias talked to Mike Rimmer.

A Ragamuffin Band
A Ragamuffin Band

Amongst the Christian music fraternity. A Ragamuffin Band occupy a curious place. As the backing band for the late Rich Mullins, they have become keepers of the flame of Mullins1 legacy. In an irony that only the Christian music industry can throw up, Rich himself was largely unfeted by the suits who considered him too much a maverick, too challenging in his bare feet and brute honesty. But he was loved by a significant selection of fans who took to the poetic lyrics that Mullins penned and the radical lifestyle of an artist who rejected the wealth of the fruits of his art and lived amongst American Indians wanting to win them to Christ.

Mullins' death in a road accident changed all of that. Suddenly everyone loved him, suddenly he received posthumous Dove Awards for his songwriting where previously he had been ignored. A tidal wave of new love and respect for his music swept the Nashville Christian music community and A Ragamuffin Band were swept along with it. Suddenly the Ragamuffins were being acknowledged by the fickly CCM industry. Certainly they were a brilliant team of gig-seasoned musos with Rick Elias (vocals, guitar, keys), Mark Robertson (bass, vocals), Jimmy Abegg (guitar) and Aaron Smith (drums) each a fine musical talent.

Ragamuffin Rick Elias is on the telephone and he is talking about the surprise success of The Jesus Record'. "We had no idea whether people would respond to that record or not." He says matter of factly, "We didn't much care. We made it because we knew how important it was to Rich and his family. His label had approached us about going forward with it. It was an odd record to make just because the star of the band wasn't there on it. I didn't have any written material but we did have the demo disc, which was very unusual for Rich to do such a thing. We didn't feel like we had a complete record without that. The way people responded to this when we went out and played live, it was another thing that we really had never considered doing while we were making the record. It was a successful tour. I think people wanted to have a chance to say goodbye. He had a different kind of fan than I think many Christian artists have. They crossed a lot of demographic groups. The people that loved Rich really, really appreciated what he had to say musically, and appreciated his honesty and his musical excellence, so it was a pleasant crowd to play for. Again, quite shocking to see the success level because Christian music in the States isn't particularly known for their loyalty or their good taste." He laughs. As we chat, discussions about the CCM scene lead us on to the way in which images are created by the Christian record companies. Rick agrees, "In the States there's a real tendency towards a cult personality. They want their features dynamic, they want them good looking. We want our leaders to be that way, young, good looking and charismatic. I think that while one might have those qualities and still be a great thinker, to look only for those qualities does one a great disservice, especially in terms of spiritual matters. I think Rich did everything he could to shun the spotlight or to deflect the spotlight elsewhere, but then that's not the way most Christian artists operate over here, and it's nothing devious on their part. They really are forced into a corner in the marketplace many times. The deeper they get into the charismatic or Pentecostal arenas or any denominational arena, especially the South, there's a great premium paid for making sure that every hair is in place. If you're gonna admit to something, to a sin in your life, it had better be in the past tense, not the present. It's stupid and it's wrong. These are people who believe that once they're saved they have arrived."

Rick continues, "Then you have people like Rich and many others, myself included, who use salvation as a journey. The twain shall never meet. I'm not saying one's right and one's wrong. I don't believe that once you're saved you're there, and that it automatically gives you carte blanche to pass judgment on everyone that you deem not to be there. I think we're all screwed up, and we're all doing the best we can do to get there. God in his great mercy helps us along and brings us along."

