|APPALACHIAN MELODY by Mark Heard (1979)|
Solid Rock - SRA 2009
He was an artist...a deep thinker...and a poet's poet.
He was a Christian, but he was also a doubter...a cynic...a skeptic.
Most importantly, he was a loving husband and father.
Hailing from the deep South, Heard released 16 critically-acclaimed albums. "Maybe I'm just a selfish maniac," Heard wrote, "who is wasting his time trying to transfer feelings which perhaps no one cares about onto a fretboard and a piece of magnetic tape. Maybe it's the modern petroglyph or the modern way to write on the wall of your cave: 'I was here.' Maybe it is a cry to God about how much I hate the bad things and how much I love the good things."
"Mark Heard was loyal and generous to his friends and to anyone who needed help and encouragement," said his friend and fellow songwriter Pat Terry, "sometimes to his own disadvantage."
Bruce Cockburn said Mark Heard was "a very likable guy with a good sense of humor and a bright, creative mind. We never got to be more than acquaintances, but I felt a warm affection for him and we had a great mutual respect for each other as songwriters." Cockburn says he felt a kinship with Heard due to "a sense of us both being outsiders from the mainstream of Christian music."
|L-R: Bruce Cockburn, Pierce Pettis, Pat Terry|
Perhaps one reason Heard never felt comfortable with the CCM marketplace has much to do with an observation made by his friend and fellow artist Pierce Pettis. "Mark was more concerned with telling the truth than selling the truth," Pettis remarked.
Pierce Pettis' remembers things about Mark Heard that most of us never knew. "He had a thing for antique electronics," Pettis remembers, "and he packed the control room with them - old electric guitars from the '50s, Neumann microphones built in Germany during the war, old tube amps, tube limiters, compressors, and a wonderful old mixer. He felt the warmth of old, hand-wired tube equipment was unmatched by the more modern solid-state digital stuff. And he was right."
Pettis continues: "Mark seemed to like quirky old objects in general. Somewhere, he picked up a gigantic old 1970s Cadillac convertible with white upholstery and power everything. Whenever questioned about the environmental impact of this gas-guzzling monster, he would insist that pound for pound, his car was far more fuel-efficient than any Toyota."
Armed with a quick wit, Heard kept his friends laughing and appreciated a sense of humor in others. "I am apt to hire certain musicians just because I know they will have some good jokes to tell," he said.
Just before one concert appearance, the promoter asked all of the musicians to gather for a pre-show prayer. Pre-show prayers weren't really Mark's thing. They began to go around the circle, with everyone taking turns praying aloud. The story is told that when Mark's turn came, he just whistled the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show.
Once, when asked what caused him to write songs, he replied, "The phone bill, the gas bill..."
Heard told one particularly funny story about a gig he played in 1979. "Tonight I played at a coffeehouse," he said. "The dressing room was an office of some sort, I think. There was no place to sit. I tuned my guitar and was looking through a possible set list when the man in charge walked in. He said it was time to pray, as the concert was to start in five minutes. After a ten minute prayer, the gist of which was, 'Oh Lord, just sing through Mark tonight and keep him out of the picture altogether,' I considered the prospect of lining up a great number of such concerts, then staying at home and sending a cardboard likeness of myself for God to sing through."
Mark Heard was cut from a different cloth. Pierce Pettis told this story in 2002: "One morning as we were about to start another twelve-hour day of arranging, tracking, mixing, dubbing, editing, arguing…I noticed Mark pacing around his backyard with a mug of coffee, wireless phone to his ear and a troubled look on his face. Afterwards, I asked who it was on the phone and he said: 'T Bone [Burnett] - he wants me to ride up the coast with him and Bob Dylan.' I remember blurting out something like, 'Dylan?! Wow, you should just blow this off and go!' Mark gave me a disgusted look and said he had work to do. I couldn't believe this and when I pressed him, he said, 'Look, who is Bob Dylan anyway? He's just some guy named Robert Zimmerman - maybe a nice guy, I don't know, but he's just a guy, ok? And I have work to do!'"
Heard was not your typical CCM artist. He was reportedly a chain smoker who appreciated an off-color joke as much or more than the next guy. He used colorful language and rarely went to church. "He would tell you he wasn't a theologian," said Pat Terry, "though he was well versed in theology. He would also tell you that he didn't know the answers to a lot of things that bothered him."
"But Mark was a good and honest person, a true pilgrim, a genuine artist and someone to admire," Terry added. "He was a kind person. Maybe the kindest person I've ever known."
On July 4, 1992, Mark Heard played a set with Pierce Pettis and Pam Dwinell-Miner at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois. The set was described as "marvelous." One reviewer wrote, "His jokes were corny. His guitar playing was a little sloppy at times. And apparently, he had a heart attack during the show."
Indeed, Mark Heard suffered what was called a "minor heart attack" on stage but managed to finish the set. Afterwards, he was admitted to a Springfield, Illinois hospital and remained there for about a week. It was determined that he would need treatment for two blocked arteries. But he wanted to go home first. He was home with his wife Janet and then 4-year old daughter Rebecca when he suffered a second heart attack and subsequently slipped into a coma. Mark Heard passed from this life on August 16, 1992.
"Mark would have loved that he died on the same day as Elvis," Pierce Pettis said with a smile.
Mark Heard said his involvement with music began before he was born. "My Mother told me that I kicked during her pregnancy every time she would go near the hi-fi," he said.
"Even as a small child, he was a complicated person!" said Mark's mother, Jean Heard. "I never realized how very sensitive he was to things for years. He even cried as a baby when certain parts of Happy Birthday were sung."
