Sunday, August 30, 2009


The Art of Songwriting
Mark Heard
Stop The Dominoes, Victims of the Age, Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand, Satellite Sky
Ideola (aka Mark Heard), Tribal Opera

Somewhere around 1980 on another one of those awesome trips to Lanham’s Bible Bookshop in Chattanooga, TN I spotted an album by a guy named Mark Heard. The album was Appalachian Melody. I bought the album because it happened to be recorded on the same label as Randy Stonehill’s, The Sky Is Falling.

In some ways, the album sounded a little like James Taylor. It wasn’t earth shaking or mind blowing. Just solid. But it was solid enough to make me interested…

Highlights from the album include: On The Radio, Castaway, Jonah…

It would be Mark’s next album that would make me a lifelong Mark Heard fan. In 1981 Mark released the album Stop The Dominoes. I bought it on cassette… (Hey, at least it wasn’t an eight track…) My girl friend, who would later become my wife, flipped over this album!

It was brilliant! That's not hyperbole. Musically, it could hold it’s own with anything in the marketplace. On the production side, it still holds up 27 years later. Vocally, it was spot on. But the biggest deal about this album, for anyone who took the time to listen, you knew that a major songwriter was emerging on the scene. I devoured this album. Twenty seven years later, I still know most of the lyrics to these songs…

Check out the lyrics to I’m Crying Again

Very quietly,
The world loses blood over night,
Without a fight
In the morning,
The sickness will hide in the light,
Out of sight…

Verse 3
Now and then the criminal in my skin lets out a sigh
He’d like to think he’s innocent, but he cannot tell a lie
Truth is like a knife
And I’m crying again…
And I’m crying again

These lyrics pierce… Every time I hear the lyrics to Verse 3, I get a lump in my throat, because I know that criminal is me… Heard's music frequently evoked a deep longing and ache for our redemption...

Sometimes he lyrics would pierce the commonly accepted "norms" of polite Christianity. Check out these lyrics from Stuck In The Middle

Verse 2
My brothers criticize me
Say I’m just too strange to believe
And the others just avoid me
Say my faith is so naïve
I’m too sacred for the sinners
And the saints wish I would leave

I’m stuck here in the middle
Everything is in a jam
Stuck right in the middle
Doors on both sides seem to slam
No one seems to want me
Only God will take me like I am

Highlights from the album? Well, the whole thing is amazing! It continues to be one of my favorite albums of all time. An mp3 download of the album is available on iTunes.

A year later, Mark Heard would release another masterpiece: Victims of the Age. Once again, bolstered by incredible musicianship, great production and amazing songwriting, this album still stands up approximately 28 years later.

The first time I heard these lines, I was blown away by the poetry and beauty of Heard’s description of city life.

Verse 1
Asphalt ocean roars
At islands with the rubber wheels
City kid can’t keep an even kill
Neon world says, “Gotcha!”
Heart says, “No! No! No!
Don’t be swimming in the undertow…”

Caught between these voices
The sirens and the sage
One too many choices
For the victims of the age

On the song, Faces In Cabs, Heard gave a voice to nameless people like you and me with lyrics like these:

Verse 1
Hypothetical mortal beings
Known only to themselves and God
Come and go, and play the cameo
They’re just the faces in cabs, oh yeah…

Or, if you want prophetic, just check out the lyrics to Everybody Loves A Holy War

Verse 1
Some say that God has approved of their mob
Esteeming their purposes alone
Choosing sides, with a definite pride
Taking their cause for His own

Everybody loves a holy way
Draw the line and claim divine assistance
Slay the ones who show the most resistance
Everybody loves a holy war…

Verse 2
Many's the man with the iron hand 

Supposing his own thoughts to be Divine 

He will break any bond, 'cause the other man's always wrong 

It's a handy excuse for his crimes

There's not a weak song on the entire album. A tough album to locate, fortunately, the album can be downloaded for $8 on CC Entertainment. Best $8 bucks you’ll ever spend…

Heard would continue writing… In the mid 80’s he would release another brilliant project for What? Records under the identity of Ideola. The album was titled Tribal Opera. Heard’s musical approach on this project was radically different… He played every instrument on the album. He sampled loads of sounds and blended them into an amazing modern soundscape… Lyrically, the album was another masterpiece.

Heard went on to release additional albums like Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand and Satellite Sky.

Again, one of the things that set Mark apart from most writers, was that Heard regularly conveyed a heart felt passion and longing for redemption... In many songs you can hear the longing in his voice for God to make things right (Romans 8).

Heard always shared his questions, doubts, fears and pain honestly. He never shied away from the hard stuff. But beneath the questions, fears, doubts and pain was the hope that God was eventually going to set all this stuff right.

Heard’s music so influenced my life that at my Dad’s memorial my brother and wife sang what may be Heard’s greatest lyrical masterpiece: Treasures of the Broken Land.

Treasure of the Broken Land
I see you now and then in dreams
Your voice sounds like it used to
I know you better than I knew you then
All I can say is, “I love you.”
I thought our days were commonplace
Thought they’d number in the millions
Now there’s only the aftertaste
Of circumstance that can’t pass this way again.

Treasure of the broken land
Parched earth, give up your captive ones
Waiting winds of Gabriel
Blow soon upon these hollow bones…

I saw the city at its tortured worst
And you were outside the walls there
You were relieved of a lifelong thirst
I was dry at the fountain
I knew that you could see my shame
But you were eyeless and sparing
I awoke when you called my name
I felt the curtain tearing

Treasure of the broken land
Parched earth, give up your captive ones
Waiting winds of Gabriel
Blow soon upon these hollow bones…

I can melt the clock hands down
But only in my memory
Nobody gets the second chance
To be the friend that they meant to be
I see you now and then in dreams
Your voice sounds just like it used to
I believe I will hear it again
God how I love you.

This song never fails to move me.

Tragically, Mark Heard passed away in 1992 at the age of forty. He experienced a mild heart attack while performing a set at Cornerstone Festival. He finished the set, went to the hospital and one week later had another massive heart attack.

Many say that Mark was a “poet to the poets.” He was honest, vulnerable and authentic. His music has been recorded by artists like Buddy and Julie Miller, Pierce Pettis, Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Kevin Max, Bruce Cockburn, Steve Taylor, Rich Mullins, Olivia Newton John and more. Many regard him as one of the greatest songwriter's ever...

Mark’s music is still in regular rotation on my iPod. He is without a doubt, my favorite songwriter of all time.

Until the next post in this series, you owe it to yourself to check out the terrific music of Mark Heard.

1 comment:

bluerondo said...

Did you ever see Bruce Cockburn in the 1981-1983 period in Chattanooga, TN at Covenant College? My wife & I were at that concert (Inner City Front tour I believe), and it was the best concert I've ever seen PERIOD (and I've seen a lot of them)!!!