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The Confessions of Mark Heard

By Joey Royal 

Mark Heard, who died in 1992, was one of the truly great American songwriters. He spent much of his career on the margins of the Christian music industry, and never found mainstream success during his lifetime. He is admired by many accomplished musicians and songwriters like Bruce Cockburn, Bill Mallonee, Pierce Pettis, Over the Rhine, Victoria Williams, T-Bone Burnett, and Buddy and Julie Miller. A tribute album called Strong Hand of Love was released in 1994. Another one, entitled Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard, was released in 2017.

Throughout the 1980s Heard had a run of very good albums. Most fans agree, however, that his greatest works are a trilogy of albums he released on his own label, Fingerprint Records: Dry Bones Dance (1990), Second Hand (1991), and Satellite Sky (1992).  These albums effortlessly combine rock, country, folk and bluegrass music. Sadly, these would turn out to be his last recorded works, as he died from a heart attack at the age of 40.

Heard had an ear for melody and a voice full of yearning, but it’s his lyrics that make his songs resonate so deeply for many. He sang of the complexities of human life — the wistfulness of nostalgia, the spectre of death, the joys and ambiguities of romantic love, the quest for truth and permanence in a culture that values neither — while pointing beyond those things to a transcendent hope, however and wherever that hope is found. He was a Christian musician, to be sure, but one who looked upon the Christian music industry of his day with wariness and cynicism.

Heard sang of the world’s fallenness, its impermanence, and the longing and disappointment that comes from our inability to feel at home within this transitory life. In the song “Long Way Down” he laments the idolatry and destructiveness of the modern world, where “all God’s children learn to build and learn to watch their backs” and where “the free thank God for the atom bomb, the keeper of the peace.” The result is alienation: “the life that you are living is a thing you never feel.”

Babe they say that this world is better than the last
I wouldn’t know — I have no way of living in the past
Where once there was a garden, the streets have overflowed
From the Golden Gates to the East Block states
You can hear creation groan
(“Long Way Down”)

Like Augustine of The Confessions or the prophet Jeremiah, Heard narrates the world’s disorder and the distorting effect this has on our lives, but does so for the purpose of contrasting it with the eternal reality of God. Heard refers to God’s providence as “the strong hand of love,” a Presence which is often “hidden in the shadows” but nevertheless operative at every moment of our lives. Because of Heard’s trust in the pervasive presence of God, his lyrics often straddle that razor-thin dividing line between cynicism and hope, leaning always toward hope but free of naiveté and sentimentality.

In one of his most moving songs – meditative and driven by percussion and mandolin – Heard sings of a spiritual homesickness akin to bereavement. We are, in his memorable phrase, “orphans of God.” There are pointed criticisms of modern secularism here, but the song is, at root, a lament, driven by grief rather than anger:

I will rise from my bed with a question again
As I work to inherit the restless wind
The view from my window is cold and obscene
I want to touch what my eyes have not seen

They have packaged our virtue in cellulose dreams
And sold us the remnants ‘til our pockets are clean
‘Til our hope fall ‘round our feet like the dust of dead leaves
And we end up looking like what we believe.

They have captured our siblings and rendered them mute
Disputed our lineage and poisoned our roots
We have bought from the brokers who have broken their oaths
And we’re out on the streets with a lump in our throats.
(“Orphans of God”)

But, despite our feeling bereft, we are never truly orphaned. We have been claimed by God and belong to him. For this reason, despite his profound sense of dislocation in this world, Heard never succumbs to despair. He is, above all, a poet of hope, which is not misty-eyed positive thinking but a profound confidence in the risen Christ. In “Dry Bones Dance” Heard channels Ezekiel 37:

Every now and then I seem to dream these dreams
Where the mute ones speak and the deaf ones sing,
Touching that miraculous circumstance
Where the blind ones see and the dry bones dance
(“Dry Bones Dance”)

In one of his greatest and most personal songs, written after the death of his father, he expresses the resurrection to eternal life in very intimate terms. The song weaves together this-worldly grief with other-worldly hope:

I see you now and then in dreams
Your voice sounds just 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 wind of Gabriel
Blow soon upon the hollow bones

I saw the city at its tortured worst
And you were outside the walls there
You were relieved of a lifelong thirst
And 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 me name
I felt the curtain tearing
(“Treasure of the Broken Land”)

There are few before or since who rival Heard’s lyrical gifts. Yet he remains relatively obscure. Perhaps this is due to his refusal to entertain merely for its own sake; Heard’s songs seek to say something, to impart some truth, however obliquely. His best lyrics are poems which offer us a new way of seeing, or describing something we know to be true but struggle to articulate. Nevertheless, he seemed aware of, if not resigned to, the probable obscurity that often comes with this rare combination of giftedness and earnestness.

The mouths of the best poets
Speak but a few words
And then lay down
Stone cold in forgotten fields
But life goes on in this ant farm town
Cold to the lifeblood underfoot
All talk and no touch
I just wanna be real
(“I Just Wanna Get Warm”)

Heard was nothing if not “real,” and that authenticity — so rare in popular music, whether Christian or not — is a profound gift. In the paradoxes he delineated so well — love and loss, death and hope, bereavement and belonging — Heard offered us an example of popular music that is deeply Christian because it is at once so deeply human. And where else does God meet us but in the day-to-day reality of creaturely life? Heard used passionate, confessional language reminiscent of Augustine and Jeremiah — the “language of love” he called it — to show us the presence of the Invisible in the visible, the Eternal in the temporal, the Light in the darkness. And this truth disclosed by the gospel, so wonderful and so hopeful, begs to be proclaimed by God’s creatures. Thank God for Mark Heard, who proclaimed it so well.

Go and tell all your friends and relations
Go and say what ain’t easy to say
Go and give them some hope
That we might rock this boat
And rise from the ruins one day
(“Rise from the Ruins”)


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