John Mark Heard (December 16, 1951 – August 16, 1992) was an American record producer, folk rock singer, and songwriter originally from Macon, Georgia, United States.
Heard released 16 albums, and produced and performed with many other artists as well, such as Sam Phillips (a.k.a. Leslie Phillips), Pierce Pettis, Phil Keaggy, Vigilantes of Love, Peter Buck of R.E.M. (who co-produced VOL’s album Killing Floor with Heard), John Austin, The Choir, Randy Stonehill and Michael Been of The Call. Heard produced part of Olivia Newton-John’s The Rumor, which also included a cover of Heard’s own “Big and Strong” (originally called “How to Grow Up Big and Strong”).
After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1974 with an ABJ (bachelor of arts in journalism) degree in television, Heard traveled to Switzerland to study at L’Abri under the influential evangelical Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer. Singers Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill literally stumbled onto Mark one day playing his guitar. Because Norman and Stonehill expressed interest, Heard spent most of his spare time the next two months putting together a demo tape in a local studio with the help of the Pat Terry group (Pat Terry, Sonny Lallerstedt, and Randy Bugg). Norman was so impressed by Heard’s abilities that he soon signed him to his record label, Solid Rock Records. Heard and his wife Janet moved to Glendale, California in 1977 to begin work on his Appalachian Melody album for the label, but would also maintain a close relationship with the people at the L’Abri for years. Heard would also record and release Fingerprint on a Swiss label in 1980.
In 1981, Heard began a recording contract with Chris Christian’s Home Sweet Home Records. Although Mark’s sales did not attract attention from the major Christian labels, Christian felt Mark’s music was unique and fresh and deserved to be heard and funded his projects with no production oversight, which is what Mark wanted. His signing to the label was a departure from the commercial artists that Chris traditionally signed and produced on the Home Sweet Home label. Heard released five albums for the label; 1981’s Stop the Dominoes, 1982’s Victims of the Age; 1983’s Eye of the Storm; 1984’s Ashes and Light; and 1985’s Mosaics. The overall experience was not one that Heard enjoyed, partly due to his personal experiences with record company executives, and partly due to compromises he felt under pressure to make in order to make himself and his songs more marketable to Christian audiences. In 1984, Heard began recording in his home studio, which he dubbed “Fingerprint Recorders”, after the title of one of his earlier records. From that point on, his albums were largely made at home, with just a handful of friends and relatives lending a hand. In 1986, Heard decided to try something a little different and recorded the experimental Pop/Rock album for What? Records entitled Tribal Opera, under the name iDEoLA. When asked about the unusual name, Heard replied “It’s not supposed to be mysterious or anything; I just put a band together and right now I happen to be the only one in it.” Heard also directed a music video for the single of that album, “Is It Any Wonder”.
With assistance from Dan Russell and Chuck Long, Fingerprint Records and studio were born. Heard began to produce albums for a number of artists including two albums for Randy Stonehill, Jacob’s Trouble, Pierce Pettis and 1992’s Vigilantes of Love album, Killing Floor, which he co-produced with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. Stonehill’s Until We Have Wings includes a song co-written by Heard, “Faithful”, although the CD liner notes credit the song to Heard’s pseudonym, Giovanni Audiori. In 1988 Heard collaborated with Randy Stonehill and other well known artists on Phil Keaggy and Sunday’s Child. In addition to writing and performing credits, he helped with the engineering.
The early 1990s saw a return to recording albums of his own, with 1990’s Dry Bones Dance. Fans and reviewers alike hailed the new release as one of the best of his career. Heard followed Dry Bones Dance with Second Hand in 1991, and, finally, Satellite Sky in 1992, which would turn out to be his final release.
On July 4, 1992, Heard had a heart attack on stage while performing with Pierce Pettis and Kate Miner, at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, IL, near Peoria. Heard finished his set and went to the hospital immediately afterwards. Two weeks after being released from the hospital, Heard went into cardiac arrest and died on August 16 of 1992. Before Heard’s death, he had been included on the Legacy II sampler from Windham Hill’s High Street label, and was nearly finalizing a mainstream contract with Bruce Cockburn’s label, True North Records in Canada. There was also interest from Sony’s Columbia Records label for distribution in the US.
In 1993, Rich Mullins covered “How to Grow Up Big and Strong” on his A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band. In 1994, many artists came together to record a tribute album called Strong Hand of Love. Artists lending their talents to the project included Phil Keaggy, Victoria Williams, Chagall Guevara, Buddy Miller, Julie Miller, Daniel Amos, The Choir, Bruce Cockburn, and the Vigilantes of Love. The project was later reissued as a two-CD set with additional tracks and retitled Orphans of God. Cockburn frequently calls Heard his favorite songwriter and even wrote and recorded a song dedicated to Heard for his Dart to the Heart album, “Closer to the Light.” Daniel Amos dedicated their album MotorCycle to Heard in 1993, and The Swirling Eddies dedicated Zoom Daddy to Heard the same year. Julie Miller also wrote a song in tribute to Heard called “All My Tears” which has also been recorded by Jars of Clay, Emmylou Harris (studio and live versions) and Selah with Kim Hill.
In 2000, a group of fans gathered together to help Fingerprint Records release Mystery Mind, the first collection of previously unreleased material from the songwriter. There were plans to release a full length collection that same year, but those plans never came to fruition.
In 2002, the Cornerstone Music Festival held a songwriting contest in honor of Heard. The following year, Paste Magazine released Hammers and Nails, a CD of previously unreleased recordings by Heard. An authorized biography of the same name was also released by Cornerstone Press, written by Matthew T. Dickerson.
The Americana Music Association held its annual Americana Music Honors & Awards at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, September 2005. The Song of the Year Award was presented to Mark Heard for “Worry Too Much” (originally featured on Second Hand). Buddy Miller, who performed the track on Universal United House of Prayer, accepted the award on behalf of Heard. Miller also received the award for Album of the Year for Universal United House of Prayer.
In Paste Magazine No. 22 June/July 2006 – a Special Collector’s Issue featuring the 100 Best Living Songwriters – Mark Heard was remembered as well under the heading Wish You Were Here: “Mark Heard’s lyrics are weighted with such a wry longing that they’ll forever reflect a fresh turbulence.”
Pierce Pettis and Ralston Bowles have covered a song by Mark Heard on each of their albums released since Heard’s death.
Home Sweet Home Records 1985
Ashes And Lights
Home Sweet Home Records 1984
Victims Of The Age
Home Sweet Home Records 1982
Stop The Dominoes
Home Sweet Home Records 1981
Palmfront Records 1980
Solid Rock Records 1979
On Turning To Dust
AB Records 1978