Rick's place within the Christian music scene is interesting because he is definitely on the outside of the industry, whilst the success of A Ragamuffin Band and 'The Jesus Record', in certain respects, has placed them in the middle as the industry has applauded their efforts by giving them awards. Does he feel schizophrenic sometimes? "Well! We didn't attend the Doves." He laughs throatily, "I'm glad that Rich won; I view that as a win for Rich. I don't really think the Ragamuffin Band was awarded per se. If I had my way we'd do away with the Dove Awards. I think they're an abomination. That's like having the Best Pastor's Award or something. What has this got to do with anything? All we're doing is emulating the world at this point. If we're really concerned about that, I think we ought to be lobbying the National Academy of Record Arts that has the Grammys. Let's join chat part. If we want a greater sense of visibility about what we're doing, then fine! Let's get in there with them, instead of trying to form our own little second-rate talent show. These people are into making money, and they've got their status quo and you can't talk anybody out of that. I wasn't gonna go under any circumstances, but even if I felt they were acknowledging the band and the band's effort, the fact is they don't want people like us on stage. The Dove awards are a one-hour infomercial for Christian music. They want only the prettiest, and the brightest, and the shiniest and the youngest to represent it. They don't want Ashley Cleveland, they don't want Phil Madeira; they don't want A Ragamuffin Band .They don't want anybody that can be perceived in any way as rough or scary. Rich was the only Christian musician, with the possible exception of Randy Stpnehill that I would play for non-Christian friends. He touched them by his sheer honesty, even if people who listened to him said, as they did many times, 'I don't agree with him,' or, 'I don't know what he's talking about, but I believe that he believes it, and for that reason alone I would listen to it and go see him. 'That's about the most we can hope for."

Clearly there are many things about the Christian music scene in America that disturb Rick, and yet as part of the Ragamuffins he is part of it. Does he feel he has to stay part of it? After his last comments, he surprises me with the answer, "I believe in it." He explains, "I believe in what we're doing, and I think we should be doing what we're doing, I just don't always believe the way we're doing it. I think too many of our most talented and brightest people withdraw in frustration, due to lack of funds or support. I don't picture myself as John the Baptist, I don't think I'm right and everybody's wrong, but I do think that anybody can look at the way we're doing it, and what it's become over the last 20 years, and realise that it isn't working. I talk to record label presidents, I talk to artists who are in the middle of it who agree, we're not doing it right. Something's wrong. There's no bad guy here, it's just something has built up. It's bigger than the people involved, and if the Ragamuffins can sell records making the kind of music we make, God has blessed us for that and we will take advantage of that opportunity to speak out. It may only last for a short while. I don't think the answer is necessarily withdrawing. I believe in Christian music, I just don't believe necessarily in the way that we're doing it."

Whilst the world of Christian music is yet to be radically changed in the fashion Rick Elias would like, his band have a new release 'The Prayers Of A Ragamuffin' which is the first time they've recorded an album of material which wasn't written by Rich Mullins. Rick explains, "When we decided on the whole 'prayers' thing for the record I knew we needed a central theme. Musically, there would be far more diversity than Rich's records because he was the only writer. Now you have three or four writers, so to achieve any cohesiveness at all on the record I wanted to make sure at least we concentrated on a theme, and so we concentrated on prayers."

The album's outstanding opening cut is the most impacting of the whole album, and probably best illustrates the spiritual impact the Ragamuffins wanted to make across the whole album. Rick remembers, "'Make Me An Instrument1 was probably the second song I wrote for the record. I wanted to combine St Francis' prayer with St Patrick's breastplate into one song, and I really didn't know how to do it. Somehow, I managed to meld the two together and do a somewhat anthemic, galloping, Ennio Morricone style tune." He laughs and continues, "I wanted it to be that way. I knew there were gonna be a lot of introspective songs on the record. I wanted one that was somewhat triumphant and made you feel good. Those prayers are declarations but they are not boasts, they are pleas for ongoing transformation, and that to me is the power of both those prayers. It is a plea before God to make me an instrument, not a boast, it's saying, 'Make this be so Lord, by your power and grace alone.'"

A Ragamuffin Band
A Ragamuffin Band

As for preparing for the album, Rick explains, "We all did a lot of reading for this record. I read probably about 10 books. Anything from Catholic prayers, to Luther's prayers, to Celtic prayers to you name it. I saw the title 'God Grant Me Tears' and it really touched me. It was an old Welsh prayer. The poem that came after it wasn't really suitable for what I wanted to say, but the thing that touched me was that this prayer was over a thousand years old. Basically, what the writer said in one line was 'I can't even begin to repent, I don't even have the tears to know.' I was touched by that so I wrote a song around it. It's a request for brokenness.