Mark talked of serenading sweethearts on the backyard swingset at kindergarten.
Eventually, the playground girls took a back seat to a young lady named Janet. Mark reportedly met his future wife at a Christian youth event of some sort in New York City. A long-distance relationship developed, with the two writing letters to each other for about four years because, in their words, they were "too shy to do anything else."
Heard had grown up in Macon, Georgia, somewhat immersed in a strange blend of southern rock, R&B, and church culture. "Being in bands was a real eye-opener for me," Mark said. "I had been exposed really only to church hymns and classical pieces in childhood, and when I became aware of rock & roll, I thought it was the ultimate. My Mother just kept telling me that it was simply an extension of the old Negro spiritual type of thing she had grown up hearing in the rural South."
Macon has been described as a hub for rhythm and blues. James Brown, Otis Redding, and Little Richard were from Macon, and the town later became home to several popular southern rock and roll bands (Allman Brothers, Wet Willie and more). "Macon had more than its share of local bands for such a small town, and I played in a number of rock & roll and R&B bands throughout my teens," Mark said. Heard says he never owned very many albums, choosing instead to listen to the radio. "I hid it under my pillow and would fall asleep at night listening to it," he revealed. "My folks weren't too excited about the virtues of AM radio. My problem was trying to buy batteries for my radio without my folks finding out."
Mark Heard became a Christian at age 17. "I was pretty fed up by that time with the shallowness of the entire rock scene," he said, "so I formed a Christian group and we played at coffeehouses, festivals and the like." The group he's talking about was a Gospel folk quintet called Infinity Plus Three. The album was titled Setting Yesterday Free and was recorded on a shoestring budget. Interestingly, the producer credit is given to "Doug Milheim, Mark Heard and Jesus Christ in us all." It's definitely a sought-after collector's item these days.
"We cut an album, but by then I was getting tired of the stereotypes surrounding Christian music so I left the group and began performing solo," Heard said. "I was in college at the time."
A friend of Mark's by the name of Miles O'Neal (who according to the internet appears to be a computer software guy with a zany sense of humor who lives in Texas) still lists Mark as one of his heroes (right behind Jesus and his dad). Miles was at Georgia Tech while Mark was attending the University of Georgia.
|A young Mark Heard|
"I first met Mark at Midtown Light & Trust, a coffee house in the incredible Fox Theater in Atlanta," Miles remembers. "Mark played there but was also a patron. Mark was musically all over the map when I met him, with classical, rock, jazz, folk, serious, silly, and off the wall."
Heard majored in television journalism at Georgia. When Miles O'Neal met him, Mark Heard was working at a place called The Spinks Company and playing gigs in his spare time. The Spinks Company was a place that built and sold chicken feeders, poultry scales, and other animal-related products. "Mark got me a job at Spinks," recalls Miles. "This was one of the most bizarre places I had ever worked. I got the job at the interview (as much because of Mark's reputation as anything). We made automatic chicken feeders and orthopedic mattresses, among other things. And Mark, who hated messing with electricity with a passion, and knew nothing about it except where the plug goes ('this stuff can kill you!'), naturally got to assemble and test the relay boxes, which used both 110 and 220 VAC."
O'Neal remembers a lot of metal & wood dust and other chemicals in the air at the Spinks Company. As a result, he says that Heard's voice suffered terribly. "He typically had concerts Friday through Sunday nights," O'Neal remembers, "but it was Monday morning before he quit hocking up all sorts of nasty stuff and his throat returned to normal. At which point, of course, he had to start breathing all that crud again. He still did a great job of singing."
|Mark Heard on Airborn Records; later reissued as On Turning to Dust|
Heard saved up some money by teaching a Bible course in a Christian high school for a year and eventually recorded a solo album, basically an eponymous custom project that was retitled On Turning to Dust and re-released several years later. "The recording budget was rather tight," he said.
After graduating from Georgia with a Bachelor of Arts in TV/film/journalism, Heard traveled abroad to study at a place called L'Abri (the French word for 'shelter') under an influential Christian teacher and philosopher named Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. It's been said that Heard had become a skeptic and journeyed to L'Abri to question and learn about his faith. "L'Abri is more than a community of Christians in the arts," Heard said. "It provides an honest atmosphere where both Christians and non-Christians can study things which undergird the Christian faith. It's a good place for a doubter to go because you really have to be on your toes. It's a real test of the axiom that if Christianity is real, then it should be real in the midst of any situation. Many people who don't believe in God end up there, and L'Abri seeks to meet their objections to the faith. Having been a skeptic myself, and having many unanswered questions as a Christian made me able to appreciate Dr. Schaeffer's work."
|Dr. Francis Schaeffer teaching at L'Abri|
"In my skeptical days," Heard continued, "people who wanted to appear very spiritual were always telling me to forget my questions, to shove them under the rug and 'go on in faith.' In fact, some of my friends thought my questions were my own devices to dodge the 'real issues.' They thought I must be morally decadent to voice such questions. But I knew my questions were real and important. Anyway, I couldn't ignore my questions...So that is why I studied at L'Abri."
L'Abri is always mentioned as being foundational or at least important to who Mark Heard became. I'd always heard about L'Abri, but knew next-to-nothing about it...so I researched it a little in preparing for this blog post. What I found was somewhat surprising.
The organization is still going strong. The 'history' tab on their website confirms that it was established as "a place where people might find satisfying answers to their questions and practical demonstration of Christian care." Internet access is extremely limited, use of technology is discouraged, and, oddly, students are limited to two showers per week. L’Abri is indeed presented as "a place for seekers, for those who want to dig into the deep questions of life, for those who are hungry for truth." They say that atheists, agnostics, and believers are all welcome; however, it is made clear that all staff members are Christians, "living and speaking from that conviction. As those whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ, we aim to show all students His love, both in the ways we welcome all comers and in our commitment to communicating what we believe to be the truth of the Gospel in our words and actions."
