I knew of Jimmy Abegg as a musician. I came across his solo album SECRETS in 1994 and was blown away by the spoken-word masterpiece, “The Dream.” I also knew that he was a member of the Ragamuffin Band that backed up Rich Mullins on the legendary album A LITURGY, A LEGACY, AND A RAGAMUFFIN BAND, an album that I bought when it was released. But, it was Abegg’ paintings featured in a book of poetry by Kevin Max, AT THE FOOT OF HEAVEN, that caught my eye one fall evening in 1994 as I was walking through the local Christian bookstore. I bought the book and, inspired by this pairing of art and poetry, I started writing poetry — an outlet that would prove to be a critical exercise in helping me through the darkness that would soon surround me throughout my college years and beyond.
In a recent conversation with Jimmy he described AT THE FOOT OF HEAVEN in a way that, I thought, captured one of the basic elements that contributes to Abegg, himself, being such a remarkable character: “[AT THE FOOT OF HEAVEN] was a great pronouncement of how you could kind of have it both ways: you can be an artist and a Christian at the same time…” That said, it is, equally, his identity as a “ragamuffin,” — a transparent, faithful, sincere, weathered, open book — that causes so many who’ve had the chance to interact with him to walk away from their time Jimmy utterly impressed by his humility, kindness, and authenticity.
It was during a recent lunch conversation with Jimmy at Mitchell’s Deli in East Nashville, his favorite sandwich shop, that my family and I had the chance to catch up with Jimmy and discuss some of his latest ventures such as collaborating with s slew of other notable musicians and visual artist/author Cory Basil on Stu Gerrard’s BEATITUDES album. It was fascinating, for me — a once-aspiring visual artist, to hear Jimmy explain the interesting dynamic that he and Basil established over the course of time that it took to complete the artwork and layout for the album. Likewise, it was neat to hear Jimmy proclaim, “Hey! That sounds like a song that I recently played on,” as I happened to be playing, quite by chance, the BEATITUDES album in my car on our way back to his house after lunch.
We also talked about the guitar work Jimmy just contributed to Kevin Max’s soon-coming SERVE SOMEBODY project on “Let The Day Begin,” a cover of The Call’s classic morning wake-up call. I’ve heard it, along with a couple of other tracks from SERVE SOMEBODY and I can tell you, with no uncertainty, that the track rocks and that the album is going to be, at least, well worth your consideration and, surely, an instant purchase for me.
My time with Jimmy was short the day we went out for lunch, but, we made plans to chat over the phone further about the current BE GOD’S: A CELEBRATION OF RICH MULLINS Pledge Campaign project. Over the course of our conversation it became very clear just how important Rich Mullins was to Jimmy and why he stepped forward to curate this remembrance and celebration of the music that Mullins created and who Rich was as a person.
The story of how Jimmy first met Rich is notable to me because of the circumstances of their meeting. The nice and neat confines of church life and the world of contemporary Christian music, as I understood it as a teenage listener and a consumer, contrasted significantly with the real-world truth about who these Christian artists were and what their lives were like. Consequently, when I leaped away from the constraints of my holy adolescent aspirations toward the liberties of college life, I found it hard to relate to the heroes of my former life and ran headlong away from my faith and interest in CCM in terms of the music I was listening to, what I was reading, and who I was spending time with. Yet, it was the common appreciation for tobacco, one of the vices that I picked up a knack for that first semester of college, that brought together two of the great legends of CCM. Abegg explains:
I met Rich after a showcase that I did with Charlie Peacock. I was in a band. We had just completed a record. And apparently Rich was there because after the show I had snuck outside to have a smoke and I’ve got this guy pursuing me asking if he could bum one and we got into a very engaging conversation. I was just sort of, kind of impressed with who I had just met. It wasn’t until a few months later when I got word from my manager that Rich was interested in having me come out and open the show and play in his new band to support his latest record which I think was volume two of THE WORLD AS BEST I REMEMBER IT. Fast forward a few months, I said yes to that and ended up going to Wichita and rehearsing with his young church band that he had recruited locally in Wichita to help him do his thing and that was the beginning of a long friendship. Short, brief meeting over a smoky treat turned into a ten year partnership.
The partnership between Mullins and Abegg developed into a friendship strengthened by a mutual respect for each other, a shared inclination toward a grassroots ragamuffin expression of faith in God, a respect for His creation, and admiration of each others’ unique blessings and artistic skills.
As a person, I was drawn to Rich because he was an awful lot like me. We were normal people. [Brennan Manning] coined the band name, The Ragamuffin Band. And I think it was a pretty accurate way to document or identify the way we were looking at our faith. I think that the appeal to me was that we could kind of, with the help of camaraderie and fellowship, you know, “wherever three or more are gathered, there I Am in the midst.” We felt like we could be having church even outside of the organized Christian expression. I always was drawn to that, basically, I think it was because I was born and raised in a part of the world that was relatively near the Pine Ridge Sioux Nation and I was always kind of infatuated with the Native American approach to life…And I think it didn’t hurt that Rich…he always thought that he was part Indian, Native American. I think he made an effort to go out of his way to identify with that culture and join the ideas of his Christian expression with those ideas of respecting the earth and giving due credit to Creation in it’s glory. And that’s one of the things that a lot of Christian artists, you know, would probably be encouraged to stay away from because it’s too close to pagan religious expression and I think that with Rich, nothing could be furthest from the truth.
