By John J. Thompson
Mitch McVicker has quite a story to tell. Yet it requires a determined effort to get him around to it. It's not that he is tight lipped, it's just that he inherited an intense humility from a close friend and mentor, Rich Mullins. Mitch traveled with Rich for almost two years. He played guitar with him, wrote songs with him, and when not on the road lived in a trailer on an Indian reservation in New Mexico with him. During this time he developed his own artistic voice as well, contributing significantly to the Canticle Of The Plains musical written by Mullins, and recording his debut solo album with Mullins as producer. Mitch played a simple acoustic show Upstairs At True Tunes one night with Rick Elias (Rich was in the house.) His simple acoustic songs struck a chord with the audience and left a lasting impression with fans and staff alike.
few months later, Mitch and Rich loaded up the Jeep and hit the highway.
Having just finished the last of Mitch's
vocals for his solo effort, the two were due in Witchita for a benefit concert the following night. A couple hours outside
of Elgin IL on US 39 their Jeep rolled multiple times and was demolished by an eighteen-wheeler. Mitch was thrown
several meters away from the point of impact and suffered massive head injuries and broken bones. One Chicago
news channel reported him as dead after attempts to revive him at a Peoria hospital failed. Rich never had a chance;
he was hit straight on.
twenty-four hours of intense sadness and pain, the report came in that
Mitch was alive, if only barely, and was
in a coma. The fans of Rich worldwide breathed a collective sigh of relief, many feeling like a piece of Rich
was left for us in Mitch. After a month he was released from the hospital and began his grueling physical therapy
regime. A few months later his debut solo record was mixed and mastered by This Train member and
Ragamuffin Mark Robertson with This Train guitarist and engineer Jordan Richter.
been over a year and True Tunes has enthusiastically promoted Mitch's new
solo career. Finally, after giving up
on a face to face in the near future, Mitch and I hooked up a phone just before Christmas. Here is that conversation:
Let's start by talking about your musical background.
Mitch McVicker: I took guitar lessons when I was about 12 and then I just played and wrote songs in my bedroom, behind closed doors. I never took it seriously, which was probably good. When I went to college I just played for fun. I was over at a friend's place and Rich Mullins came over while I was playing this guy some songs. That was the first time Rich heard me play. Rich and I ended up graduating on the same day and I didn't have anything to do so he asked me to come along and work with him. We were going to move to New Mexico and I didn't know exactly what I was going to be doing.
I bet he didn't either right?
Mitch: Yeah. That's a good probability.
So you just headed off to New Mexico?
Mitch: Right. That's basically how I got started doing music. I played concerts with him and wrote songs and that's how it came out from behind my bedroom door.
Were you a fan of Rich's before you met him?
Mitch: Well, I don't know if I was a fan but I knew that I respected him as much as anybody I had listened to.
Did you guys take classes together?
Mitch Yeah. I met him in a class. I was going to school for a degree in religion and philosophy which is so terribly practical, it's kind of like getting a degree in Tupperware. I don't remember which class we met in but He was just taking it because the instructor was so good. We met in a small group in class and became friends. He didn't really know that I was a musician until after we had been hanging out for about a year.
When was the first time you played your songs publicly?
Mitch: One day Rich just said "I think you should start doing some songs of yours at the concerts we're doing" and I said "ok, Wow! Why?" and he said "I think the people will like it. The first time I got to do that was at Taylor University in Indiana sometime about 1996.
Did the people like it?
Mitch: Uh huh!
Was Rich right as usual?
Mitch: He was right.
What were his impressions when it was over?
Mitch: Well, as usual he didn't really give me any outward signs of his impressions other than that I would do it again.
Tell me about the Kid Brothers thing, what it is , what it was, what it forevermore shall be.
Mitch: Kid Brothers was something that Rich and Beaker (one of Rich's writing partners) decided to start. They started this mock "Order." They said it was for people who were too chicken to become Catholic. They wanted to model their ideals and thinkings after Francis's interpretation of Christianity and spirituality. So that's how the title Kid Brothers came about. They didn't know what that meant really. It went on for about five years, I'm guessing, and I came into the picture and started working with them and, by default, I became a part of the Kid Brothers of St. Frank.
You woke up one morning and found a strange tattoo on your left arm.
Mitch: (Laughter) Yeah. So probably the most tangible thing that ever came out of that was when we wrote a musical called A Canticle of the Plains that was based on the life of Francis. Rich and Beaker and I wrote that. We had all these lofty ideas and foggy ideals that we would like to uphold and we were trying to model our lives after, but I would say in general it was just trying to approach life simply and try to follow Jesus in the way that Francis did. But when you try to do that I don't know if you can really succeed because I think he followed Him more radically and more literally than anybody did.