The L'Abri Statements on the group's website presents the Bible as the divinely inspired, living Word of God...both infallible and inerrant, regarding matters of faith as well as history. They also affirm that "faithful, monogamous, heterosexual marriage is the only legitimate context for sexual intercourse." [What novel concepts, eh?]
Interestingly, they affirm supernatural spiritual gifts as being for today but expressly reject what they call "the distinctive theology of the Charismatic movement" - i.e., the "baptism in the Holy Spirit."
As I continued to sift and sort through the L'Abri Statements, I found much that must've been comforting and attractive to a young Mark Heard. For example, they express a "commitment to genuine humanness as expressed in servant-hood and love," and state that "Christ is at work restoring us to true humanness as we become conformed to His likeness by the power of the Spirit." A commitment is also expressed "to apply God’s truth to the whole of life and to encourage Christians to make a contribution to the wider culture." They maintain that "Scripture makes no distinction between the sacred and the secular, that is, it does not encourage us to think [of] some activities...as more spiritual than other activities. They warn against Christians "retreat[ing] from the wider culture," and warn against "developing our own sub-culture." The website states that, "As Christians we are called by the Lord not to withdraw from the world but to be in it, living as salt and light in it, rejoicing in all that is good in human society, and committing ourselves to make a difference in our own small way in whatever calling we are placed by the Lord." Anyone familiar with Mark Heard's life and art will understand how this message must've resonated with him.
|Edith & Francis Schaeffer|
The L'Abri Statements encourage giving "honest answers to honest questions in such a way that the unbeliever may be faced with the truth claims of Christianity," stating that "Because Christianity is the truth, people should not be afraid to ask the questions which trouble them...There will always be good and sufficient answers available for those who seek with an open heart and mind. This is so, whether we desire to show that a Biblical worldview makes sense of life in a way that no other worldview does, or whether we wish to defend the historical truth of the Biblical revelation."
"I think many Christians have doubts but are afraid to admit it," Heard said. "We Christians like so much to appear full of faith to others that we can suffer with unexpressed doubts. But doubt and questions are not sin in themselves, rather they can act as a warning system that lets us know our roots aren't deep enough. Reason and faith are not opposed to one another, they should go hand in hand. We shouldn't be afraid of our intellect—it's another part of God's image which He gave us in creation. I have heard people say that reason leads to agnosticism, but I don't think that is necessarily the case. It was the other way around for me—it led to faith."
Heard continued: "I think that for most questioners, there may always be some element of doubt, but if God tells us to love Him with all our hearts and souls and minds, then surely that must be possible. Surely the axiom of seek-and-ye-shall-find must apply satisfactorily. That has been my experience."
|Dr. Francis Schaeffer|
January 30, 1912 – May 15, 1984
About midway through Mark Heard's career, in the liner notes for his 1984 record, Ashes and Light, he wrote, "This album is dedicated to the memory of Francis A. Schaeffer, whose love for truth and whose understanding of the arts has helped me more than I can say, in my desire to interweave the two."
[By the way, Francis Schaeffer passed away in 1984 and should in no way be confused with his son, the hyper-partisan leftist bomb thrower Frank Schaeffer.]
Heard made some interesting - and somewhat disturbing - comments based on his time spent in Switzerland: "A few of the people I've talked to don't really like Americans. They see us as a bunch of people with John Wayne masks on. This, oddly, gives me hope that they won't make all our mistakes here. There are as yet no Christian record labels—everyone has to compete in the same marketplace, and I envy the healthiness of that. We lost it long ago back home when the Great Religious Segregation occurred. But I think the strength of the American market will eventually burgeon in here with all its ugliness and affect the way they see things. I just wish the beautiful Swiss could remain isolationists a bit longer and maintain their own style."
Heard and his wife Janet would maintain a close relationship with the people at L'Abri for years.
At some point, Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill got within earshot of Mark and were introduced to him by Pat Terry. "Randy and I were at a retreat and just happened to hear Mark," said Larry Norman. "We only heard one song but we just looked at each other and nodded. It was like finding a long-lost brother."
"It was 1976," remembers Randy Stonehill. "I just remember this sort of shy, quiet Georgia boy with way too much curly brown hair. We came outside and he took his guitar out and he sat on this wooden fence, and he started playing. And I looked at Larry and he looked at me, and I just shook my head and said, 'This guy is the genuine article.' It was just like finding a treasure."
|Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman|
Larry Norman requested a demo tape. So Heard spent nearly every waking minute over the next month or so recording a demo at Pat Terry's studio.
"Mark was living in Smyrna, Georgia (my hometown) during this period," Terry recalls, "and he did a lot of recording in my home studio which ended up being sent out to Larry. Most people don't know this, but Mark was somewhat of a woodworker and made some furniture back in those days. Not fine furniture, but kind of rustic pieces that were actually very cool. He built a console for my home studio that held my mixer and had racks for outboard gear, etc. This was all set up in the den at my mom's house, where I was still living when I wasn't on the road. I engineered some of these demos for Mark, and sometimes if I was out doing concerts, I'd just turn the studio over to Mark and he'd work there by himself. My mom used to tell the story of hearing Mark singing harmony parts. He had headphones on, of course, so she wasn't hearing the track he was singing to. I'm sure it sounded odd as a result. She found it amusing to hear him 'caterwauling' as she called it...'going way up high, and then way down low.' Pretty funny, especially if you knew my mom."
