Singer, songwriter, producer
More than just an ordinary contemporary Christian musician, Mark Heard was also a singer, producer and songwriter who explored the human condition in all its complexity through his music and song lyrics. Called a "near-legendary figure in contemporary Christian music" by Billboard, Heard nevertheless escaped wide attention from mainstream critics. Much of the reason for this stemmed from his refusal to bow to the conventions of either the marketplace or the genre of contemporary Christian music. His music has reflected a quest for personal and spiritual understanding, an understanding that defies the easy answers put forth by many of his peers.
It is this depth that has helped Heard to have a lasting impact on the many Christian musicians who count him among their influences. It also often put him at odds with the Christian music industry, which has had a hard time placing him in the wider context of the marketplace. As he explained to Karen Marie Platt in a CCM interview, "My purpose isn't to write praise music. My purpose is to try and expose some of my thoughts and emotions." And with his emphasis on Christian beliefs and ideology, Heard did not find a ready place for himself in the secular music industry, either.
Mark Heard was born in 1951 in Macon, Georgia. While still in high school, he started a band called Infinity Plus Three. This group produced Heard's first recorded work, an album of Christian music, Setting Yesterday Free. This album was first released by Heard himself, and then issued in 1972 on the Spirit label. The album included a mix of covers as well as five of Heard's original compositions.
Three years after the release of Setting Yesterday Free, Heard put together his first solo album, Mark Heard, which was released on the Airborn label in 1975. That same year Heard met Larry Norman, a well-known Christian rocker and producer. With Norman's help, Heard reissued his first solo album, both on Norman's Solid Rock label and on the AB record labels, renaming it On Turning to Dust. Strongly bluegrass-flavored, this early work captured Heard still searching for the distinctive sound that would later define him. He found that sound on his next album, Appalachian Melody, where he created a country-folk-rock mode that allowed him his full range of expression.
Following his graduation from high school, Heard attended the University of Georgia. He studied biology, but found that many of his questions about life went unanswered in his biology classes. He decided to delve more deeply into a study of Christianity, and traveled to Huemoz, Switzerland, to live and study at the L'Abri Fellowship, a Christian retreat center. He stayed there for two years, reaffirming his faith under the tutelage of well-regarded Christian teacher Francis Schaeffer. While at L'Abri, Heard also recorded and released (for Swiss distribution only) an album called Fingerprint.
After returning to the United States in the early 1980s, Heard joined Chris Christian's record label, Home Sweet Home, and hit his stride with releases such as Stop the Dominoes in 1981 and Victims of the Age in 1982. Stop the Dominoes turned out to be Heard's breakthrough album, bringing him at last to the attention of the wider Christian music community with a rave review in CCM that extolled the voice and lyrical vision of this "new" artist. Victims of the Age, too, proved to be a hit with critics, and CCM named it among the ten best albums of 1982.
Much of the music on these two albums reflected a pop sensibility, and Heard soon returned to his folk roots with 1983's Eye of the Storm. This album featured Heard unplugged, playing acoustic guitar numbers that he had written earlier in his career. He followed this with Ashes and Light in 1984, which was dedicated to his late mentor, Francis Schaeffer. Mosaics in 1985 was Heard's most heavily rock-influenced album, and it was followed by two compilations of work he did with the Home Sweet Home label, one each for Heard's electric and acoustic work.
After a break from recording, during which he founded the Fingerprint record label with partner Dan Russell, Heard released an experimental album in 1987 titled Tribal Opera, under the name of Ideola. On this album he relied heavily on synthesizers, samples, and drum machines. He returned to his signature style in force with three albums widely regarded as his best work. These were Dry Bones Dance in 1990, which infused cajun and country sounds into the overall rock style, Second Hand in 1991, a mellower, more acoustic oriented album, and Satellite Sky in 1992, which many critics have hailed as Heard's crowning achievement.