About two years ago Michael Aukofer and Erik Hauck came along. Michael had gone to the same university where Rich and I had gone and we met Erik at a gas station when he was travelling across the country on a motor cycle. We found out that he was a musician and we asked both of them to come along and play music with us and, then again by default, they became part of the Kid Brother of St. Frank.
So it's dangerous hanging out with you guys.
Mitch: Yeah. But, like I said, we didn't really know what that meant. The tangible things that we were involved in were doing concerts and that's pretty much it. Rich had visions of teaching out on the reservation and we actually drew up kind of an outline of what Kid Brothers was probably about, a month before the accident where Rich was killed. We are still trying to find out if Kid Brothers is actually going to become something or if that was it. We are hopefully like-minded people that were put in the same place at the same time. It's kind of hard because Rich was the leader and the one who was most passionate about it and we're left wondering what's going on here.
So how did your record come about.
Mitch: Well, I had been doing the songs in concerts with Rich for about a year or so and Rich just decided that it was time to do a record and he would produce it and we would fund it ourselves. We started to record it in Elgin, Illinois at Roswell East, Mark Robertson and Jordan Richter's (This Train) studio.
Was the music that you played with Rich and the way your record turned out stylistically the same that you saw yourself persuing or whas it pretty radically influenced by Rich.
Mitch: I think it was totally what I was persuing. I'm hoping that's what came across. The songs to me were always guitar songs just me strumming away on the guitar and singing. I think when I opened for Rich on tour we did band arrangements and they were folk-rock songs that were totally based around the accoustic guitar.
What kind of musicians were you influenced by?
Mitch: I was influenced by top 40 radio. I wasn't smart enough to know that there was anything else out there.
You were also in Topeka. Feel free to blame geography to some extent. It's not exactly an artistic mecca.
Mitch: That's about all there was.
And you were counting your blessings. At least it wasn't hog reports and country music. Did you ever go through a heavy metal stage?
Mitch: No I never did. Not even the hard rock really. Probably when I was 20 I started listening to more folky stuff like Bob Dylan and people who were doing music the way I wanted to do it, in a real simple way and trying to communicate without all the rigamoroll getting in the way.
You recorded the sountrack to the musical before you did your record and that was also done with Mark and Jordan. Is the musical going to continue?
Mitch: Well, I know that was our plan prior to the accident. I don't want to say that it's done, I'm thinking something will still happen with it. I know a lot of people are interested in that but I know that it has been done over the last year and a half because Rich and I were the people who spear-headed it getting put on and I've been out of commission for awhile so nothing has happened with it.
Now if I have this correct, the day you finished the last vocal on your record was the same day as the accident right.
Mitch: Yes it was.
How did you muster the will and determination to go back to that and finish it up?
Mitch: Well, I had the will and determination. After a couple of months I was somewhat getting back to normal, in my mind, but my singing voice was really wacked out and as a matter of fact it's still not back to normal today. So I was thinking gosh I don't know what I'm going to do with this because I had nine songs totally done and half a vocal on another and that's all it needed. It was sitting there and I didn't have a voice so I didn't know how it was going to be done. The accident happened in September and in May we were going to go ahead and mix it and try to use a scratch vocal for the song and get the record done. It just wasn't working out though because the mics were inferior to the other ones and it was going to be real obvious. So Mark and Jordan thought I might be able to sing the vocal again and I said "I can't do that. I'm not in any position" and they talked me into giving it a shot and I did. The easy part of the song was the part that needed to be redone so I recorded that about six months ago and that's how the record came about. For me it was never a question of will or anything because that's what needed to be done. We didn't do that record for nothing.
Which song had to be redone.
Mitch:"Only Love Will," which is actually my favorite song.
So what do you remember from the night of the accident. Has any fogginess cleared or is it still pretty oblique?
Mitch: It's still pretty oblique. I haven't gained any of the memory back that I lost and I don't have the memory for the day of the wreck and up to about two and a half weeks after it. I have one memory of stopping at a gas station about an hour and a half from Elgin. I remember that we got gas and we each went in and got coffee in one of these machines where you push the button and the coffee comes out and when it gets to the top of the cup it stops. Well, Rich was getting his coffee and it got to the top and he just walked off and the coffee machine kept going and coffee was just going all over the floor and I was just laughing and laughing. Then he went up to pay for it and the guy and the counter recognized him.
He was one of my employees.
Mitch: Really? Wow!
He had just seen Rich a few weeks before when you guys had come out to see This Train play at True Tunes. So he had been working that night and he worked at that gas station.