The result of that demo was that Mark Heard went to California to make a record. A real one this time. And not for just any label. Heard became an artist on Larry Norman's Solid Rock Records.
By this time, Mark had married his longtime sweetheart, Janet. They were described as "a sweet, soft-spoken couple, almost retiring at times...remarkably well-traveled, well-read and self-sufficient." Janet was good with her hands, things like spinning wool and knitting. She also accompanied Mark on many of his travels. The couple relocated from Georgia to Glendale, California ("my wife and I moved to Los Angeles, and we are now helping rid the city of smog by breathing regularly," Heard deadpanned). Mark went to work on his Solid Rock debut. He worked...and he worked...and he worked on it...for about two or three YEARS.
|Norman and Heard in the studio|
"Yeah, after Mark moved to L.A. and started working with Larry at Street Level, he worked on Appalachian Melody a long, long time," Pat Terry told me recently. In what may be the understatement of the year, Pat said, "For reasons that weren't always clear, Larry had a history of dragging out some projects and delaying releases. Mark's album fell into that category." Pat recalls that Mark was "amazingly patient" during that time but did become frustrated by the delays and lack of communication. "I think by the time the album was released he'd already started moving on creatively and was well on his way to his next musical incarnation," Terry surmises.
|The Solid Rock artist roster, late 70s.|
Mark Heard is standing next to Larry Norman, arms folded.
I've mentioned this before, but each new Solid Rock release was cause for celebration. Invariably, these projects on Larry Norman's label were intelligently written, expertly recorded, well performed, and came in a gatefold cover complete with captivating photography, lengthy liner notes, and an extensive interview with the artist. It usually took a while for them to find their way to store shelves...but they were well worth the wait. Appalachian Melody was no exception. Whatever his faults, you've got to give Larry Norman his due when it came to production, packaging, and promotion.
The familiar words "Larry Norman presents" printed just above Heard's name on the front cover was enough to sell the album as far as I was concerned. [Larry Norman is given the producer credit, with Mark Heard listed as co-producer, though it's been said that Heard basically produced the album himself.] When I got it home and gave it a spin, I remember being surprised that this album was more mellow than most Solid Rock albums; with repeated listenings, however, it quickly became a favorite.
|The Solid Rock gang. Heard is 2nd from left, kneeling.|
Musically, Appalachian Melody presents an "acoustic minimalism," featuring beautiful melodies, thoughtful lyrics, and what one reviewer called a "gentle-breeze-back-to-nature-vibe." There was a healthy measure of the kind of late-seventies-soft-rock that Norman and Stonehill could perform in their sleep, but most of the songs were built on the framework of Heard's acoustic guitars. Appalachian Melody was more whimsical than Heard's later work, with humor surfacing throughout the record, but Heard's sensitive side was also showing. He had already noticed that all was not well with the world...but he had not yet chosen to dwell on that. Appalachian Melody was not as critically-acclaimed or hard-hitting as his later works, but it also wasn't as grim, either. And it was infinitely more accessible. It should not be overlooked or so easily dismissed by the cool kids.
The album begins with On the Radio, a rocker that accomplishes a very difficult task: it delivers a scathing indictment with a smile. On the Radio is a brutal commentary on the mainstream, commercial radio industry of the late 70s (Christian music radio was in its infancy)...and it's funny at the same time. I guess if you're going to punch someone in the face, you might as well do it with good humor, right? We hear the familiar voices of Randy Stonehill and Larry Norman during the song intro, before things really get moving.
Bands, DJs, and record label executives are all skewered by Heard in this song that rocks as hard as anything on the album. He bemoans the fact that the radio gatekeepers have the power to set trends, the short attention span of the Top 40 listening audience, and the high salaries of the Suits and Ties at the record labels...
Greenback band of the hour / Setting half the trends we know
They've got the power / They're on the radio
Flap-trap terminal D.J. / Repeating everything he knows
He picks the hits / Hey, he's on the radio
Just by flipping one button / You got an instant song
You needn't try to learn it / 'Cause no one'll like it long
Hark to the three-word poet / Making up the words as he goes
But you'd never know it / 'Cause he's on the radio
Bigwigs in ivory towers / Gotcha forty songs to play
You can hear them every hour / While they're laughing to the bank each day
Play it to me over and over / Play it in your car on the go
Play it on the jukebox / Play it on the radio
Pay no mind what you're playing / But turn it up a whole lot more
Be like your D.J. / Be like your radio
It sounds like the Solid Rock gang had a blast recording this one - similar to the party vibe I got from I'm Just A Record by Pantano/Salsbury.
It's interesting that Heard opened a "CCM" album, in 1979 mind you, with a song that wasn't overtly faith-based at all, just an observation about an aspect of secular life with which he apparently took issue. And I don't remember anyone having a problem with that. In fact, about half of the songs on this record are just observations on life, without a blatantly "Christian" message. And that's OK. I don't remember reading a single review that complained about that, and yet he seemed defensive about that issue for the rest of his life. Maybe he was getting hate mail that we didn't know about? I don't know. But he (like other artists in his circle of friends and influence) definitely carried with him a persecution complex related to that issue. I've never heard anybody say, "I didn't like On the Radio because it wasn't about Jesus."
By the way, as a guy who ended up becoming a flap-trap terminal DJ, I just want to make it clear that I do not hold a grudge against Mark for this song. [Insert laughing face emoji here.]
Next up was a highlight of this album...and a song that has stood the test of time. Heard delivers a great vocal performance on Castaway. The overdubbed harmony parts that he sings with himself are particularly effective.
