Dw. Dunphy On… Mark Heard

There was a central theme to the work of artist John Mark Heard, and it wasn’t the one most people expected. Sure, he was a part of the CCM community, not only as a performer but an in-demand producer, but that was only a portion of his story. The people with whom he worked over the years, up to his sudden death in 1992, knew him to be a meticulous wordsmith, a consummate musician, and wise enough to keep either skill from ruining a good song. That sense of knowing when to put away fussiness and perfectionism was not lost on the likes of T Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, Victoria Williams, Buddy & Julie Miller, Sam Phillips, and so many others. When the CCM labels shunned Bill Mallonee’s Vigilantes of Love because of his frank and (in this arena) shocking language, Heard championed him, to my knowledge never advising him to change a thing. The central theme of Mark Heard’s music was an exhortation to keep the heart prepared for the greatness to come, but also celebrate what’s here right now, no matter how tattered it might appear.

And so it is that I’m presenting this under the Dw. Dunphy On banner versus an honest-to-goodness Popdose Guide, mainly because there’s so much of Heard’s work that cannot be accessed legally, so much more that can but is currently not in the proper hands, and my ability to provide a truly complete retrospective is hampered. I could have tossed out the attempt and moved on to another artist, or I could follow the man’s lead and celebrate that which is available, all in hopes that a more thorough version can one day exist. So, without further delay, here is the music of Mark Heard, as best as I know it.

In 1982, Heard’s Victims of the Age arrived and marked several changes. Prior to the album, his themes were very Christian-based, where the new material had a more universal approach. The sound was modern for the time, as was the prior year’s Stop the Dominoes, but before those Heard was recognized more as a roots-folk performer. This particular album focused on the dehumanizing effect of modern society, a theme expressed no stronger than on the one-two combination of “City Life Won’t Let Up” and “Faces in Cabs“. The new wave/rock style found on the album would take a break for the next two releases, Eye of the Storm (1983) and Ashes and Light (1984), as he sought to strengthen his preferred acoustic-based sound, an approach that would pay dividends on later albums.

Heard’s return to rock on 1985’s Mosaics melds the two musical personalities into a rootsy John Mellencamp-like flavor, allowing the acoustics a degree of bigness without being hampered by electronics. This is a constant thread in his musical output, stepping in and out of stylistic puddles, sometimes blending them for effect. Speaking of blending, Mosaics can be considered a nexus point for T-Bone Burnett and Sam Phillips, as Heard covers the Truth Decay track “The Power of Love” — One track later, Phillips sings backup on “It Will Not Be Like This Forever“. Two years later, Phillips would release her career-redefining The Turning, produced by Burnett, but that’s a story for another day.

Tonio K. started a record label called What?, a joint venture between CCM conglomerate Word and A&M Records. It was not only a home for his releases but for peculiar artists like Dave Perkins and the one-man band Ideola, Mark Heard’s drift back into the angular, synth-driven new wave sound. (For the sake of fairness, while Heard did most of the work on the album, The Choir’s Steve Hindalong provided percussion, dulling Ideola’s one-man band tag a bit.) 1987’s Tribal Opera, while unique and daring, did not do particularly well on either side of the distribution deal, exacerbating the curse Heard had been pegged with almost his entire career: being too secular for the saints, too religious for the radio. It didn’t help that a couple of the songs simply didn’t work very well. Even so, a few tunes that would later be considered Heard classics were first heard here, including “Watching the Ship Go Down” and “How to Grow Up Big and Strong“.

Heard fell off the radar for the next few years, resurfacing in 1990 with what would become the first of a crowning trilogy of work. Gone was the Ideola persona and any need to pursue anything he was not particularly interested in, including fitting into others’ marketing strategies. Dry Bones Dance revels in almost every facet of what we consider Americana; the lyrics are rendered as these little vignettes, sometimes full of faceted detail, sometimes so conversational it seems like deja vu, like something you’ve already said presented in song. “Everything Is Alright” is an ode to love in the face of a world that has little knowledge of such things, the title track is a rip-roaring resurrection stomp, and “House of Broken Dreams” a lament for things unrealized. During this time period, CCM was obsessed with “getting the kids” with failed attempts to speak the lingo of the day, trying to emulate their worldly counterparts. With Dry Bones Dance, Mark Heard arrived with textured, wonderfully realized music for adults, and a whole legion of new fans suddenly had to explore the rest of his catalog.