Mitch: Well, I don't know why that is my one memory that I have in that whole thing.
Do you remember being in the studio that day?
Mitch: Very vaguely. I remember a couple things that happened. But we were probably there twelve hours and I don't remember but about a minute of it.
Does it involve any nudity?
Mitch:(gutteral laughter) That's the one thing I remember was Rich walking around butt-naked. (more gutteral laughter).
That's a story that I think needs to be told. I think Rich would have wanted it that way. So why don't you tell us what you remember about it.
Mitch: Well, I dont remember a lot other than, he was in the vocal booth recording background vocals and realized "ok that's good" and all of a sudden he just comes walking out naked. He had just taken off his clothes in there I guess. Everyone was like "oh my gosh what are you doing" and He goes up and he stands real close to Jordan and starts making him real nervous. It was just terribly funny but that's the one thing that I remember from the day, and the coffee incident.
What was the type of process you had to go through to get well once you woke up after the accident?
Mitch: Again, I have sloshy memories because I was in a pretty drug induced state I guess, which was good I guess, but my dream world was my reality. I had some pretty wacked out dreams and I remember waking up and talking about them and I thought they were totally real. But I had to relearn to walk and talk and I had to go through a lot of physical therapy. I had a lot of broken bones that had to be healed over time.
When you say relearn to talk what do you mean?
Mitch: It was creating sound and articulating but as far I can tell I had the ability to remember what I was trying to say. I remember being wheeled in a chair to physical therapy and trying to learn on walkingand balance and being real wobbly and falling over and stuff. A little later on they started me doing vocal exercises because my voice wasn't good for speaking or especially singing because it's more noticable there. The other thing that I can't do therapy for is that I still see with double vision but it has improved over time.
How long were you in the hospital?
Mitch: A month and then I would go back in for therapy.
What kind of thoughts and feelings did you have to go through when you started to realize what had happened?
Mitch: I know it's been over a year later but I still feel like I'm kind of behind other people in any kind of grieving or mourning process over the loss of Rich because I didn't find out about anything until two weeks after the wreck had happened because the doctors had said that it wouldn't be a good idea to tell me until I started to ask about it. So I didn't find out until I was lying in a hospital bed pretty messed up and I started asking if there had been anyone else with me in the accident. They said that Rich was and I asked what happened to Rich and they told me he died. I don't remember doing anything other than going " oh no that's bad" I just remember that it kinda made sense because I'm here in really bad shape and it made sense that that could have happened. I guess my focus was on myself trying to get better and I didn't have time or energy to really mourn over Rich. Number one because I didn't feel terribly bad for him. I knew that he had been striving for this up to that time- meaning that he simply wanted to live with God in as close a relationship as he could and he had finally gotten to that point. I'm figuring that maybe when I get back to being a whole person, which I'm hoping isn't far off, then maybe I'll be able to deal with whatever mourning or grieving has to take place. For some reason it's hard for me to deal with that when I'm not whole myself. That's one thought I have. Another thing I've heard is that when you're involved so closely in a situation like this you don't deal with things the same way as other people.
I thought it was interesting hearing Mark and other people who had been on tour with Rich saying that on a nightly basis he was talking about death and wanting to go home. It's seemed like, having heard him articulate that himself may have made it easier for you guys to understand that for other people who didn't understand him. He was such an enigma and had such a different presence all about him. Were you there when he came and playing outside True Tunes one day and people were giving him tips?
Mitch: No I wasn't.
He was in town working on the Canticle thing so maybe you were at the school or something. He hang out at the store for hours and was all disappointed that his record was in our clearance bin. He was giving us a a hard time about Brother's Keeper being in that bin and then he set up his delcimer outside the store on a bench and some guy gave him a quarter or something and he thought that was the coolest thing he was so proud of his busking change.
You've been on the current tour, how has that been going?
Mitch: It's been going really well. People are terribly warm and it's been great to be out with the ragamuffins and rub shoulders with them. The other day I was thinking it was really great to have the Ragamuffins and the Kid Brothers, two seperate groups that Rich spent a lot of time with and did a lot of playing with and now we've come together. People receive me well and were very nice about things even though I was not up to snuff. The tour has been a great experience. We have a spring leg starting in March.
Are you doing some of your songs as well?
Mitch: Yes. I'm doing an opening slot.
What are your impressions of how The Jesus Record ended up turning out?
Mitch: You know I don't know a lot about production or anything but I'm just really glad the songs are out there. I like how it came out sounding but more than anything I know how important the album was to Rich and I'm thankful that it is being shared with people because he more than anything he wanted to share Jesus with people and without any filler fluff surrounding, just present Jesus and I think that's what the album's doing.