You've come a'walking with a scar on your soul / Taking too much too lightly
And it is no wonder that you're feeling so cold / Shivering so politely
You stand a'looking with a hurt in your eye / Grey in the sky above you
You'll feel much better if you go on and cry / You've found Somebody who will love you
Castaway, castaway / You can find your way
Castaway, castaway / It will be okay
Or maybe not.
"Yes, a lot of people compared Mark's early work to James Taylor," Pat Terry told me, "and it's true Mark was a Taylor fan and was influenced by his writing and guitar style. When Mark was a student at the University of Georgia he was a photographer for the college paper and took some shots of Taylor when he played a show at the school. I have a print of one of those shots that is really nice. Anyway, Mark met James and was too shy to converse very much, which was true to form for Mark in those days. A friend who was with Mark at this meeting told James that she had a friend (referring to Mark) who was a musician, and she asked if James had any advice to give this person. Taylor said very seriously, 'Tell him, don't sell. Don't sell out.' Mark told me that story and was very grave about it. I don't think that was a new concept for Mark, but it certainly confirmed something that he'd already been grappling with. As time went on, that struggle became one of the hallmarks of Mark's personality and ran as a thread through all his writing and recording. The friction he encountered in his involvement with the Christian Music industry was directly related to his desire to be true to himself and not sell out his art and his personal faith. Mark is greatly respected for his journey in that realm, but he didn't see himself as heroic in any way. His wrestling with this issue caused him great emotional pain and took a toll."
I just have to wonder, again, why Heard seemed to feel that everyone was against him. It's anecdotal, I know, but everyone in my circle of friends, and everyone I ever talked to about Heard loved his music and waited expectantly for each new album. It's true that he reinvented himself a few times and some fans probably liked certain Heard eras more than others...but I don't think he was ever widely maligned or even disliked. I know that his albums never set any sales records, so maybe the negativity that he felt was coming primarily from record label executives. Or perhaps the struggle was primarily within the man himself. After all, he once wrote, "I feel separate from the Christian music industry, but I also feel separate from the secular industry." His classic blues song Struck in the Middle had a line that lamented, I'm too sacred for the sinners / And the saints wish I would leave. He felt like he was trapped in some sort of no man's land. But did the saints really wish he would leave? I don't think so.
Bassist Flim Johnson does a really nice job on Bless My Soul, a gorgeous, easy-going ballad with, again, impressive vocals by Mr. Heard. It's clearly an invitation to someone whose heart is breaking to allow Jesus to ease the loneliness and replace the pain with comfort...to replace the old with something new. But, in typical Heard fashion, it's a message delivered carefully, gently, thoughtfully...
I know promises thought and spoken / Some are kept and some are broken
Some are sprouts the weeds are choking / Left alone to die
There are those whose hope is taken / There are those whose hearts are breaking
Surely I am not mistaken / I can hear the cry
Desperation's lonely aching / Kills the smile that you've been faking
I can feel your heartstrings breaking / I want to comfort you
Surely life is worth His dying / No more need for needless crying
No more need for deedless trying / Old is changed to new
Bless my soul / I've got something that will never grow old
Bless your heart / I know you're looking for a way to start
Bless my soul / I've got life that I can have and hold
Bless your heart / Take the new and let the old depart
Here I Am (Once Again) is a song that my brothers and I covered back in the day (and I'm sure our effort came nowhere close to the quality of Heard's original recording...but hey, we tried). This one begins with a slow acoustic guitar; when the actual song begins, it settles into a quicker tempo (reminiscent of what DeGarmo and Key did with Emmanuel on their This Time Thru album). Nice guitar work and great harmony vocals on this one. This could be interpreted as a song that's talking to the Lord; I take it as a heartfelt apology from a husband to his wife...
Once again here I am / I have been a foolish man
And I know that I've got a whole lot to learn
Help me out / Take my hand / With a loving reprimand
Without fear here I am / Once again
There are times when I don't know what to do
And so much of what I am depends on you
You understand / I knew you would / And it makes me feel so good
So here is my gratitude / Once again
How I long to make you pleased with things I do
And so much of what I am depends on you
And I know / You help me to stand / You have made me what I am
That is why / Once again / Here I am
Side One of Appalachian Melody closes with a track that I would describe as a lullaby for grown-ups. Clocking in at just 1:42, With the Setting Sun finds Heard concerned about bad news but determined to learn to be glad and bid his cares goodnight.
Mark Heard did most of the heavy lifting on this album, providing acoustic and electric guitars, piano, mandolin, vocals and "hambone." Norman and Stonehill were listed in the credits as providing oohs and aahs. Tom Howard played his Fender Rhodes and orchestrated a few songs. Jon Linn was on lead guitar, Flim Johnson on bass, and Peter Johnson played drums. Additional musicians included the great Al Perkins on pedal steel and dobro, Chuck Long on electric and acoustic guitars, Mr. Alex MacDougall on various percussion instruments and Janet "Brown-Eyed Sue" Heard on vocal harmonies. The album was arranged by Larry Norman and "layered" by Mark Heard.
The liner notes say it was recorded December 1977 through January 1979, with pre-production at Horse and Sandwich and the Hooey Room. Ken Suesov, George Price, John Rhys, Skip Saylor and Tom Seufert served as engineers; the record was mixed by Mark Heard and Ken Suesov using the EXR Exciter System. It was mastered at A&M by Bernie Grundman, and the photography, album artwork, etc., was by Mark Heard and Larry Norman. Additional photographs were provided by Chuck Long, Janet Heard, and David Hills.
Side Two opens with the title track, another highlight of the album. Many people pull this one out every year and listen to it sometime around the first of October. It's Mark Heard's love song to autumn...and it's a beauty. The line But these things are music to my eyes was almost worth the price of the album.