That’s why I was really always drawn to him and, I think, him to me. I mean, I was at the time and still married to Michelle, my wife, and had three daughters. At the time they were, I think, adolescent, approaching teen years and through the many years that I spent with him he was a sideline admirer of my wife, my marriage, and my family and he, on more than a hundred occasions, said how much he wished he had that for himself.
And I think it went both ways because I was a huge admirer of his songwriting. I thought that he was, clearly, he was able to put words behind ephemeral thought unlike anybody that I had ever known and certainly, the proof was in the pudding. That is one of the things that he will always be known for is putting his faith into lyric content that was both poetic and fundamentally true and, at the same time, kind of magically musical, and not many are able to do that. I’ve been associated and worked with some really outstanding artists over the years. Some of my favorite music back in those days had nothing to do with Christianity, but, the prowess of his wordsmithing was something that I found absolutely inspirational.
I don’t know of a Christian music effort that inspired me, other than when I first got saved, a couple of things come to mind — one being Larry Norman who I thought was a real instigator, kind of a troublemaker and an instigator of the Jesus movement, in a way, and then another guy who really just sort of came out of the. basics of the African-American Christian experience, a guy named Andre Crouch. Those were the two artists that really moved me. And later, one of my favorites artists, also, underrepresented, and, really, his prowess, his best years were only briefly expressed through his first record, in my opinion, a guy named Keith Green. I loved that effort. I saw an awful lot of Keith in Rich. He was not nearly the evangelist that Keith was, but, he was certainly a provocative, over-qualified wordsmith. I think Rich could have been a tin-pan alley songwriter, probably, if he wanted to. Instead of embracing the artist’s call, he could have been a very successful songwriter.
There’s an altruism to a life lived in faith that I can testify to that is that it won’t change. I don’t tend to, let’s say, in 70’s terms, I don’t tend to backslide. I’m kind of in a constant state of backsliding. I don’t really note it as being unusual. i think it’s part of everybody’s daily working out their walk. So, in that way, his personal life, his musical life, and his ministry life, much like mine, were kind of all the same thing.
Mine was a little more domesticated and complicated on a personal level because I was married and I had children. His was a little more complicated on the ministry side because he didn’t. But, he had this fantastically successful musical career that required, you know, some response on his part, you know, to do the best thing he could behind that: …making more records — he knew he had a public forum for his work and so each year was filled with kind of a private pursuit of good songwriting so that he would be prepared the next year. I was just very inspired by his prolific skills as a poet…I guess, I’m continually surprised by what lengths he would go to to serve those gifts and those talents that God gave him so freely.
When I first became aware, I don’t know if I was ten, or nine, or eight, or seven, or eleven, but, I had a pretty strong sense about the importance of transparency, you know, not leading a double life. Not having, categorically, not having everything put in a certain box. And I think that was one of the things that we both had in common, too, because everything was an expression of an artful life. I use that term ‘art’ loosely. It’s the art of cooking, the art of camping, the art of traveling, the art of speaking, the art of friendship, the art of, you know, in my case, painting, photography, music, songwriting. But, it’s also that kind of transparency that I think is so obvious in Rich’s life.
The only caveat is that we went to great lengths to hide the fact that we both smoked tobacco. Now I think churches are full of plenty cigar and pipe-smoking folks and, you know, it’s clearly an unpopular and unhealthy habit — we all know that — but, so is eating too many hamburgers. We always thought it was funny that the same people that were mad at us for smoking and said we were going to hell for it were also, you know, 320 and well on their way to an early departure courtesy of an overworked heart. You know, I think it’s things like that, that are so human and so real that he is sorely missed. I just don’t have anybody like him. There isn’t another Rich! Certainly, I’ve got tons of great friendships, including you, Mark. But, the interesting thing is that he drew out of people and circumstance things that you didn’t know yourself were laying there for the taking. So, that’s part of the fun of it, too, and I think that we know that to be true that, when we spy somebody who’s courageous and erudite, we are drawn to those people. (Coming Soon: Jimmy discusses the classic Rich Mullins album A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band)
Jimmy Abegg’s close proximity to the late Rich Mullins, as a musician (a member of the Ragamuffin Band), a believer, an artist, and a friend has uniquely positioned him as more than qualified to curate a celebratory remembrance of the life and work of Rich Mullins. Visit the Rich Mullins: Be God’s: A Celebration of Rich Mullins Pledge Campaign to see how you can be a part of it.