Celebrating the inspirational producer and songwriter 25 years from his early death is another, more Americana-based compilation of his brilliant poetic work, shot through with heavenly insight.

Label: Storm Weathered Records
Time: 18 tracks / 73 mins

That Mark Heard turned down the offer of touring with Dylan and T-Bone Burnett speaks both of his talent and his humility. He motivated some major musicians to write to the best of their ability and particularly inspired fellow Christian writers to keep their songs real.

These are just some reasons to remember the producer and poet on the 25th anniversary of his untimely death from a heart attack, aged only 40.

This new compilation is a level down from 1994’s excellent, Grammy-nominated Strong Hand of Love compilation (whose first six songs alone featured Kevin Max, Phil Keaggy, Bruce Cockburn and Michael Been, producing, for me, definitive versions. The Choir, Randy Stonehill and Chagall Guevara also played). But there are some very fine performances on this new tribute, the quality of the songs is undimmed, and there are more of them.

Heard’s words have such prophetic power and poetry, in song after song, that a station announcer could read them over a distorted tannoy and still stop listeners in their tracks.

The first song has these words of hope:
    "Every now and then I seem to dream these dreams
    Where the dead ones live and the hurt ones heal
    Touching that miraculous circumstance
    Where the blind ones see and the dry bones dance."

Or, from the hopeful and poignant title track, sung here by Buddy Miller, where Heard mourns his father, reflecting on death:
    “I can’t melt the clock-hands down...
    No one gets a second chance to be the friend they’re meant to be.”

Or, in the terrific list song “Nobody’s Looking,” about balancing freedom and responsibility:
    “You can entice the lightning, lure in the lies
    You can look for Delilah with red-hot pokers in your eyes
    You can hunt down a witness
    Beg for forgiveness
    Plead that your heartbeat cease
    You can do what you want to
    Go ahead, won't nobody call the police...
    You can love if you want to
    Go ahead, nobody's looking but God.”

But despite the lyrical quality, it took some time to adjust to the new versions, especially as the lesser tracks begin the disc and first impressions last.

I like Matt Haeck, and have reviewed him positively on our legacy site, but his “Dry Bones Dance” seemed to be so retro as to undo all the progress of updating the songs made by the previous compilation. Despite its fine brass section, The Birds of Chicago’s take on “Rise from the Ruins” sounds like their Alison Russell is trying to quickly finish some food while singing (and there are no lyrics with the packaging to help translate).  

Songs improve as the album progresses. Sean Rowe’s aching, gravelly baritone delivers “Everything is Alright;” Rodney Crowell’s take on “Nod over Coffee,” is decorated by David Mansfield’s* lovely mandolin; and Norway’s Humming People add some pace and freshness to the compilation. All three would fit right on the earlier set.   

There are some real highlights too. Some funky organ lifts Sarah Potenza’s already powerful singing on “Lonely Road,” just as Sierra Hull’s mandolin complements Amy Speace’s vocal on “House of Broken Dreams.” Both Buddy Miller and Over the Rhine were also on the previous collection, and the beautiful simplicity of OtR’s “Look Over your Shoulder” shows what Lily and Madeleine’s singing “What Kind of Friend” might have sounded like, had it been à capella, undulled by horns.

Losing the eclectic riches of the previous tribute, this new one has a consistent musical core, based on Emmylou Harris’s backing band Red Dirt Boys, composed of veterans like bassist Chris Donahue, multi-instrumentalist and project producer Phil Madeira, the sparkling Will Kimbrough and John Mark Painter. Guests like Cindy Morgan and Levi Parham front vocals on top. 

(And a nice touch: Pat Terry, who discovered Heard and recommended him to Larry Norman, plays Heard's old Stratocaster on "Rise from the Ruins).

The bottom line: Heard’s songs richly deserve this tribute for their memorable tunes and wonderfully poetic words. It’s a personal choice whether you prefer the wonderful eclecticism of major Christian artists at the top of their game on the earlier Strong Hand of Love compilation or the safer consistency, extra songs and Americana-base of this Treasure of the Broken Land. Either way, there are songs to treasure for a lifetime.

Oh, did I hear someone say that they want more of Heard’s lyrics? OK, here are some snatches of “Worry Too Much,” observing our culture, shot through with vivid heavenly insight:
    It's the demolition derby
    It's the sport of the hunt
    It's a proud tribe in full war-dance
    It's the slow smile that the bully gives the runt...
    It's these sandpaper eyes
    And the way they rub the lustre from what is seen
    It's the way we tell ourselves that all these things are normal
    Till we can't remember what we mean.

Derek Walker

There is now a fuller piece on Mark Heard, with more on his music and comparing the compilations, on my blog: http://walkerwords.wordpress.com

* The cover credits ‘David Mans eld’, but David Mansfield is a star session player, who worked with Mark Heard and Phil Madeira (as well as almost everybody else) and I’m betting on him.