"Mark loved and appreciated beauty--especially in the supposedly 'simple' things," said Matt Dickerson, author of a book called Hammer and Nails: the Life and Music of Mark Heard. "He never grew tired or ceased to be in awe of the wonders of nature. He had a beautiful butterfly collection which he put together over the years and kept under glass. Quite a treasure. I guess if he was driving along and saw a beautiful mountain, or flower, or butterfly he'd make his family stop so he could get out and look or take a picture."
Heard used words to create the pictures in this peaceful, classic song...
Appalachian melody drifting softly down / Instruments of gold and red and brown
Do not need no dulcimer or banjo-fiddle sound
For right now I'll watch these leaves come down
For right now I'll watch these leaves come down
Such a pretty song I see, have I been beguiled / This day is not imagination's child
Every time the leaves come down I've just got to smile
For they sing a melody so mild
How peculiar liking old dead leaves against the sky
There is something more than meets the eye
Funny how I sit and watch these leaves come down from high
But these things are music to my eyes
"Sounds are indeed like colors," Heard once said, "and my hunger for a truer palette of colors grows day to day."
Next up was a super-short piece of comic relief, a vocal-only song called Happy Cornbread Anniversary. Historian Ken Scott said it seemed to feature Randy Stonehill on “living horns” (which sound suspiciously like armpit farts). It's a fun piece that shows Heard's playful side. I used to play it on my radio show, Rock of Ages, whenever I was called on to send out an anniversary greeting.
From "happy anniversary" to a beautiful wedding song...Two Trusting Jesus. No doubt it's been sung at lots of wedding ceremonies over the decades (in fact, I remember singing this one at my brother's wedding once upon a time). The instrumental break had Tom Howard's fingerprints all over it, but Heard's simple picture of Christian marriage was the star of the show...
Two trusting Jesus / There begins the story
Two separate pathways / Leading to glory
With God's Son / One and one
Two eternal lives begun
Two trusting Jesus / Are two within His care
Two trusting Jesus / Kneeling now together
Two separate prayers / They're now one prayer together
In God's Son / Two are one
Let the Master's will be done
Two trusting Jesus / Are one within His care
The very funny Jonah's Song is up next.
This album and 1980's Fingerprint would best capture Heard's humorous side. In addition to some very serious moments, there was definitely a goofy streak, a childlike joy running through the album. Sadly, this element would be largely missing from Heard's work from Stop the Dominoes forward (with rare exceptions). With lines like these, Jonah's Song was described by one reviewer as "wickedly funny"...
...So he paid his fare and he bought him a ticket
Said, "If preaching is a habit, this the best way to kick it"...
Said, "If preaching is a habit, this the best way to kick it"...
...So He sent a fat fish that was big and bold
And it grabbed old Jonah and it swallowed him whole
And it grabbed old Jonah and it swallowed him whole
One gulp and old Jonah had some time on his hands to think...
...So up come the fish and (erp) He spit old Jonah on the shore
From the boat to the belly from the burp to the beach
Jonah's off and running on his way to preach
You better bet them Ninevites heard the word of the Lord...
...This big fish come up and had me for lunch But I didn't mind
'Cause I repented and I taught him a song of mine
Sing it, fish...
Jonah's Song takes its place alongside a ton of CCM songs about persons in the Bible that have been written and recorded over the years - songs like Larry Norman's Moses, Pat Terry's Daniel, DeGarmo & Key's Mary, and Rich Mullins' Elijah. Jonah's Song holds its own.
Heard then shifts gears with the introspective, haunting Sidewalk Soliloquy. It's a piano-based ballad that, lyrically, would signal things to come for Heard...
Whenever I venture from my home / Why do I feel so all alone
People should laugh / People should love
I'm in a crowd a hundred strong / Watching the people walk alone
Moments of life squandered away
Maybe it's just a thing that I can't understand
Maybe I'm just a much too simple man
Whenever I smile and nod my head / Folks look at me like I was dead
What can I say / Where can I run
No one has heard me say hello / They're deaf dumb and blind for all I know
What can I do / What can be done
Maybe I'm just too soft / Too easy to bruise and scar
Maybe I've let my feelings go too far
But if I am wrong to feel this way / Then I am wrong most every day
What can I do / What can I say
Once there was One Who spoke of this / He told us why it's like it is
And we're all to blame / It's such a shame
Next up was a bluegrass and Gospel-influenced song called The Last Time. We'll save that one for later. And then the album closes with another novelty track, The Saints, which is 24 seconds of Heard & company "playing" When the Saints Go Marching In with "mouth horns."
In their review, CCM Magazine called the album "a bonafide winner" and a "quality package from Mark Heard."
"I still appreciate [Appalachian Melody], but in my opinion Mark had yet to really find his voice," offered Pat Terry, "and you can hear him feeling around for a style that could become his own."
He did indeed try on several different styles and personas before landing on the Country/Folk/Americana style of his final three albums. Fingerprint, Stop the Dominoes, Victims of the Age and Eye of the Storm featured some amazing music - unique perspectives on faith as well as observations on everyday life. But along the way, Heard's lyrics became darker and more negative. It's often been said that he began to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, as if mankind's shortcomings were a burden that he felt he had to bear. "His heart broke over the grievous condition of modern man," wrote Doug Wheeler in the Mars Hill Review, "and he was admittedly thirsty for eternal liberation from the ugly bondage of sin." He was describing a human condition that he apparently viewed as increasingly grim and depressing. So it's no wonder that his lyrics took a more negative direction.
