Chasing the Traveling Musician: An Interview with Mitch McVicker


by Kierstin Berry

Mitch McVicker lives only about 5 blocks away from my house in Nashville, but he is almost never at home. So on one of his many concert days, I finally managed to catch up with him on his cell phone, just moments after he parked his van at a venue in Cleveland, Ohio. I was fortunate to have some vulnerable and candid conversation with this road-weary sojourner about his new album, his friendship with Rich Mullins, and how he is learning to live in the moment.

Kierstin: How's the tour going so far?

Mitch: It's going great.

Kierstin: Do you have many shows left?

Mitch: It's pretty much never-ending. It's not even really a tour actually. It's more like dates strung together. I'm gone for two weeks and then I'm home for four days and then it kind of happens again.

Kierstin: So what do you do on your days off?

Mitch: Um... [Laughs] I try to get caught up on things. Days off are not really that exciting other than the fact that I can get some rest, hopefully. I just do normal stuff, like maybe go to a sports bar and watch a game. Brad and Joe [who travel with Mitch] and I are big into playing Frisbee golf. Which sounds stupid, I know. But it's so fun. We just try to find a course wherever we are.

Kierstin: Okay, so let's get into the deeper stuff. You recently said that you have never heard God's voice or had an overwhelming sense of God's hand, yet you've had some pretty amazing things happen in your life. So can you pinpoint times that you sensed his presence the most?

Mitch: I think probably the time that I sensed God's presence the most--well, I don't know that I even sensed it, but when I look back I know it had to have happened--was my whole surviving the car wreck. It doesn't make sense that I would have. Traveling at 65 or 70 miles an hour on this really hard interstate and being thrown out. I've stopped at the accident site a few times and the only thing that kept running through my head was how hard the road is. And the fact that my arms weren't hurt, my fingers weren't hurt. I don't know. I mean, to me, I have to attribute that to God. So that would be the big thing.

Kierstin: And what about hearing God's voice?

Mitch: I know that I have never heard God's voice, per say, and so I'm always suspicious when people talk about hearing from God. I go, 'Okay what do you mean? Explain that to me, because I have never experienced that. Please tell me what you're talking about.' I know that I would love to. I know that when I go to church and when I hear the Scriptures read, that's where I know that I'm hearing from God.

Kierstin: I guess you probably don't get to go to church that often when you're traveling.

Mitch: Well, it just has to be kind of happen-stance. I'm in a difference place every Sunday, pretty much. And when I am back in Nashville, typically it's during the week, so I walk down the street a couple of blocks and go to mass. They have it every weekday morning at 7:00 and that's when I get to go to church. Thank God that they happen to meet on the weekdays because that's the only time I can go. On Sundays, we're either driving to a concert that night, or we're involved with a worship service that morning. I'm a visitor every weekend, so there's not real community. That's my church experience.

Kierstin: You seem to be really honest about your struggles, and I think it's refreshing for an artist to be vulnerable and to admit that they have frustrations and disappointments. So if you don't mind, tell me something recently that has been a trial for you, and then some renewal that resulted from it.

Mitch: I am completely confident of the fact that renewal is going on every day. For me, a struggle is whether I should be in a relationship or whether I should be single.

Kierstin: Do you mean indefinitely or just right now?

Mitch: I think that question can only pertain to the present. Because if you think of it indefinitely, or for your life, you know... I don't know how to relate to that. I'm also trying to live without expectation because I think that has hindered my ability to live in the present. And in this particular instance in my life, I'm trying to go, 'Okay, do I need to be involved in a relationship or should I be single?' Because nobody in their right mind would want to be involved with me. I'm always gone and I know that I can't give another person what they need. It's this constant struggle because I go, 'I don't want to be involved in a relationship. Yes I do. Yes I want to share my life and myself with somebody. No I don't. Yes I do.' So I can't say that it's been resolved. But I'm praying for contentment and that Jesus will constantly renew my soul. That doesn't mean that my struggles will lessen though.

Kierstin: Are you dating anybody right now?

Mitch: No.

Kierstin: Let's talk about the recent high points in your career. In the fall you toured with Satellite Soul and Clear. What was it like touring with those bands?

Mitch: They were great people. It was a blessing to get to interact with them and we shared a number of experiences. I've come to respectSatellite Soul as much as anyone just because I've gotten to know them. So it was a major blessing that Clear asked me to be a part of things. I will be forever in debted to those people.

