Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 29, 2009

The Enthusiast, Vol. 1: Mark Heard & Bruce Cockburn

The mouths of the best poets / Speak but a few words
And then lay down / Stone cold in forgotten fields
Life goes on in this ant farm town / Cold to the lifeblood underfoot.
          -Mark Heard, “I Just Wanna Get Warm”

I am, perhaps above all else, an enthusiast. The more common term these days might be “fanboy”. In other words, I get excited about good music, movies, books, organizations: life-giving cultural products of many stripes and shades.

Sharing my enthusiasm, sharing information, starting up temporary or momentary fanclubs: it’s the reason I started this blog a few years back, and the main reason I keep it going. It connects me with new people, and then often exposes me to great new artists, ideas and efforts suggested by others, to continue the cycle of learning and fun.

For instance, I was telling my pal Rafiki and his MySpace friends this week about musician Mark Heard, and realized I may not have actually ever mentioned him here in my own blog. This would be criminal, of course. So here goes:

The late Mark Heard is my second-favorite songwriter …behind Bruce Cockburn, with whom he was friends. Notably, Cockburn also claimed Mark was “America’s best songwriter” (high praise, coming from a Canadian songwriter on a par with Neil Young and Joni Mitchell).  

Heard, a Georgia boy, passed away due to a heart condition in 1992, unfortunately just when he looked to be ready to break into “the big time” (relatively speaking… not U2 big, but at least Jars of Clay or Lyle Lovett big). Cockburn’s own Canadian record label was on the verge of signing him, Sony/Columbia was also interested, Mark had just played on the mainstage at Cornerstone Music Festival, but then shockingly, it all came crashing down.

Heard’s music, though he started out as a “folk-rock” artist (whatever that means), is firmly rooted in the genre we now call Americana. Slight country or rockabilly flavor at times, lots of mandolins, dobro and traditional instruments, but always with a modern blues/rock sensibility, and a lyrical ingenuity that was uniquely his own. And he’s still receiving posthumous praise and awards from that Americana music community, even 17 years after his death.

Heard’s also had his songs covered by a range of artists, including Larry Norman (who “discovered” him), Phil Keaggy, Buddy and Julie Miller, Rich Mullins, Pierce Pettis, Vigilantes of Love, Sam/Leslie Phillips, Cockburn… even Olivia Newton-John and Joni Mitchell! But his own voice is great as well, so his interpretations of his courageously honest songs often had a humor, spark, or unique production quality that other musicians didn’t bring to them. Therefore, his songs have also influenced major stars like Jars of Clay, Emmylou Harris, and T-Bone Burnett, who have done tributes or been quoted as being major fans.

Check Mark out at Wikipedia, or in this long Tim Porter article at Paste Magazine, or at this fansite by a friend of Mark’s, or at this music/sales site, if you’re curious to know more about Heard. I went looking for streamable songs to link to, and found this sampling at IMEEM. Also found a few at YouTube. But there ain’t much out there.

So take the leap. Buy an album. The High Noon compilation, or one of his last three self-released CDs, are a good place to start. You won’t be disappointed. He’s an underground “lost treasure” for Americana and/or Christian music fans everywhere.

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