It's been said that Heard's music was "philosophical to a degree uncommon in contemporary music" and that it "consistently integrated the sacred and the profane..." Which might help to explain why the cash registers weren't always humming. Hey, some people really dig philosophy. They enjoy a deep dive into a song, trying to decipher the hidden meaning behind the poetry...and maybe they enjoy mixing "the sacred and the profane." But what if most people don't? If your livelihood depends on playing gigs and selling records, that might be a problem. A website that pays tribute to Heard's memory says "he tells the human story with all its brokenness and fear, leaving the listener battered and bruised..." Well, a lot of people listen to music for comfort or as an escape. Maybe they didn't want to be battered and bruised by reminders of brokenness and fear. Mark's music, while deservedly praised for authenticity and honesty, didn't always make people feel good about themselves or the world around them. People tend to buy music that makes them feel good. If people aren't buying the music, record companies are more hesitant to pay for more albums to be recorded. Maybe it was just math.
It was enough to cause Mark to wonder aloud whether he should just put his guitar down and try something else:
"I wish sometimes that I just didn't have to think about any of this, and could drone away my life. It would be easier. I have worked in a factory, and one becomes a bit hypnotized after some time to the point where all one can think about is going home, watching TV, having a beer and going to bed—so the cycle may be repeated. The music business can be like this, but I find myself ever thankful that I have not lost the resonances inside when the music is right. I have no idea how we have made ends meet thus far, as I am rather useless in other areas. But increasingly, writing brings about a catharsis of my own terror and pity. It is something I have to do."
"I could tell he was really frustrated at how kept down he had been by the business, every aspect of the business," his friend and fellow artist Tonio K said. "And I didn't know what to tell him. 'Cause it's a bitch, the business."
While Heard was and is still revered by many of his peers, that's just too small a group. As a result, his music has never caught the attention of the music buying public at large, or even a substantial slice of those who purchase Christian music.
Heard often complained that Christian music was insular, that Christian musicians were just speaking to themselves and singing to those already in the club. But he ended up in a similar situation, basically playing inside a bubble. Toward the end of his life (and since his death) his music resonated strongest inside an echo chamber of like-minded people (who tended to be both political and religious liberals). By the way, the religious left subculture that works hardest to guard Heard's legacy and keep his memory alive seems much larger as I write this in 2018 than it was when Heard was struggling to earn a living in the early 1990s. And with the advent of the internet and social media, that subset has grown increasingly vocal and shrill. Heard's most ardent supporters tend to all think alike, worship alike (if at all), and vote alike. We could use some diversity of thought in the Mark Heard Fan Club. But I digress.
Heard was said to be shy and often aloof when it came to personal interactions. But he certainly found his voice when writing or sitting for interviews. He expressed many strong, interesting and/or controversial opinions.
As part of the extensive interview that appeared inside the packaging of Appalachian Melody, Heard flatly said that music cannot glorify God (although people can). I think Scripture says otherwise. And anyone who's ever been to a Phil Keaggy concert would probably also agree that music can indeed glorify God.
He also promulgated a popular (but misguided) analogy concerning the relationship between music and ministry. Only, instead of the usual plumber, Heard used a tire salesman:
"...I don't believe God wants every Christian who plays an instrument to try and form a ministry from it. After all, you don't expect a tire salesman to form a ministry with his expertise on tread design as the basis."
Does God specifically call every Christian musician to form a ministry around his talent? Of course not. But it is true that songs convey thoughts, attitudes, philosophies, and worldviews that have the potential to inspire, influence, educate and persuade. The same cannot be said of rotating tires or repairing a flat (as important as those things are). That analogy does not hold up. On the other hand, all believers can be salt and light in the world anytime, anywhere...even on the job, no matter what that job happens to be. My wife is a driving instructor and shares Jesus with her students all the time. Simply talking to another human being, from your heart, about who the Lord is and what He's done in your life doesn't have to be officially labeled as "Ministry." I'm not sure why this issue has tripped up so many artists over the years whose mantra became "We're not preachers." Nobody's asking them to be preachers. But they can share their faith. In fact, Jesus commanded all of us to do so.
Heard was spot on when he said that all of life can give glory to God:
"I like to write songs about things which cause me to glimpse the worth of God. Sometimes that might be the ocean, sometimes it is love for my wife, sometimes it can be absurdly simple things. After all, we shouldn't search for a spiritually symbolic rationalization for every activity we enter into. It is not evil to enjoy a good laugh or a hike in the Sierras for what they are. The more we understand these 'ordinary' things, the more we see that they are not ordinary at all, but great things, created as such and simply taken for granted by us..."
And he nailed it when he explained that we are creative beings because we were created in God's image:
"It is a God-given pleasure to do something creative. When God created the universe, He sat back and rested and looked and said, 'It is good.' He gives us the same ability as well, though quite obviously on a different level."
And he was passionate about imploring his fellow Christians to love - really love - people:
"We must learn to understand the worldviews of those around us and not be so smug in our separatism, especially in education. We must understand why the world believes the things it believes. We must go beyond the point of simply confirming the sin of every man—we must get specific, and use our minds like never before. We must care for the people. If we don't do these things, we can't really offer any good criticism in their eyes-we will only continue to condescend. Any parrot or chimpanzee can mimic what he has heard or seen. but we Christians in the 80's need to learn how to think for ourselves. When we begin to see God's Truth as the actual truth, not just as something we know because we wrote it down in our notebooks, we will be able to carry our faith on to its proper conclusions. We will learn how to really love God and our neighbors, and ourselves."