Other than the tour do you have any plans for the near future?
Mitch: In January and February myself and the Kid Brothers are playing shows and then in March we start touring with the Ragamuffins again. Then in the summer I'll be doing festivals and I know it's a ways off but in a year I'd like to record another album when my voice is back to recordable shape.
So you've been writing songs already?
Mitch: Oh yeah!
That's the "oh yeah" of a man that's written a hundred songs.
Mitch: I have written a ton of songs because I had a lot of time on my hands this past year so I wanted to do something with it, to feel like I was being productive. I think I have 50 songs that I would feel comfortable putting on an album so I'm ready to do another one and I'm really thankful for the writing time I've had and the songs that have come about.
Do you think you're writing in a different style at all?
Mitch: Yes I do. Well, not in a terrible different style but people that have heard the songs have said that they are a little different and I'm trying to take a little different approach and let them be a little less from my vantage point and more from everybody's vantage point. We're all in this together. I know a lot of people said that a lot of them still come off sounding very personal though.
How have you been feeling pysically as you perform?
Mitch: Physically I feel great. There hasn't been any problem with how I've been feeling other than the whole mental thing of "my voice isn't back to normal and I wonder when it will be" but I'm constantly encouraged by people who hear me and say you can't tell. But that has been a struggle and the vision thing has been here for so long that I don't remember what it was like to see normal but that's not a huge problem.
What were your impressions of the tribute at Cornerstone?
Mitch:I thought it was great. I like everyone that played there and thought everyone did a great job. I liked hearing different people do Rich's songs. It was an emotional night but it was so emotional that I just started to take a real business approach to it and just be real straight forward but I didn't know how else to get through it. So I was glad to be a part of it and I thought it reflected Rich very well.
Did the crowd response catch you off guard at all?
It was pretty intense. I was right in there but I was glad to see it. It was just an outpouring that I had never seen from a crowd like that?
Mitch: Yeah it was great.
So now your doing these shows with the Kid Brothers. Is it music that's unique to the Kid Brothers, stuff you've written with them or some of everyone's stuff?
Mitch: It's pretty much stuff I've written, stuff off my album or will be on my next album and I think we do one song of Rich's as a cover.
And you're opening the Jesus tour?
Mitch:This Train plays, then we play and then the Ragamuffins.
I heard about the establishment of the Rich Mullins Foundation by the manager of his estate and Alisa Loukota from Compassion USA. Are you still involved with that whole thing?
Mitch: Yes. They formed the foundation for Rich, and we're meeting with them soon about having us do some retreats in conjunction with them and the Kid Brothers. I don't all the details, but I know people sent in a lot of money and they have about five or ten sites down on the reservation that they want to establish some camps for the kids. I don't have all the details yet, but I will soon. We also still do pitch Compassion at the concerts and try to raise support that way as well. The Foundation and the Compassion USA stuff are separate now though.
self-titled debut is available now. Make sure to catch the Jesus Tour if
it comes through your town this spring.
Legacy of a kid brother of St. Frank.
Shortly after Rich's accident, his family, along with his business manager and his contact at Compassion USA (Alisa Loukota) discussed what means they may have to continue the work Rich had started. The result was the establishment of a special Foundation called A Legacy of a Kid Brother of St. Frank, named after the mock order Rich had established with some friends and other artists.
Rich had such a burden for the native American people, that he had moved to a small trailer in the desert of New Mexico. His vision was to meet the needs of his neighbors by establishing arts education as a starting point. Loukato, who had headed up the artists relations for Compassion International's relatively new Compassion USA branch, and along with Rich had targeted special efforts to reach America's indigenous people in a way that respected them as well as ministered to them, wanted so badly to see that vision fulfilled that she left her post at Compassion in order to see the new Foundation take flight.
The Foundation is in the developmental stages right now, as the key people visit various reservations to develop a more detailed strategy. Their hope is to build a central school, and then to develop several raveling schools that could go village to village teaching music and meeting the more immediate needs the students might have. An outpouring of donations, in addition to Rich's estate, have gotten the ball rolling, and teachers and missionaries have already begun signing up for opportunities to serve. Though Loukota says they are not yet ready to send volunteers into the field, they are developing and maintaining a database of those interested people. Monetary donations are also still being accepted.
thrilling to see Rich's life having this kind of on-going impact on the
lives of the people he loved so much. He told me on several occasions that
he didn't want any special recogition for his work with the native Americans,
because he felt they had spoken into his life more blessings than he could
ever speak into theirs. Nonetheless, even in his absense, his passion for
those special people, often completely forgotten by the American
church, is being honored and fulfilled by this foundation.