Day 16: The best songwriter you’ve never heard
And the best Macon musician locals don’t know but should
Nine years before moving to Macon, Georgia, I wrote a Paste feature on Macon-born songwriter Mark Heard, who died 24 years ago today.
The piece was titled “Remembering ‘America’s Best Songwriter.’” The superlative was a quote from Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, but we claimed it as our own. Yes, we were putting Heard above Dylan, Guthrie, Townes and the rest of the canon.
I was at Heard’s last performance in 1992. Unbeknownst to the audience and himself, he had a heart attack during the set but kept going, even coming out for an encore. After the show, I saw the ambulance pull into the festival grounds but had no idea it was for him. Heard was released from the hospital two weeks later and, before he could catch the flight from Springfield, Illinois to his Los Angeles-area home, suffered a second heart attack. He entered a coma, dying a month later.
I videotaped that last show and still have the VHS somewhere in my basement. I never got to meet him, but I would later get to know some of the artists he produced. I even rented a house to one of them. Now I live in his hometown. I think I’ll always feel a special affinity for the guy.
What strikes me now, on the anniversary of his death, is how relevant Mark’s music remains. Much, if not most, of the songwriting I once treasured just doesn’t speak to me now. However, Mark’s trilogy is just as vital musically and as personally moving lyrically as ever. His exploration of what it means to be human transcends creed and ephemeral emotions to touch on something essential.
To be honest, Paste’s collective assessment was based on the three albums Heard released at the end of his career. His earlier work has fans and showed some flashes of brilliance, but it was the albums he released on his own label that earned him the title of America’s Best Songwriter. As I wrote in 2003, “Arguably, no artist has crafted three consecutive albums with both the lyrical radiance and the musical vibrancy to rival Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand, and Satellite Sky.”
We worked with Heard’s former business partner to put out a CD of unreleased material on our small label (whose claim to fame was first signing Manchester Orchestra). I wish we hadn’t. Those unfinished songs were probably the introduction to Heard for many of our readers, and they didn’t reflect the genius displayed on his final, finished albums.
Macon is a city that spawned rock ’n’ roll with Little Richard, was home to King of Soul Otis Redding, saw James Brown start his career and launched Southern rock with Capricorn Records and the Allman Brothers Band. Street performer Rev. Pearly Brown inspired Lucinda Williams to become a musician when she lived here as a young girl. Johnny Jenkins inspired Jimi Hendrix. Half of R.E.M. grew up here. Lena Horne, Chuck Leavell, Robert McDuffie, Jason Aldean, Blind Willie McTell, Wayne Cochran, Young Jeezy—Macon makes a claim on all of these and more. It’s no wonder The Washington Post compared Macon to Renaissance Florence for its confluence of creatives in the last half of the 20th Century.
One Macon native forgotten in that mix is Mark Heard. I hope readers — especially Maconites—will take the time to read my feature on him. I think I said it best there.
Here’s a soundtrack for your reading, but I encourage you to listen to the trilogy on YouTube, Spotify or some other source. Each album has its own unique sonic palette, from Appalachian stomp to coffeehouse folk to electric-steel-mandolin-driven rock. They are worth experiencing in their entirety as originally sequenced. I’ve also included a few songs from his one major-label release, the Peter Gabriel-influenced Tribal Opera released (just prior to his Fingerprint trilogy) under the moniker Ideola. You can see Mark and his family in the music video at the end.