The only time I ever saw Mark Heard live was at Cornerstone 1990, just two years before his death. I remember walking into the "merch" building one day to see Larry Norman and Mark Heard talking at a make-shift sales table (Heard was on the schedule; Norman was not.) They were laughing and smiling and seemed to be having a good time catching up. Heard had undergone a makeover of sorts and had grey hair, glasses, and a goatee. It took a few moments to recognize him. I remember thinking that he looked like a liberal college professor. I was hoping to hear some familiar songs when he played on the Main Stage...maybe some stuff from 'Dominoes' or 'Victims.' Or maybe just a song or two from Appalachian Melody or Eye of the Storm. Nope. I didn't recognize a single song he played that day. It was probably all stuff from Dry Bones Dance. He had turned that Americana corner and he wasn't going back.
|Mark Heard, Main Stage, Cornerstone '90|
Heard supplemented his income by recording and producing other artists. The list is long of people he worked with: John Austin, Michael Been (the Call), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), The Choir, Jacob's Trouble, Olivia Newton-John, Phil Keaggy, Pierce Pettis, Leslie (Sam) Phillips, Randy Stonehill, Pat Terry, Vigilantes of Love, and others.
As has already been mentioned, he spent the early 1990s recording what is now referred to as a trilogy of critically acclaimed Americana projects - Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand and Satellite Sky. A 2001 book called CCM Presents the 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music, compiled by Thom Granger, features four Heard-related albums. They have 1982's Victims of the Age at #32; Dry Bones Dance from 1990 made their list at #29. A Mark Heard tribute titled Orphans of God came in at #25; and 1991's Second Hand was listed by CCM Magazine critics as the 4th greatest album in the history of Christian music. No doubt had Heard lived to see the book, he would've been somewhat rankled to have been included on a list of music specifically designated as "Christian." But he might've also been pleasantly surprised to find that he was receiving so much love and respect from CCM Magazine.
At the time of his death, he had just been included on a sampler from Windham Hill's High Street label and was reportedly on the verge of signing a mainstream deal with True North Records out of Canada.
Heard has been the subject of no fewer than three tribute albums. There have been tribute albums for Andrae Crouch, Petra, Steve Taylor, Stryper and two for Keith Green. But Heard is the only Christian artist I'm aware of with three (and one of those, Orphans of God, was a 2-record set). All three projects focus almost exclusively on Heard's final three albums, virtually ignoring anything that came before 1990. There have been several projects of previously unreleased material as well as a book on Heard's life and music. In 2005, the Americana Music Association gave its Song of the Year Award posthumously to Mark Heard for the song Worry Too Much. Buddy Miller accepted the award on behalf of Heard.
Mark Heard was laid to rest at Riverside Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. His headstone includes the Scripture reference Isaiah 57:1 and 2...
The righteous perish,
and no one takes it to heart;
the devout are taken away,
and no one understands
that the righteous are taken away
to be spared from evil.
Those who walk uprightly
enter into peace;
they find rest as they lie in death.
The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
Then lay down stone cold in some forgotten fields
Those lines are from one of Mark's songs, I Just Wanna Get Warm.
Doug Wheeler of the Mars Hill Review wrote, "I am deeply comforted to know that Mark's wrestling is over and that he has found the Paradise that he so longed for."
Eerily, the last full song on Appalachian Melody, a country song called The Last Time, previewed the end of Mark Heard's life. It was something to which he alluded in many of his songs. It was almost like he knew something was up...long before it happened.
This could be the last time I awake / This could be the last breath that I take
This could be the last time that I pray / This could be the day I fly away
This could be the last time I sing a song / This could be the day I say so long
This could be the last meal that I eat / This could be the last beat my heart beats
But I can't place such a bet / So I won't just sit and fret
Until I'm gone / I'm gone
This could be the last day my eyes see / This could be the last day you see me
This could be the last night in my bed / This could be the last thought in my head
I won't cast my life to the wind / I'll treasure as much as I can
While I can / I can
Though I may be gone before too long / As long as I am here I'll sing this song
This could be the last time...
"The Lord did bless us with his 40 years on earth," said his mother, Jean. "There's not a room in my house that doesn't have some of his handiwork in it - photos, cross-stitch, fish prints, silk-screen prints, etc., as well as LPs, CDs and cassettes. He always reminded us that he couldn't write just what people wanted to hear - he had to write what came out."
"When I was asked to take part in the Mark Heard Benefit Concert in Nashville," singer/songwriter Bob Bennett remembers, "they gave me the obligatory laminate-all-access backstage pass. I had that clipped next to my living room stereo for a good couple years after that and would be reminded by that little artifact of Mark and his work. Then one day the thought crossed my mind that Mark himself unexpectedly got issued the ultimate laminate-all-access backstage-pass. Now, whenever I have to pin one of those things on, he invariably crosses my mind.''
"After all these years," Pierce Pettis said, "and all the talented and genuinely amazing people I've run across - no one impresses me, cracks me up or inspires me like Mark Heard still does."
"I think he would be greatly surprised that so many people have taken his music to heart since his death," said his friend Pat Terry. "Personally speaking, I believe Mark was indeed the most important and gifted writer to come out of the ranks of the Christian movement of the 70's."
"In so many unspoken ways, Mark Heard helped me to recognize what was valuable," said Randy Stonehill. "He inspired me to dig deeper both as a writer and a communicator. He helped me to remember where the gifts come from and who you serve, just by the way he conducted himself with integrity and authenticity."
"When you can see through the fog for an instant, and you understand haltingly and briefly what good is, and how God is connected with that, it cannot help but put a hell of a perspective on things you perceive as problems, and help you discover multiple ways in which you have been numb. For that brief moment, you feel that God's in His heaven and all's right with the world."