The change in the band's dynamic, with the passing of its founder, has opened up all kinds of possibilities and challenges when it comes to producing new material and allowing the band to grow into a new century. Their approach to a new project was a new experience that Rick describes in an honest fashion. "Rich worked his whole life to make 'The Jesus Record'. He knew he had a bunch of personalities that would never think to concentrate on Christ that deeply or that much unless it j was part of their work, himself included. He figured, being an educator was a vocation of his, 'I'll make Jesus be part of our work. It will force us to concentrate on him, to meditate, to explore the very nature of Christ,' and you know what? It worked. It forced all of us to go, 'Well, who is this?' You stop thinking about it after a while, I guess. When we decided to do this record I thought, 'That was a great idea, let's try that one again.' The main theme was just to make sure there was some thematic cohesiveness to the record. There are too many songs, I believe, in Christian music right now that are subjective. There's nothing wrong with that, we have a few of them on our record, but I wanted songs that could be in some sense almost liturgical at times. I encouraged the guys to draw from older prayers. When we were trying to figure out the theme, prayer came up and we all felt yeah! That's a good one as opposed to cars or surfing." He laughs and continues and muses, "A Christian surf record. Mark is already charting that territory out with his band This Train."

After the decision, The Ragamuffins began concentrating on the subject of prayer. Rick reflects, "It had a certain transforming quality within the band because you cannot delve into a subject deeply without somehow partaking in it, and prayer is something that is so easily overlooked by people like myself. My general default thinking is, 'Well God, if you know everything what's the point of me re-iterating it?1 He laughs at his own folly. "I know the foolishness of it, and I still say my prayers and stuff, but this brought me to a deeper place and a transforming place too. I think it did for the other guys too."

With a new album in the shops, it's inevitable that the band will be on the road once again playing live. Now they have their own material, will they continue playing Mullins' songs? Rick is adamant, "We'll always do Rich Mullins' stuff. We are dedicated to continuing his musical legacy and his charitable legacy with his life. Most of the proceeds from the record went to his foundation, and that was considerable, to keep them going, keep them afloat so they can continue to do the things that Rich began in his lifetime. We're dedicated to helping with that. We advertised them on the last tour, handed out leaflets, encouraged people to get involved with Rich's legacy. The legacy of the Kid Brothers Of St Frank is what his foundation is officially called. It's headed up by his brother David and some of his close associates when he was alive. We'll always play 'Creed', 'Everywhere I Go I See You1 and 'Calling Out Your Name1. On this last tour we did a lot of back catalogue and some of The Jesus Record'. Now it will be a little bit more of the very best of his back catalogue, The Jesus Record1 and then our record. Who knows, if we're successful with this, and time goes on, maybe the day will come when there are very few Rich Mullins' songs on the set, but there will always be some because his music deserves to be heard. There have been a lot of people in Rich's death that didn't even know him really who have tried to grab some of that spotlight and success and have it shine on them, a certain false authenticity, and it's disgusting. We feel like we are in a small way the keepers of the musical flame there."

Gaining a fake authenticity sounds like a harsh way of describing other musicians, who in the aftermath of Rich's death began, to include his songs in their live sets. Rick explains what he means; Rich has grown in this, particularly after his demise. There's a lot of artists who are very real in Christian music but none of them have the commercial impact that Rich had, none of them have the sales. Rich was maybe the only artist in Christian music who managed to sell the kind of units he did, and yet still be very real and honest. He was an anomaly within our industry, and even his label at the time didn't understand it They wanted him to be more like Michael W Smith, Amy Grant or this person and that person and he refused. In fact, he went on and got rougher and rougher and rougher. He shed more and more of the false appearances. Now the industry is coming around to it and when we lost him, there was a great sense of loss by some very dear people. Michael W Smith and Amy are really dear, dear people who, whether you liked their music or not, are doing the music that they feel they should be doing, and there was a great sense of loss. They're not the ones who are to blame for this, but we have noticed that when we get ready to go on to play, the guy before us is playing a Rich Mullins song as his last song and it's like, 'What are you doing?' I understand it if we're not there, but we were his band and we jealously guard Rich's musical legacy and have been asked to do this by his family and others. We're told, 'Make sure that this is not diluted, make sure that it is always represented well and with integrity.'"

