Canticle of the Plains
Steve Rabey

Since he died more than 750 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi has inspired hundreds of books, paintings, compositions and movies. But the beloved saint has never prompted anything like Canticle of the Plains, a bold and beautiful musical which transforms Francis into Frank and moves him from medieval Italy to the wild West of 19th-century America, a setting that has inspired its own share of art and music.

Created by Rich Mullins, longtime Mullins collaborator Beaker and Mitch McVicker (who together make up the Kid Brothers of St. Frank), the album boasts performances by Mullins' Ragamuffin Band, Jimmy Abegg, and Mark Robertson and This Train, as well as features lead vocals by Sixpence None the Richer's Leigh Bingham Nash and dc Talk's Kevin Smith and Michael Tait.

Canticle is an audacious move for Mullins, an artist who has previously been content to toy with the boundaries of contemporary Christian music but now blows them to smithereens. There's no strict chronology of Francis's life here. Instead, the emphasis is on Franciscan principles such as a deep-rooted mysticism that sees the hand of God in sun, sage and sand, the creativity to express timeless truths in new ways (as Francis did with the first Christmas crèche), and the all-or-nothing commitment to follow Christ at any cost, which is expressed this way in "Heaven is Waiting," the album's first single: "My Savior's calling and I'm listening/Time to saddle up my pony and ride."

Nor is there strict adherence to any one musical style. Bingham sings "Buenos Noches from Nacogdoches" to a mariachi accompaniment, while McVicker belts out "Oh My Lord," a moving description of Christ's passion, over a gritty blues-rock background. But it all hangs together, thanks to the players' passion and professionalism.

Some won't get it and will pray that Mullins returns to more conventional fare. But others will hail Canticle as the trail-blazing journey into brave new musical territory that it is