The late contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Rich Mullins was an original. Despite being an artist in a genre that can often play it safe, Mullins did not.
While he is known for writing conventional church songs like "Awesome God," Mullins also tackled topics like the Trail of Tears in "The Howling," and he referenced John Lennon (and was a fan) in "Elijah." Mullins wasn't afraid to both sing about his faith directly and comment on the world around him from that perspective.
He died following a tragic automobile accident in 1997 at 41-years-old. But his music and influence undoubtedly live on.
During the 1970s, years before his 1986, self-titled debut album, Mullins wrote a song called "Thunder" for his then-band, Zion (pictured courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). The song never made it onto a solo album, and until recently, it was never recorded beyond a raw demo, nor commercially released.
That changed when Rick Lee James, a recording artist who lives in Springfield, Ohio, made it the title track of his latest studio album.
"It was a fun challenge to work on a Rich Mullins song that had never been covered before," James said.
In the last few years, he has become friends and co-writers with Mullins' first publisher (from 1982 to '85), Randy Cox. He handpicked the Ohio singer/songwriter to record the song, which is the first track on James' new record.
This isn't the first time Cox worked out a deal to have a rare Mullins composition that he represented be properly recorded. Ellie Holcomb, Matt Maher and Third Day's Mac Powell recorded another song that was in Cox's care, "The Joy of Jesus," in 2017. Shortly after that, he saw James as someone who would do "Thunder" justice.
"I thought Rick would be a good fit for the song, vocally and spiritually," Cox said in an email.
"[I'm] kind of pinching myself that it happened," James said in an email.
"Thunder" is not exactly the same as Mullins left it. A few yeas ago, "his friends and co-writers rewrote parts of the verses and arranged it into something new and fresh," according to James.
Cox's selection of James is appropriate, because like Mullins, James' music ranges from songs for church congregations, to songs that reference culture from his Christian worldview. Though, this album is primarily aimed at the church.
On the record, Cox and James co-wrote a new song, "Be My All," written during a time when James' grandmother was dying in the hospital. Between times of prayer and singing with her, James found moments to give a melody to the song, which is made up almost entirely of Cox's words.
"I would sneak away to the hospital chapel to create a song out of Randy's lyrics," James said.
It ends an album that begins with a song originally written decades ago by Mullins, who continues to inspire more than 20 years after his death.
"Thunder" by Rick Lee James (the album) releases Feb. 8.
Rick Lee James - Watch "Thunder" music video