Rick continues to speak about other artists who have jumped on the Mullins' bandwagon. "I just can't speak for some of these other people that would seek to do that but in Rich's death, the fact that he was as real as he was has become sort of a lure for certain artists. He influenced a great number of younger artists who were coming up, who really appreciated Rich's honesty and his image, for lack of a better description. A lot of these young groups were very influenced by him, and that's always gratifying to see, but some of these other people are trying to change course simply because maybe the winds have changed just slightly in Christian music. I find that to be a bit grievous."

Looking at the way things have unfolded within the industry in the time since his death, there seems to be a bit of a Rich Mullins industry that has sprung up. Is there a danger that the Ragamuffins merely become a tribute band? Rick pauses and then responds, "Yeah! There would be a danger of that. It's not necessarily a bad thing. We absolutely believe in his music and if people wanna hear it we're more than willing to play it. We did this festival and an artist came up to us and asked us not to do 'Awesome God' because he was gonna do it in his set and we were like, 'You gotta be joking.' There's a lot of people who wanna jump on Rich's band wagon so we don't mind performing that stuff. We love those songs, they speak to people, they live beyond the man. I think 'The Jesus Record' did a lot to dispel that because when we were making it a lot of people were going, 'Oh, you're doing that tribute record,' and I said, 'No, it's not a tribute record, it's Rich's last work.' 'The Jesus Record' was never a tribute record and nobody in their right mind would perceive it as that."

Obviously, from a commercial point of view, the music of Rich Mullins and A Ragamuffin Band's association with him means more sales, doesn't it? Rick isn't so sure, "It's hard to say. We really didn't know what 'The Jesus' Record1 was gonna do. It did do well but 'Prayers Of A Ragamuffin1, we have no idea about. Does anybody really care about A Ragamuffin Band? We don't know. I think we're gonna have to sink or swim on our own merits at this point. I know that his old label is releasing a 'Songs 2' compilation. He had that one record 'Songs' which was one of his best selling records and that's purely an economic endeavour on their part. None of those people that are at that label ever worked with Rich. I guess it's inevitable because his music sells. Nobody can stop Reunion from putting out 'Songs 2'.The public doesn't really know that it isn't really something that his family, foundation, band or anybody really wants but what you gonna do? People aren't dumb, his fans in particular are very savvy and they know, I think, who worked with him and who didn't and they'll gravitate towards that."

He continues to contemplate his band's place in the scheme of things. "We didn't know if people were gonna perceive The Jesus Record' as a opportunistic move in that direction, we really didn't, and we really didn't care at the end of the day. We knew why we made it, we made it to honour our friend and because we knew how important he felt that work was. Now we're making our own record because we enjoy playing together. If people buy it, they buy it, if they don't, they don't. At that point we probably won't make any more records, that's just the nature of the business. We don't really worry much about what people think we're doing it for. I do know this, it's been all his family and foundation can do to keep people from trying to release too much stuff. They've had to deny requests and keep people from writing their unauthorised biographies of Rich and that kind of stuff in an attempt to cash in on his death." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

Reader Comments

Posted by Wilson Ramos in Las Vegas, Nevada @ 01:13 on Jul 22 2010

Just recently, heard "Make me your instrument" and was deeply moved. What a prayer. May you continue, resting assure the Spirit of God will lead you and provide always.

Rest in the Lord
Your Brother and Family in Christ

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