Chances are, you’ve never heard of John Mark Heard. Don’t worry, it’s not because you live under a rock—most, it would seem, have no idea who the Georgia-born folk rocker was, nor how indebted the modern music industry is to his body of work.
And when I write, “the modern music industry,” I don’t mean the pop singers who hog the limelight and the headlines, I’m talking about the real movers and shakers, the songwriters and producers who have raised the bar and built the pedestals on which many of those pop icons stand. People like Phil Keaggy, who is consistently ranked among the greatest guitarists to have ever lived, or renowned Canadian export and rebel folkster Bruce Cockburn, who famously called Heard “America’s best songwriter.” People like Pierce Pettis, of whom Oscar-winning composer Justin Paul of Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land fame once said, “Sometimes I have to stop listening to a Pierce Pettis track halfway through because he makes me want to give up on songwriting,” or legendary Nashville artist and producer Buddy Miller, known for producing albums for Grammy Award winners like Shawn Colvin or the late Dr. Ralph Stanley.
These are the kinds of individuals who feel no small debt of gratitude to Heard, which is likely why all of them (and many others) have turned up to help produce multiple Mark Heard tribute albums over the years. Miller’s cover of Heard’s song “Worry Too Much” was awarded Song of the Year at the 4th Annual Americana Music Association Honors and Awards. Mark Heard, it could be said, is the inspiration behind the inspiration, a true songwriter’s songwriter, in many regards the man who, in his forty short years on earth, left his indelible mark on people who went on to become “greats” in their own right. How different might the state of the industry be—especially the hopelessly self-aware and often offensively simple-minded “contemporary Christian music” scene—had Mark Heard not been called home in the late summer of 1992?
In 1998, Pierce Pettis gave an interview with J. Robert Parks. During that interview, he told the following story:
I sat down the other night with the drummer for a band that has sold maybe 20 or 30 million records. This is somebody you would definitely have heard of, and this guy was over at my house—wonderful guy—and he was talking about how he was so burned out and that music has gotten so processed and predictable. I said, “Let me turn you on to Mark Heard,” and I put on [Heard’s album] Satellite Sky; and I have never seen a person fall in love with a record. That’s what Mark’s music does. There was no agenda with Mark. He just wrote great music.
In that same interview, Pettis remembered Heard as “a very funny man with a great, great sense of humor” who “had an amazing ability to be spontaneous no matter how tired he was” and “could not stand phoniness, he wouldn’t tolerate it.”
It was actually on stage with Pettis and Kate Miner that Heard suffered a heart attack while performing in 1992. Ever the immaculate musician, he finished his set before heading to the hospital. He entered cardiac arrest two weeks later and died on August 16—thirty years ago today. Pettis’s long-standing admiration of his friend is even more pronounced when you realize that every album he has released since 1993 opens with a cover of a Mark Heard song.
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of discovering Mark Heard understands exactly what Pettis is talking about in that Parks interview. Personally, I do not have a musical bone in my body (though I do regret not taking the time to learn how to play the banjo from my grandfather), but I do love the sound of music and have quite varied and eclectic tastes. And I, for one, remember being “turned on” to Mark Heard back in 2015 by one of my professors at the Moody Bible Institute.
Since then, I have been firmly in Cockburn’s camp, recognizing Heard as very likely the greatest songwriter I have come across, or at the very least the greatest lyricist. I can still remember the lyrics that first made me sit up and pay attention to what the man was doing: “I’m old enough to know that dreams are quickly spent / Like a pouring rain on warm cement / Or fingerprints in dust / Nectar on the wind / Save them for tomorrow and tomorrow lets you down again.”
That, folks, is not songwriting—it is poetry. Heard had a way of taking words and organizing them, arranging them into images in such a way that when they permeate your ears, you sort of forget you’re listening to music. He consistently wrote the antithesis of the much discussed and pre-programmed “earworm” that so many modern songs employ; no, Heard wrote songs that did not have to try and interest you because they were just interesting songs, plain and simple. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves—Heard unashamedly put his into his lyrics. Perhaps that is why it gave out all too soon.