Because of the on-off nature of Heard’s prior output, no one had any reason to expect something like another Dry Bones Dance, but Second Hand (1991) proved to be even warmer and more intimate. The title is derived from the track that would come to be his signature tune, the paean to wonderful love in the midst of banal reality “Nod Over Coffee“. In keeping with his newfound desire to follow his muse, he includes a cover of the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You,” which in itself is a somewhat rude dressing-down sort of song. Even more jarring, but no less profound, is his original “What Kind of Friend.” The album represented something like a call to liberation within the CCM realm as artists started seeing how far one could go if they went there in the spirit of truth. Most of them paid dearly for it, while those that continued to play it safe reaped the benefits of hanging tight with the game plan. The secular world really had no clue these things were going on and, honestly, didn’t much concern themselves to find out. Fortunately, Heard wasn’t swayed by either. He had one more album up his sleeve.

Satellite Sky (1991) became Heard’s best synthesis of the qualities found in Americana/folk sounds and the gutsy bounce of no-nonsense rock and roll. For music fans, the album was a total treat; 15 tracks, not a dog in the pack. If the brooding “Orphans of God” didn’t get you dancing, try “Language Of Love“. If “We Know Too Much” didn’t get under your skin, how about “Long Way Down“? All through the album, Heard’s crystalline mandolin playing offers a sound profile completely foreign to the music scene at the time, and his lyrics drip with a clear-eyed wisdom — something many of his counterparts avoided, often because they alluded to a humanity that is hard to market, an understanding that we don’t live in a fair and just world. Still, keep the heart prepared for the greatness to come, but celebrate what’s here right now, no matter how tattered it might appear.

Then came the summer of 1992. Mark Heard just finished his set at the Cornerstone music festival. All through his performance he was having chest pains, perhaps not fully realizing the severity of what was going on. When he was finished, he was taken to a local hospital where he subsequently died. It was one of those strange, sudden shocks, to the family, to the fans, like a very short rollercoaster on which you thought the greatest thrills were yet to come, but the ride was over. The tributes came quickly and effortlessly; wrapping one’s mind around the whole thing was much more difficult. The extent of the man’s reach was seen on the tribute compilation Strong Hand of Love: A Tribute to Mark Heard (1994) and, to a greater extent, the expanded version titled Orphans of God. On it were old friends Burnett and Phillips, the Millers, Tonio K., contemporaries who were profoundly challenged by his example, the bands Daniel Amos and Chagall Guevara, Michael Been from the Call, and those who Heard helped shepherd, Vigilantes of Love and Kevin Max (Smith) formerly of DC Talk.

His impact may not be huge in the grand scheme of things, and if it had been he might not have had the fortitude to strike out on his own to create albums of lasting value and creative permanence. Eighteen years later, the musical landscape is vastly different; certain divides no longer exist, while others have risen and taken their place. Fortunately, what has been left behind is still pretty great, a testament to art over artifice, and in its own way a love song to whatever’s yet to come.

Bruce Cockburn – Strong Hand Of Love

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  • mrmurrah

    Thanks so much for posting this. I came across Mark's music via Bruce Cockburn and Brooks Williams, who both raved about his work. I'm glad I listened, and hope others get a chance to become familiar with him. It's well worth the effort. (Bruce Cockburn wrote “Closer To The Light” about Mark, on his Dart To The Heart album.)

  • Thierry

    Nice writeup on one of the 3-4 acts associated with the Christian music scene that could and should have reached a broader audience (I would include Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, the 77's and perhaps early Randy Stonehill in that group). I really enjoy the Mark Heard records I have – in particular the quieter Appalachian Melody (produced by Larry Norman and feat. Norman and Stonehill) and Stop the Dominos, which more often than not has him sounding like Lindsey Buckingham (both vocally and musically), with only the occasional folkier moments.