Kierstin: The tour was called 'The 1,000 Kids Tour'. Explain a little bit about that.

Mitch: We went out trying to raise support for Compassion International, which is a child sponsorship organization. We set out to try to get 1,000 kids sponsored, which is a really lofty goal, but it's a really round number. You know, it sounds better than saying the '374 Kids Tour'. [Laughs] So each night, each band would talk about Compassion from stage and encourage people to become sponsors of a child. I thought it was a really worthy reason to have a tour and I was excited to be a part of it.

Kierstin: Did you come close to meeting the goal?

Mitch: Um, we got a ton of sponsorships. [Laughs] I'll put it that way.

Kierstin: You've been involved with Compassion for awhile now.

Mitch: Yeah, basically as long as I've been doing music. I was involved indirectly through playing with Rich and then ever since I started doing concerts on my own, I've always talked about Compassion.

Kierstin: So, how long has that been?

Mitch: I started with Rich five and a half years ago and I started on my own about two and a half years ago.

Kierstin: Most people who are familiar with Compassion think of it as being aid to underprivileged children in other countries, but you've actually been a spokesperson for Compassion in the United States.

Mitch: Yeah, for a couple years I talked about Compassion USA because that's a really big thing to me. Something that's really on my heart is helping the underprivileged here in the US because I hate it that we've turned our backs on those in need here in our own backyard. I hate it that it's much more glamorous to work with a mission organization overseas. But Compassion USA is kind of in transition right now so I have switched over and begun talking about Compassion International. I actually got to go to Thailand last summer and find out a little bit more about what I was talking about.

Kierstin: What was that experience like?

Mitch: It was amazing to see what Compassion is doing across the world, how Jesus is working through a body of believers. I got to meet my sponsor child. I got to sit in his hut in the middle of the jungle. Meet his parents. I got to listen to him play me a song on guitar. I had no idea what he was singing, but I was deeply moved.

Kierstin: Your new album, Chasing the Horizon, just released on March 6th. Tell me what inspired the songs on this record.

Mitch: I wrote half the songs during my 'down year' when I was recovering from the accident. It took me a year to recover. I wrote the other half as I was on the road doing concerts. I think the songs were an attempt just to say a lot of things really simply. So if you wanna hear a bunch of critically acclaimed artistic stuff, you won't. But hopefully you're going to hear an expression of where I was ... an expression of where I think maybe a lot of people are ... an expression of what God has done in my life and those lives that I see around me. I'm hoping that the songs point people to Jesus. I'm hoping that they express unto the kingdom of God. And I'm really humbled if that does in fact happen because they're just little songs that I've worked up. I'm moved and humbled if anything spiritual comes from a song or a concert that I'm doing. It makes me go, 'Wow, there's something else at work here.'

Kierstin: Do you have a favorite song on the album?

Mitch: It's kind of like the songs are my children because I can't really pick a favorite. I love them all for different reasons. But I think if somebody were to pin me down and ask me what my favorite song is, it would be a song called "Watch Over Me".

Kierstin: Why?

Mitch: Well, I wrote the song when I was playing at a Boys' Home. It was a place where kids went who were too young to go to prison but who had committed some very serious offenses. These kids were so starved for attention. They just wanted to be with you. They knew that they had done some really bad things and they were hurting. And I think the song came from me going, 'You know what? I'm not very far removed from the place that these boys are. The only thing keeping me from being where they are is that I have been saved from myself by a God who is gracious and merciful enough to do that. These kids are loved by a God who in turn will do the same for them.' So it was just my prayer that I could be as free as the birds and the flowers, trusting in God to provide. And I hope that those boys can get to the point where they will think, 'God will take care of me.'

Kierstin: I think my favorite song is probably "Emmanuel."

Mitch: Oh, good!

Kierstin: It has such a great melody and the lyrics are so simple, yet it has such an important message. I think the message of hope that is found throughout this record is something we all need to be reminded of. Is there anything that you're particularly hopeful about right now?

Mitch: Yeah. I am hopeful that God is doing a new work in my life. Even though that's every day for every one. I think that as followers of Jesus, as God's children, it's our responsibility to realize that God is constantly doing a new work in our lives. Another one of my favorite songs on the record is "Burning the Fields" which is about renewal. I am realizing that coming to renewal isn't necessarily an easy or comfortable process. It's gonna hurt; it's gonna burn. But we are being remade into what God would have us become. So I am very hopeful that God is bringing me to that point.