The strength of Heard’s lyrics and the power of his haunting imagery likely comes from the fact that he refused to be just another “cultural Christian.” He dared to question his convictions, to step into and embrace doubt—and in turn became a stronger believer for it, reinforcing the conviction of Frederick Buechner that “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Many in the twenty-first century would do well to pay attention to Heard, who understood the struggle facing the younger generations at the end of the twentieth century when he wrote, “Caught between these voices / The sirens and the sage / One too many choices / For the victims of the age.” With globalization and the increasing stranglehold that technology has on the cultural landscape (an Internet and social media “influencer” is apparently a real job now), that struggle has only amplified.
This fearlessness is probably what led him to L’Abri, a criminally underrated Christian sanctuary and study center founded by theologians Francis and Edith Schaeffer in Huémoz-sur-Ollon, Switzerland in 1955. The doors of L’Abri remain open to this day, touted as a “shelter for honest questions” where “individuals have the opportunity to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life.” Heard traveled to Switzerland in the mid-1970s to study under Schaeffer for two years.
“I have a lot of U. S. Christians tell me, ‘Oh, you go to Europe? It’s a horrible secular society. They are all atheists!’,” Heard once remarked in an interview with CCM Magazine. “But it’s not any worse than the United States. We just have smiling, yellow happy faces everywhere to help us think God is involved somehow. But this is still a secular society. It’s still based on non-theistic presuppositions.”
His time at L’Abri, combined with his cutting cultural analysis and pluckiness, shaped the fledgling songwriter into an intellectual and creative force to be reckoned with when he returned to America and moved to California with his wife, Janet, in 1977. But the real value of his music comes from the unpretentiousness that Pettis comments on. Heard approached neither theology nor songwriting strictly as a philosopher, but as an honest human being outraged by a widespread lack of common sense and a desire to tell the truth about himself, his doubts, his beliefs, and what was both sacred and profane. An antidote to both hopeless secularism and blind, unreflective faith, many of his songs seemingly exist to grab listeners by the lapels and shake them awake.
Consider, for example, the lyrics of “The Winds of Time”: “It takes more than mindless passion / It takes more than dogma in mine / It takes more than virtuous fashion / To withstand the winds of time.” Or look at the lyrics to “One of the Dominoes,” which opens with the plea, “Heaven help a timid child in a trendy tide.” In the same interview with CCM Magazine, Heard explained of this song, “When Christians hear ‘Dominoes,’ they tend to think, ‘That’s talkin’ about the world out there and the other people.” His next statement, however, makes clear his wide-reaching intent and universal appeal. “But, actually, I’m also talking about Christians and Christian songs because many times we pick up our values in the same way. When something new comes along, we don’t think… That’s not mental or intellectual knowledge. We don’t take the information that comes in and process it before it comes out of our mouths.”
Despite being largely forgotten by the masses, Heard’s flame still flickers in the dim corners of the music industry. This is due in no small part to the aforementioned tribute albums (the most recent of which was released in 2017), as well as the attention of other well-known singers with ties to the Christian faith, such as fourteen-time Grammy Award-winner Emmylou Harris and the late Rich Mullins. Like Mullins, though he was frequently lumped in with the contemporary Christian musicians of his day, Heard was something of a nonconformist, and to relegate him to the pages of ’80s “Christian rock” does his legacy a great disservice. His music was infinitely more thoughtful than that, and the memory of him more deserving.
More than the songs for which he is predominantly known, such as “Orphans of God,” the entire corpus of Heard’s musical library is overdue for rediscovery. How desperate we are for a voice like Heard’s in this day and age, with the changing tides of religion and the decline of Christianity in America. One can only speculate at how vastly different the landscape of modern music—and not just Christian music—might look had Heard been granted more than twenty years of active music production. Less driven by “mindless passion” probably, and certainly more thoughtful and poetical.
In his personal journal, Heard once wrote, “Maps hide cities / Cities hide houses / Houses hide faces / Faces hide hearts / But hearts still beat quietly / Few feel even their own pulse / But hearts are made to beat.”
This was, perhaps, the man’s greatest conviction. It permeates practically every lyrical stanza that he ever wrote. If the great problem of the modern age is disillusionment and, as Francis Schaeffer himself argued, detachment from reality, then Heard’s music is the defibrillator meant to help us feel our own pulse again. And the great gift of music ensures that, though the man’s own heart gave out thirty years ago, it nevertheless beats on, shocking us awake and pulling us toward the God who imbues us with a sense of meaning and truth.
Beat on, Mark. Beat on.