Since Mark Heard’s untimely death in 1992, his work has continued to echo across the songwriting landscape, with his words and his music time and time again taking on new life, and finding new meaning with every passing year and every new person that come across them. So it’s no surprise that some of the best artists in the Americana world would be game to tackle his songs for the forthcoming tribute album Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard, and on Over the Rhine’s performance of “Look Over Your Shoulder,” a song originally appearing on Heard’s 1991 record Second Hand, we’re treated to an up-close-and-personal look at how exactly his music still resonates with a fervor today.
As the band recounted to Paste, had they recorded the song one day earlier, their version might have sounded a little different, but as fate would have it, they entered the studio on Nov. 9, 2016, with the reality that Donald Trump had just been elected to the presidency still setting in, and their plans changed. As vocalist and guitarist Karin Bergquist puts it, “We had a colorful outfit picked out, but it decided to wear all black.”
“Like a lot of the country, and perhaps the world, we were in shock,” she continues, “And suddenly this song was bearing a message to us that seemed timely. The song was making an announcement: Fear not.”
The heavy but gentle heart of Heard’s original performance is amplified as Bergquist sings with beautiful solemnity over sparse piano work, bringing together the words from 25 years before with the confusion, sadness and power of the present moment. It’s simple and it works; a tear-jerking performance on its own, made all the more powerful in its context.
Speaking on the power of music in times like these, the band explained how they’ve served to help them cope and survive, stating:
Since the election, we’ve been reminded over and over again that music can be a healing, centering force. I can actually feel my body change when the music starts. I breathe differently. I find my balance. I feel my fears fade and my soul is reoriented to a deeper place that can’t be touched. And we’re not advocating escapism. We are advocating living life with eyes wide open, staying deeply engaged with meaningful work and speaking truth to power. Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted as Woodie Guthrie advocated. But the first step always involves permission to not be afraid. And that’s when a good song feels like it wants to wrap you in its arms.
Songwriter Phil Madeira, who produced the tribute album, explains that he had been told that Mark originally wrote the song to calm his young daughter after a nightmare. It’s hard to think of a more fitting moment, then, for it to find renewed significance.
Treasure of the Broken Land: The Songs of Mark Heard is out June 2 via Storm Weathered Records. You can listen to Over the Rhine’s version of “Look Over Your Shoulder” along with Mark Heard’s original below, where you can also watch Paste Cloud footage of a 2011 Over the Rhine set at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta. Check out our 2012 list of the best Mark Heard songs here.