How the Mark Heard Tribute Album Changed Music For Me
There are two songwriting giants in the Christian music world. I mean, sure, we’ve all got our favorites, but there are two that loom above the landscape higher than the rest: Rich Mullins and Mark Heard. Everybody knows Rich. Whether it’s because we sang “Awesome God” in our youth group or because Andrew Peterson name-checked him in “Nothing to Say,” Rich Mullins is a household name. Mark Heard, though, is less well known, and that’s a shame. He was the poet laureate of Christian music, or at least, he should have been. He took the Christian life, put music to it, and somehow made it more beautiful.
When I was seventeen, I went to a party at Mike Murphy’s house. He’d left for college the year before and had become a DJ for the campus radio station. When he came home for the summer, he brought tapes of his show with him, and that’s what he was playing on the speakers that day. I don’t remember any of the songs that played, save one. The song that stopped the room (Zack Morris style) for me was Vigilantes of Love’s “Welcome to Struggleville.” I raced to the mall to the Camelot Music (did I mention this was 1994?) and picked up VoL’s Welcome to Struggleville album, and, for the rest of that year, it rarely left my CD player. Vigilantes of Love quickly became my favorite band.
The early ‘90s were also the age of Christian music stores. You couldn’t get the new Steven Curtis Chapman at Camelot, but you could get it at Long’s. These were the kind of places where you could pick up any CD, pop it in a CD player there in the store, and demo it (think of it as Spotify before Spotify). Vigilantes of Love got some play in the Christian stores back then (until they were kicked out for the “Love Cocoon” incident—but that’s a story for another day). When perusing the shelf for something new, judging albums by their covers, I stumbled on a tribute album for a musician I’d never heard of: Mark Heard. What made me pick it up was there at the bottom, on the front cover—nearly at the end of the list of artists featured on the record, it said “Vigilantes of Love.” I didn’t demo the CD. I just walked up and bought it, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Strong Hand of Love: A Tribute to Mark Heard was like a gateway drug for me. I bought it for that one taste of VoL, but not really caring about the rest. I was fine to pay $9.99 for one song. If “Freight Train to Nowhere” had been the only song I liked, I would have been satisfied. But, after buying the record, I was hooked, and my musical world was about to explode. There were a couple of other artists that I was familiar with—Rich Mullins, The Choir, Kevin Max, Phil Keaggy. But for the most part, this was unknown territory. Not only did I not know the artists on the album, I didn’t know the artist that was being honored by the tribute.
Stylistically, the tribute album is all over the map—straightforward rock and roll, country, singer/songwriter, alternative (that was a thing in the ‘90s), and some things that don’t fit neatly into any genre. And here’s one of the really special things about the album: usually, these tribute albums are a mechanism to get new and up-and-coming artists into the mainstream, but Strong Hand of Love is chock full of veterans. Artists like Rich Mullins, Phil Keaggy, Buddy and Julie Miller, Steve Taylor (with his band Chagall Guevara), Bruce Cockburn, and Pierce Pettis are legendary. You might not have heard of them, but, like Mark Heard, their influence is everywhere.
Mark Heard released sixteen albums over his career, along with producing releases for numerous young artists and creating Fingerprint Records, which released a bunch of great records, including Vigilantes of Love’s Killing Floor, co-produced by Heard and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. He invested in a whole generation of Christian songwriters, and he was a constant encouragement never to settle for the easy or trite lyric about Jesus. And while his fingerprints are all over the music world, it’s his solo material that absolutely shines.
On Strong Hand of Love, Pierce Pettis covers Heard’s “Nod Over Coffee,” a paean to the slow trickle of time, how we acknowledge its passing and still don’t use it to do the important things. He sings:
So we nod over coffee and say goodbye Smile over coffee and turn to go We know the drill and we do it well We love it, we hate it, ain’t that life
The title track, “Strong Hand of Love,” performed by Bruce Cockburn, talks about God’s love and presence in a way that few in the Christian world can. In Heard’s world, the passage of time in our lives is full of loss, celebration, and grace, and if we’re not paying attention, we miss that guiding hand of God’s love that’s been there the whole time: “We can dance and we can sigh / And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows.”
Maybe the most powerful song on the record is Buddy and Julie Miller’s cover of “Orphans of God,” an inscrutable, dynamic song about what it means to lead lives of quiet faithfulness, which may, ultimately, be forgotten. In Heard’s ideology, “we are soot covered urchins, running wild and unshod / we will always be remembered as the orphans of God.” In verse three of this song, we get perhaps his single most remarkable lyric:
Like bees in a bottle we are flying at fate Beating our wings against the walls of this place Unaware that the struggle is the blood of the proof In choosing to believe the unbelievable truth
Heard’s original version of this one is brooding and majestic, with a ringing lead part from a mandolin. Buddy and Julie Miller’s version takes away the driving bass and drums, and make this a gorgeous country anthem, with Buddy and Julie trading verses, and adding a plaintive violin part soaring above it all. It’s an absolute wonder.
After buying Strong Hand of Love, my musical tastes exploded. It’s kind of like growing up in a house that eats only meatloaf, bologna sandwiches, and spaghetti, and then finding out there is a whole world of beautiful food out there. All of a sudden, I found myself digging through record store bins for music by Victoria Williams, Bruce Cockburn, Tonio K., and Randy Stonehill. And then, of course, those artists led me to others, who led me to others. This was a transformative album for me, not only because the music on it is unbelievably good, but because it opened up a new world for me.
If you’d like to give Mark Heard a chance, do what I did. Give the Strong Hand of Love tribute album a spin. There’s also a newer tribute album out there called Treasure of the Broken Land with artists like Over the Rhine, Rodney Crowell, Drew Holcomb, and Sierra Hull. Or, just go to the source. Listen to Mark’s Satellite Sky album.
Mark Heard had a heart attack on stage at the Cornerstone Festival in 1992. He finished the set before going to the hospital. Two weeks and another heart later, Mark died. He was forty years old. Five years later, Rich Mullins would die tragically, too, one month shy of his forty-second birthday. Our two great songwriters, taken much, much too early. Still, their music lives.