  • dolph

    Thanks, Dw. For your further enjoyment, FINGERPRINT is another quite good early album.

    But the Heard moment that always kills me is his duet with Julie Miller on “My Redeemer Lives,” from the album CLOUDS, RAIN, FIRE by the At The Foot Of The Cross project (led by Hindalong, his Choir buddy Derri Daugherty, and DA's Greg Flesch). I believe it was Mark's last recorded lead vocal. Tears flood me every single time.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I think you're right on that one. I also think ATFOTC deserves a rerelease of some kind in general, but Word has the ownership to it so it seems unlikely.

    I think the biggest hindrance with Heard's work is that it is that most of it is not owned by his widow and kids, so profits go to the labels which seems so antithetical to the mission statements of those same labels. It's shameful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705161641 facebook-705161641

    It is ABSOLUTELY shameful. I think Mark's family is taken care of just fine by Dan Russell of Fingerprint records, with whom, Mark was a co-owner. It is, mainly, Home Sweet Home, that refuses to relinquish the rights to Heard's catalog. That label's owner is the ironically named Chris Christian.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=705161641 facebook-705161641

    Oh, yeah….Thierry, I would agree with you and definitely add The Choir, Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty's group. Also, Lost Dogs and maybe a few others.

  • http://www.austinecho.com/ John Austin

    Hey DW, Thanks for writing this article!

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  • jimodell

    Great article Dw!! Thanks for writing it!

    Lost Dogs will be playing in Dean's basement (!!!) on May 17. It's a Monday night. Hope you can make it out!

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    Really! I'll have to get in on that. Do you know if the release of the Route 66 project is involved?

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    It's great to see you caught the article, John. Heard's music really deserves a wider appreciation (as does the efforts of Austin & Echo, if I might add that!)

  • katephillips

    Thanks so much for posting this. I remember every CD Mark released, and received them as if they were letters from a long lost friend. (I guess I was “stuck in the middle,” too, so it was nice to feel understood by someone as honest and brilliant as Mark.) I didn't know him well, but he left an impact to be sure. I still play some of his songs, so many are “keepers.” He could juxtapose hope and despair or cynicism in a song better than anyone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hans-Riemenschneider/1582444916 Hans Riemenschneider

    Thanks for this. Heard was one of the best.

  • davidacosta

    Excellent article!…I happen to be a 45-year-old singer/songwriter who has never actually ventured into the music business–easily my greatest regret in life. Back in the early 80s, I became a CCM fan–mostly the pop stuff, unfortunately (late bloomer in the sophistication dept.). I eventually dropped out of institutionalized Christianity (as well as most subsequent CCM music) and left the church and its trappings, holding on to varying degrees of faith throughout the last two decades. It wasn't until late last year that I discovered Mark's music–thanks to a Mark fan–and I was blown away instantly, after which I became mesmerized, overwhelmed, thoroughly grateful, at times laughing like a fool, at times crying like a baby, while listening to the poetic brilliance and masterful music that emanated from an artist I wish I had discovered many years ago. Even though it happened in my mid forties, I'm alright with that–better late than never. I shall heartily remember these blessed weeks of listening to practically no other music but Mark's; I can hardly express the way Mark's wonderful songs have delved into the core of my being. I just pray that the day will actually come when I shall have a moment (at the very least) to commune with Mark. Thank you for unraveling the layers, Mark, dearly departed friend of an unshakeable yet oh so tenuous faith.

  • Evan

    I enjoy Mark's later song writing and even his arrangements. What I didn't like about this last three records were the mastering/mixing. If only those masters could be re-done I think his appeal would be much larger.

  • http://www.xanga.com/juliemillerfan Wayne

    There are several items in your otherwise finely written blog which veer from the truth either slightly or grossly.

    (A) Mark did not die immediately at the hospital. He was there for a bit, as like roughly 2 weeks so I seem to remember. Maybe longer. He was comatose for most of that time, then awoke… there was talk of shifting him back to California when he suddenly had a subsequent heart attack and at that point died. My source of information on this one — John Thompson, former owner of True Tunes and my former boss when I worked there.