Other than that, I hope that I'm becoming more 'glass is half full' rather than 'glass is half empty.' Because I know that there is so much good around us. And I know that the good exists only because of God. I know that when a chocolate ice cream cone tastes good, that's God. I know that when we have a good wrestling match with our dog, that's God. And I'm just sick and tired of missing out on all the good. So I am placing a lot of hope in the fact that God could open my eyes to see it.

Kierstin: I noticed that you have quite an impressive line-up of musicians who collaborated with you on this album: (Phil Madeira, Steve Hindalong, Rick Elias). What was it like working with them?

Mitch: Really humbling. It was really amazing and made me very thankful. I came into the studio with these songs and these arrangements in my head and those guys just took it and ran with it, and all of a sudden the songs really came to life. These are guys who have been playing music for thirty years. And I'd think, 'What's happening here is a direct result of Phil and Dennis (Holt) who played drums.' It was a direct result of them practicing when they were 17 years old. So that was moving.

Kierstin: Rick Elias, who played on the album, is also one of the Ragamuffins which was Rich Mullins' band before his death. Have you continued to work with the Ragamuffin Band to carry on Rich's music?

Mitch: From time to time, maybe three or four times a year, I will do a concert in conjunction with the Ragamuffins. So I'm close to those guys and they're friends, but I'm not working directly with them and I haven't set out to try to carry on Rich's thing. If that has happened at all, it's because the essence that we go about this in is the same. It's the same spirit that's carried through our music. When people have compared what I'm doing to what Rich has done, it's very, very humbling and a very high complement. I'm not trying to carry on for him, but I'm very thankful if I have.

Kierstin: You and Rich co-wrote "My Deliverer" from The Jesus Record. How did that song come to be?

Mitch: Well, it was very gracious of Rich to include me in the writing of it, first and foremost. Rich came to me with this idea for the song, and a lot of it was already intact. And then we just tried to talk about Jesus from a historical viewpoint.

You know, we don't know a lot about the history of Jesus. From when he was born we have basically one image of him in the Bible until he was 30, so of course there's a lot of poetic license taken in the song. We were saying that even as a child, even then, Jesus was our deliverer. Here was a cry from a desperate Hebrew people who were wanting to be delivered, literally and spiritually, and who didn't have a lot of reason to have hope. Yet all of their hope was in their deliverer to come. So I think the cup is never at its fullest until it is filled from a place of despair. And I don't know anybody who hasn't been at that place.

Kierstin: You're also a part of Legacyfest, an annual festival sponsored by Rich's foundation. I know some of your friends like  Andrew Peterson have also been a part of it. What is that experience about for you as an artist and especially as someone who was very close to Rich?

Mitch: I'm just really thankful that I get to be involved in something that is a direct result of Rich's impact on people. And if something is happening from his ministry or his influence, then I am glad to be a part of it along with some other people who I really respect and who I can call friends, like Andrew, like the Ragamuffins, like This Train. So I hope I get to be a part of it for as long as it's going on.

Kierstin: You have gone from an indie artist to a record label [Rhythm House] and now you're back to being independent again. Why the changes?

Mitch: Basically, I went with a record label because I thought they could do for me things that I couldn't do for myself. And then I found out that that wasn't necessarily the case and realized that I didn't really need all the things that were involved with going that route.

Kierstin: So what did you learn to be the benefits of staying independent?

Mitch: You make more money. I know that sounds crass and really business-like for a Christian musician to say, but you know, we have to eat as well as everybody else. It's actually a lot more of an easy, posh existence to be with a record label. They do things for you that you don't even think about. It's a lot more work to do it independently, and I think faith does have to come into play a little bit more. For me, coming from both sides now, I don't think that faith is at its fullest until it's done in a risky way. And there are a lot of risks that you incur doing it independently.

Kierstin: I know you're trying to live in the present, but if you had to speculate, what does the future hold for you?

Mitch: Well, I may try to live in the present, but I know there are things that happen today that will have ramifications six months or a year from now. I'm just trying to keep the ball rolling so I can keep doing concerts. I am very fortunate to get to do this and I hope that I get to still be doing it five, ten years from now. I'm not exactly sure what a calling is, but I do know that I've never had anything come as close to a calling as this.