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20 YEARS ON: Remembering 4 great singers and musicians

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Record albums from INXS, John Denver, Michael Hedges and Rich Mullins.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Just last month, over Labor Day weekend, my thoughts turned to a good friend of mine, Carter Albrecht, who died exactly a decade earlier after he was shot by a man in a Dallas neighborhood who thought he was an intruder.

But Carter was on a doctor-prescribed medication, Chantix, in hopes of helping end his cigarette-smoking habit, a common vice among the musicians Carter spent time with.

Carter was an incredibly talented musician. His ability on the piano and keyboards caught the attention of many and at the time of his death he was performing with a recently-regrouped version of Edie Brickell & New Bohemians and was in the process of releasing his first solo album – later released posthumously – Jesus is Alive … and Living in London.

And this fall also marks another anniversary, this being the 20th anniversary of the deaths of four remarkable singers and musicians, all four of whom were painfully honest, hard-working and dedicated humanitarians.

I speak of singers and musicians Rich Mullins, John Denver, Michael Hutchence and Michael Hedges.

Rich Mullins & Avenue G performing at Agape Fest in Greenville, Illinois in 1991. (Andrew W. Griffin)

I only knew one of these men – Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins – and was almost in awe of just how deep and down-to-earth he was.

Back in 1988, my family attended Central Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas. That same year, Rich came to our church due to his friendship with the pastor. Playful and childlike, even with a big new hit on the radio – “Awesome God” – he spent time with the church youth and would later convince a touring song-and-skit group affiliated with the church to take me along on their 1989 American tour.

And the best part of the trip was spending long hours in the tour van talking to Rich Mullins. Because it was me – and Carter Albrecht, who was also on this tour – who connected most with Rich in terms of shared musical tastes.

We had conversations about all sorts of things. Religion, politics and music, primarily. U2 and Indigo Girls were among his favorite “secular” groups at the time and he really loved their socially-conscious messages and seeming embrace of religious faith.

He was about the common man. While on that ’89 tour, while visiting his brother in West Virginia, Rich made sure we all watched John Sayles’ powerful labor film Matewan, about the struggles of coal miners in that state.

He also loved “exotic” folk instruments and even tried to get me learn to play the “tongue drum,” in hopes of playing it on tour. Alas, I never quite got the hang of it, opting to play a regular drum kit instead.

I would see Rich after concerts over the next several years. He was always eager to chat and catch up, even with his busy schedule. By the mid-1990’s, while finishing college, I had lost track of him, only knowing he was involved with The Kid Brothers of St. Frank organization and seemingly dabbling in Catholicism. That certainly made sense, considering his monastic lifestyle and commitment to following the path of Jesus Christ.

Rich, and his friend Mitch McVicker were driving through the Illinois night on Sept. 19, 1997 when their vehicle lost control and flipped over. Neither was wearing  a seatbelt and Rich was thrown from the vehicle, only to be run over by a passing semi truck which had veered around the wreckage of their vehicle. He was 41.

JOHN DENVER

The display for the John Denver exhibit at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa. (Marie Mentesana / Red Dirt Report)

Growing up, John Denver’s sunny, folk-pop music was a staple. He was a regular on The Muppets and always seemed to be smiling. He seemed approachable to me and I would find out later that his longtime guitar player, a songwriter named John Sommers, had dated my mother in the 1960’s when they both lived in south Texas. He would write Denver’s big, mid-70’s hit “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy.”

Sommers would pitch the song to Denver after writing it on Dec. 31, 1973, Denver’s 30th birthday, after a period of felling “peaceful, happy and content” with his lot in life. Denver seemed to have that effect on people.

In the years immediately before Denver’s death on October 12, 1997, at the age of 53, while flying an experimental aircraft over Monterey Bay in California, I had taken a renewed interest in Denver’s music, collecting old albums of his, and even decorating the walls of my duplex bedroom with his album covers.

I found John Denver inspirational. A world-respected environmentalist and humanitarian, I found his songs came from a place deep in his heart. You sensed he believed every word.

For instance, one of my all-time favorites is his 1975 song “Calypso,” about Jacques Cousteau and his ocean-going research ship Calypso. It appears on his album Windsong.

Denver was passionate about ocean conservation, just as Cousteau was. The recording makes one feel as if they are out on the sea, looking for whales and adventure. Ironically, this song came out at roughly the same time the film Jaws was released.

My favorite John Denver album – the one people are probably most familiar with – was Rocky Mountain High, released on Sept. 15, 1972, about a month after I was born. This is the one where he really cements his love of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, particularly with the self-titled lead-off track, which would become one of the Centennial State’s two official state songs in 2007.

MICHAEL HUTCHENCE

Michael Hutchence of the Australian rock band INXS. (Wikimedia Commons)

As the lead singer of the Australian rock band INXS, Michael Hutchence was a more polished “rock god” than the two previous men who were decidedly more down-to-earth and approachable.

Nevertheless, Michael Hutchence was different. In a September 1989 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the “handsome, moody, mercurial” Hutchence was promoting a one-off musical side project called Max Q, which was a different vibe than INXS’s dance-friendly and poppy sound.

Rock stars walk around with an entourage of bodyguards, supposedly to protect themselves from the fans. Actually, they're looking to be recognized. Rock stars are the saddest people in the world,” Hutchence said at the time.

They're neurotic idiots--jerks. They're adolescents who never grew up. If the kids really knew what these people were like, they wouldn't idolize them, they'd throw up. These are decadent people. I've lived a more decadent life than I've told anybody, but decadence isn't a way of life for me. Rock stars are horrible people. Being a street cleaner or a baker are more honorable professions.”

Michael Hutchence was only 37 when he was found dead in his hometown of Sydney on Nov. 22, 1997, with the coroner’s report saying it was “suicide by hanging due to asphyxiation.”

MICHAEL HEDGES

Michael Hedges Blvd. in his hometown of Enid, Oklahoma. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

I discovered Michael Hedges while running the board of my college radio station in Northwest Arkansas in the early 1990’s.

My broadcasting professor, Mike Flynn, happened to run a longtime syndicated radio program called The Folk Sampler, which focused on folk, traditional, bluegrass, blues and “new acoustic music.” It is still going to this very day, being aired in Oklahoma on several radio stations, including Sunday nights on Public Radio Tulsa 89.5 FM.

I’m proud to say that Flynn was my only college professor to tell me that of all of his broadcasting students, I was most likely to start my own pirate radio station. I did the next best thing – started Red Dirt Report!

On our station, however, Flynn had broadcasting students run the reel-to-reel tapes of his other program, Reflections, which featured more contemplative and New Age-styled music of that time. And it was then that Michael Hedges’ album Taproot was getting a lot of air time on Reflections.

I was enchanted by Hedges’ almost magical style of acoustic guitar playing. It was like listening to a musical language, and I would begin buying records by Hedges, including his popular 1984 album Aerial Boundaries.

Sadly, Hedges would die in a car accident in California in December of 1997. Such a terrible loss of an Oklahoma original.

I urge readers to seek out the music of these four exceedingly talented singers and musicians who all passed away in the autumn of 1997. It's still hard to believe it's been 20 years since they passed.

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About the Author

Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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