    (B) The whole Chris Christian bit is muddied in urban legend and rumor. I had a chance to swap emails with Chris about 4 years back (due to my national visibility on Ebay as JulieMillerFan and because of my own commentary on Mark Heard). While I don't know the whole story, I do know that Chris tells a slightly different side to the tale which bears hearing out. As Christians it is our responsibility to present the WHOLE truth — and on the matter of Mark Heards Home Sweet Home / Myrrh releases, balancing both sides of the tale is extremely tricky.

    (C) Tonio K did not “Found” What? Records. Although he was a serious part of the reason it was created, he did not have a hand in bringing it to birth. That actually goes to someone else whose name escapes me momentarily. There was a Tonio K interview in Goldmine Records Magazine back in 2002 (I believe) which Tonio spelled out his relationship with What? Records — very informative and highly worth tracking down.

    (D) Leslie (Sam) Phillips involvement with Mark predates Mosaics by quite a bit. She actually sang Back-up on Mark's “Dominoes” and covered one of Marks songs on her first Myrrh records release, “Beyond Saturday Night” (that song being “Heart of Hearts”). Mark told Leslie even before Beyond Saturday Night was ever released that jumping into the Christian Music Market was a mistake she should not make. He was right.

    (E) Daniel Amos' involvement with Mark (You have them listed as merely “Contemporaries” Dictionary.com defines that as someone who merely lives at the same time) goes extremely far back to Mark's Solid Rock Record days back in 1977-78. They were more then mere contemporaries, they were labelmates and co-workers in Larry Norman's Label experiment which tanked because of Larry's sin issues. (which I will not go into here, thank you very much.)

    Other than these matters, your blog / article was very well written and very well presented. I have long championed Marks music at my own blog (http://www.xanga.com/JulieMillerFan) and had the pleasure to see him in concert a few times in the late 80's & to interview him back in 1989 — and interview I've never released because of just how bad my questions came off at the time. I was very green and fan-boy-esque, much to Mark's annoyance. Wish I had a second chance at that interview….

    Wayne “JulieMillerFan” Shuman

  • markpeake

    The problem, as near as I can see, is that the “christian” labels aren't Christian in mission. They are labels owned by large conglomerates or concerns that use the term for marketing purposes before anything else.

    Am I wrong about that?

  • markpeake

    When I was in seminary, still a pretty young believer, it was Mark Heard's music, along with Bill Malonee, and eventually Harrod and Funk, that really spoke to me. Such a passion and not covered with any intent to sell to a particular market, just honest, authentic music and sentiment. Thanks for a great article.

  • darrellaharris

    Thanks Dw.

    Sadly, I only grabbed bits and pieces of Mark's work through the years.
    I saw him play only once (passionately!) and only had one chat with him (somewhat oblique but invigorating.)

    So I am grateful for this primer and the loving testimony of all here.
    Having just said an unexpected “so-long” to Tom Howard, I can only imagine how may of you felt having to also say an unexpected “so-long” in 1992.

    I look forward to becoming more intimately acquainted with him now through the treasure trove of work and friends he left behind, and finally face to face on the other side.

    Again Dw, many thanks!

  • jimodell

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    <BODY>Yes sir it are!! 

    Feb 14, 2010 05:55:17 PM, wrote:

    DwDunphy wrote, in response to jimodell:

    Really! I'll have to get in on that. Do you know if the release of the Route 66 project is involved?

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  • Timothy Eddings

    Thank God for these records, (seriously). It's usually naive to think that a few melody's and phrases will change anyone's world, but i've met more than a few people whose lives were altered by both Mark's projects and by the projects his work inspired. He may not have been famous but it seems in this case of Mark Heard the quality far outweighs the quantity. – Timothy Eddings

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  • The Ancient Mariner

    It’s a fortunate thing for us, speaking of Harrod and Funck, that Mark Heard finished up *Dreams of the Color Blind* before heading off to Cornerstone. I think that was his very last project . . .

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