On July 4, 1992, Heard was on stage performing at the Cornerstone festival when he suffered a mild cardiac infarction. He was able to keep playing, and in fact told the audience that he thought he was having a heart attack. Known for his wicked sense of humor, he wasn't taken seriously until after he finished the concert. He was taken to a hospital, where he spent a few days before being released, apparently in good health. He moved to a nearby hospital to complete his recovery, and it was there that he suffered a massive heart attack and quickly lapsed into a coma from which he never emerged. He died on August 16, 1992, at the age of 40.
Two years after Heard's death, the Fingerprint label put out a tribute album of Heard's work, reinterpreted by contemporary Christian stars and several mainstream recording artists. Called Strong Hand of Love, it was reissued as Orphans of God in 1996, also on Fingerprint, in an expanded, two-disk version.
In 2003 author Matthew Dickerson published a book about Heard titled Hammers and Nails: The Life and Music of Mark Heard, which was published by Cornerstone Press. The book drew on interviews with Heard's wife, Janet, and their daughter, Rebecca, as well as numerous friends, colleagues, and other family members. Dickerson has donated his royalties from the book to the surviving members of Heard's family. In tandem with the book, the Paste label released a companion CD called Hammers & Nails, which featured demo tracks that Heard had recorded in the late 1980s.
Mark Heard is survived by his wife and daughter, who was four years old at the time of her father's death. In addition to his work as a singer, songwriter, and musician, Heard served as producer for the work of other recording artists, including Jacob's Trouble, John Fischer, Randy Stonehill, Pat Terry, and many others.
For the Record …
Born in 1951 in Macon, GA; died on August 16, 1992; married; wife's name, Janet; children: Rebecca. Education: Attended University of Georgia and L'Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland.
Started group Infinity Plus Three in high school, c. 1970; released debut album with group, Setting Yes Free, 1972; released first solo album, Mark Heard, 1975; released album Fingerprint while studying at L'Abri Fel lowship in Switzerland, 1980; released breakthrough album Stop the Dominoes, 1981; founded Fingerprint record label, mid-1980s; released Satellite Sky, 1992.
Awards: Victims of the Age named one of the ten best albums of 1982 by CCM magazine.
Setting Yesterday Free, Spirit, 1972.
Mark Heard, Airborn, 1975.
On Turning to Dust, Solid Rock/AB, 1978.
Appalachian Melody, Solid Rock, 1979.
Fingerprint, Palmfrond, 1980.
Stop the Dominoes, Home Sweet Home, 1981.
Victims of the Age, Home Sweet Home, 1982.
Eye of the Storm, Home Sweet Home, 1983.
Ashes and Light, Home Sweet Home, 1984.
Mosaics, Home Sweet Home, 1985.
Tribal Opera (as Ideola), What? Records/A&M, 1987.
Dry Bones Dance, Fingerprint, 1990.
Second Hand, Fingerprint, 1991.
Satellite Sky, Fingerprint, 1992.
High Noon (compilation), Fingerprint, 1993.
Strong Hand of Love: A Tribute to Mark Heard, Fingerprint/Epic, 1994.
Orphans of God (tribute album), Fingerprint, 1996.
Mystery Mind (demos, live tracks, interviews), Fingerprint, 2000.
The Millennium Archives: Mark Heard (previously unreleased tracks), Home Sweet Home, 2000.
The Last Performance (live), Fingerprint, 2001.
Hammers & Nails (previously unreleased demos), Paste, 2003.
Powell, Mark Allen, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Hendrickson, 2002.
Arizona Daily Star, October 1992, p. 7F.
Billboard, September 5, 1992, p. 56; November 28, 1992, p. 32.
CCM, November 1981.
Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1994, p. 7, Tempo.
"Hammers and Nails: The Life and Music of Mark Heard," The Phantom Tollbooth, http://www.tollbooth.org/2003/books/heard.html (March 3, 2004).
L'Abri Fellowship Switzerland, http://www.labri.org/swiss/home.html (March 3, 2004).
"Mark Heard," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 3, 2004).
"Mark Heard," Cornerstone Press, http://www.cornerstonepress.com/titles/hammers/bio.html (March 3, 2004).
"Musical Time Line," Mark Heard Tribute Project, http://home.no.net/heard/archive/timeline.html (March 3, 2004).
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