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A Tribute to Mark Heard

When an artist dies prematurely, friends an admirers often make at least a half-hearted attempt to make him sound more legendary than he really was. It's good manners, if nothing else. But the involvement of such recording artists as Bruce Cockburn, Tonio K., Victoria Williams and The Call's Michael Been on Strong Hand of Love, the first in a series of planned tributes to the late Mark Heard, suggests something more than mere duty may be at work among Heard's mourners.

"If the music wasn't good, I wouldn't bother anybody," says Dan Russell, executive producer and co-founder with Heard of the record company behind the album, Fingerprint. "I do want to raise some money for Mark's family. That's how artists make their money, selling records."

"But another thing, when you know something that's great and really healthy and something that can be really stimulating in a positive way, you end up telling people about it. And that's how I view Mark Heard. There's not a lot of that around. There aren't many records that, from start to finish, offer you a lot of substance. Mark's music does."

For the record, people have been heaping praise on Heard and his music since long before he died. Although On Turning To Dust, his humble 1978 debut, attracted little attention, his next album, the Larry Norman co-produced Appalachian Melody found Heard on the none-too-crowded forefront of thinking Christian musicians, a position that the electric one-two punch of Stop The Dominoes (1981) and Victims Of The Age (1982) solidified. Even Billboard chimed in with praise for Victims with a review that likened Heard to Lindsey Buckingham and never let on that Heard was "religious."

But, as Russell points out, neither was Heard a pop songwriter. "He wasn't a very superficial person when it came to his lyrics and his thinking. And his performance was quite melodic and soulful, making him an inspiration to a lot of singer-songwriters, as is the testimony of all these people who contributed."

In addition to Williams, Been, Tonio K. and Cockburn - whose luminous performance of the title track, incidentally, doesn't bat cleanup for nothing - Strong Hand's 19 tracks feature many renditions worthy of Heard's own soulful, melodic spirit. Fans of Phil Keaggy will recognize "I Always Do" from Keaggy's Sunday's Child, fans of Rich Mullins will recognize "How To Grow Up Big and Strong" from his A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band, and fans of Pierce Pettis will recognize "Nod Over Coffee" from his Chase The Buffalo album (or think they will - it's actually the radio single edit).

But fans of DC Talk have probably never heard the Bono impression Kevin Smith uses on "Lonely Moon" and fans of Tonio K. ("Another Day In Limbo"), Victoria Williams ("What Kind Of Friend"), Chagall Guevara ("Treasure Of The Broken Land") and The Choir ("Tip Of My Tongue") should be grateful to hear anything by them these days.

For some, Strong even serves as a re-entry into the recording world. Heard's good friend Pat Terry, after several years of writing hit country songs for other artists, turns in a warm version of "Mercy Of The Flame." And James Taylor's sister Kate, who recorded several solo albums herself years back, applies her strong, country-folk voice to a lively, Cajun arrangement of "Satellite Sky."

Then there's the cover of "Freight Train to Nowhere" by Vigilantes Of Love, a song whose rough funkiness should let Vigilantes fans know what's in store for the new VOL album, Welcome To Struggleville.

"Dan asked me if we would be willing to do that one," says head Vigilante Bill Mallonee. "I think he was looking for a really manic kind of post-punk version or something. And I said, 'Well, we could do that to it. We could play it even faster than it is on the record.' But two of the guys are form New Orleans, and they have this really Neville Brothers-New Orleans groove going on. So we took it in another direction. I like what we got, and the whole time we were doing it I kept thinking, "I bet Mark would think this is just as cool as all get out,' you know, because I think the track is really bitchin.'."

Like many of the other artists on Strong Hand, Mallonee had the pleasure of working with Heard. In Mallonee's case, Heard produced (with a little help from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) and engineered Vigilante's breakthrough album, Killing Floor

"I felt as if I knew him pretty well. Making records together, especially the kind of records we were making, is pretty much putting your heart on your sleeve. Mark had a lot of respect for the music and was very verbal about that to me, and I was the same way back to him regarding his new stuff for Fingerprint. We had a fairly intense two weeks in the studio together."

Like Russell, and others, Mallonee had known of Heard for years. "I remember I owned a copy of Appalachian Melody and was fairly impressed with that. It kind of seemed like a Christian version of James Taylor or something."

In keeping with that, Strong Hand finds Bruce Carroll, no stranger to the "Christian-version-of-James-Taylor" tag himself performing "Castaway" in a very Taylor-sequel manner. But those who've read Heard's philosophically detailed liner notes from his early albums know that he hated it when people compared him to other performers. "I try to be an individual human being," he wrote in Stop The Dominoes, "a unique creature of God, for an audience that had become accustomed to everybody being like everybody else they're heard, so they come up afterwards to tell me who else I sound like."

When in 1983 a Campus Life critic panned Pat Terry's second Heard co-produced album, Film at Eleven, because he thought it sounded too much like a Mark Heard album, Heard wrote the editors a seven page letter. It concluded with a summary that - 11 years, many albums and two heart attacks later - still explains the secret behind the staying power of Heard's music for so many.

"There are," he wrote, "a handful of artists who don't care about expectations of the Christian market and pursue their responsibilities as artists and Christians with vigor and determination despite the fact that they will never be as popular as the sterility which besieges us. It's the thinkers who have something to say, and Pat Terry is a thinker and a unique, valid artist. Please let him speak for himself."

Writing in defense of Terry, Heard was essentially defending himself. Indeed, "let him speak for himself" seems to be the one thread uniting the stylistically divergent tracks on Strong Hand Of Love, an album that, though it uses 19 different voices, allows Heard to speak for himself on more time.

(Proceeds from Strong Hand 0f Love will benefit Heard's widow, Janet and their daughter, Rebecca)

Arsenic Ortega ( Syndicate, July 1994 )
Copyright © 1994 Syndicate Magazine