Rick James was in West Virginia on tour with family when he got the call. He’d been invited to record an unreleased Rich Mullins song and was overjoyed by the opportunity.
“I remember just being incredibly thrilled,” James said. “I knew that there were these songs floating around out there, but I didn’t ever in a million years think that I would be the one picked to do it. I remember walking in being speechless, trying to tell my wife, and it was just an amazing feeling.”
The song James had been selected to record was “Thunder,” a previously unreleased Mullins’ song. Publishers emailed James a demo, and the song will appear on James’ next album.
For James, who is a worship leader, singer/songwriter, speaker, author and podcast host, the chance to record the song wasn’t just a great opportunity. It was a way to honor a musician who had made a big impact on him.
“In moments in my life when I have been in the deepest pit of despair, those are the times that I have found songs of Rich Mullins to be [of] the most comfort,” James said. “Almost because he was an incredibly fearless writer and that he would write down questions he had about God, life, and faith. That meant to me that it was safe to do those kinds of things. He was almost like a psalmist—like David—and the book of Psalms and any of the writers of the Psalms who would approach God through songs with these deep hurts and also the deepest joys. It seemed like no subject was taboo when Rich was writing.”
Those same characteristics—candor and a heartfelt desire to bring to glory to God—are also traits of James’ own writing style. More than anything, though, James desires that God speak through his work.
“I want to convey in a sense who God is and who He has expressed Himself to be through the ages,” James said of his own writing. “I want to try to find timeless truth that is universal. One thing that I try to remember a lot when I’m writing is that God is always the cowriter. Johann Sebastian Bach, he used to write and at the beginning of his music, the translation was ‘Jesus Help’ before he would write these songs. At the end, it would always end ‘To God Be the Glory.’ So, I try to make that sort of the message as I write and ask Jesus to speak through whatever it is I’m conveying.”
James was a student at Trevecca when Mullins died suddenly in a car accident. It was Sept. 19, 1997, a day James remembers well.
“I remember being at a concert, then them announcing that Rich had passed away during the concert,” James recalled. “That had a big effect on me as a student.”
As a Rich Mullins’ fan, James is excited and honored to record one of his musical hero’s songs. But at the same time, James says he’s also a little fearful. Much of that fear is rooted in a desire to honor Mullins’ legacy well.
“I want to do a really good job with it, and I want it to be something that is honoring to sort of the legacy music that Rich Mullins left behind,” James said. “Also, there is a whole lot of fans that still care very deeply, and I want to do something that they’re going to be proud of too because I don’t want it to be ‘Who’s this guy who thinks he can record Rich Mullins?’”
Trevecca alum Matt Litton recently wrote an article about James’ opportunity to record “Thunder” for CCM Magazine. A fan of both artists, Litton is confident that James will honor Mullins with his recording.
“I understand what covering that song means to Rick personally because of his love and admiration for Rich Mullins’s work,” Litton said. “I also know the depth and intention he has put into the process. I honestly don’t know if you could choose better musician to pull off a Rich Mullins cover.
“I have told Rick for years that people will be mentioning him and Rich Mullins in the same sentence one day,” Litton continued. “And it turns out that because of the cover, it will be sooner rather than later.”
James brushes aside the compliment. He says he’s humbled by the opportunity, but in the end, simply wants to glorify God through the situation.
“I don’t take [this opportunity] for granted, and I hope it will help people to appreciate the legacy that Rich Mullins had left behind even more so,” James said. “It’s not too many contemporary Christian music artist that we’re still talking about 20 years after their last album. I want people to know I’m going to do the very best that I can to honor that and to honor the Lord through this opportunity.”
Learn more about Rick Lee James and his music at rickleejames.com.