The 12 Best Mark Heard Songs

Music Lists Mark Heard
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Twenty years ago today, Mark Heard’s heart finally gave out, robbing the world of one its best—if little-known—songwriters. Six weeks earlier, he’d had a heart attack on stage; he finished the set, but it would be his last performance.

Few people heard his music because, for most of his career, Mark Heard plied his trade in the world of Contemporary Christian Music, a genre not particularly perceptive to a street poet lamenting both the consumer culture at large and the sanitized ghetto of CCM he found himself part of. But his final three albums for Fingerprint Records transcended that genre and contained some of the greatest lyrics I’ve ever encountered. The first time I heard these songs, I pored over every line—he managed to make the most basic human struggles sound beautiful, sad and hopeful.

In 2003, Paste’s Tim Regan-Porter wrote: “The release of a trilogy of records in the early ’90s on Fingerprint Records, a tiny label created specifically for Heard, heralded the arrival of an artist at his peak—a challenger for the title of poet laureate of American music—joining the pantheon that includes Dylan, Cohen, Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt. 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.”

Since his death, artists like Buddy & Julie Miller, Pierce Pettis and Bruce Cockburn have carried his torch, covering his songs and singing his praises to anyone who’ll listen. Heard won an Americana Music Award for Best Song posthumously when Buddy Miller covered “Worry Too Much” on Universal United House of Prayer.

Today we celebrate one of our favorites with The 12 Best Mark Heard songs, all coming from that final trio of records. We’ll let Mark’s lyrics do the talking.

12. “A Broken Man” (Satellite Sky)

Sun comes up
Like a yellow bus
Tracking over oceans of dust
One day’s miracle is another day’s rut
But day keeps breaking like it always does
I’m not a loner
No sack-cloth and ashes
Just a heart on a tether with a vagabond mind
But this will be a broken man
Come shivering out of his wintertime

11. “Dry Bones Dance” (Dry Bones Dance)

Everyone surrenders to the brave new scarecrows
And waits for them to hand us cigarettes and blindfolds
All lined up for the firing squad
Paper fills the cracks of the Wailing Wall
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

10. “Big Wheels Roll” (Satellite Sky)

He says “Damn the cool-headed and the setters of goals
who can feel no evil, no heat, no cold
And who wouldn’t know passion if it swallowed them whole
For whom true love is a left-brain risk
For whom the giving of life is a needless myth
Who cover their graves with monoliths
Cool heads prevail, and we’ll become extinct
Mutants too unfit to wish”

9. “Love Is Not the Only Thing” (Second Hand)

Let’s go up on the roof beneath the neon
Pretend we’re foreigners and drink the city in
Somewhere between the stairwell and the starlight
I find myself holding your hand
Half-cousins to the angels and the demons
Half-brother to the fatherless sons
I lay awake and wonder at the reasons
One kiss and I am lost in your charms

8. “Strong Hand of Love” (Dry Bones Dance)

Young dreamers explode like popped balloons
Some kind of emotional rodeo
Learning too slow and acting too soon
Time marches away like a lost platoon
We gracefully age as we feel the weight
Of loving too late and leaving too soon
We can laugh and we can cry
And never see the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows

7. “Satellite Sky” (Satellite Sky)

I want to stand out in the middle of the street
and listen to the stars
I want to hear their sweet voices
I want to feel a big bang rattle my bones
I want to laugh for my children
I want the spark to ignite
before they find out what it means to be born
into these times
Why, Why, Why, I say Why, Mama, Why?
Why can’t I sleep in peace tonight
underneath the satellite sky?

6. “Nod Over Coffee” (Second Hand)

All the unsaid words that I might be thinking,
And all the little signs that I might give you,
Well they would not be enough, they would not be enough
So we nod over coffee and say goodbye,
Smile over coffee and turn to go
We know the drill and we do it well
We love it, we hate it, ain’t that life
Ain’t that the curse of the second hand
Ain’t that the way of the hour and the day

5. “Rise From the Ruins” (Dry Bones Dance)

Nobody asks to be born
Nobody wishes to die
Everybody whiles away the interim time
Sworn to rise from the ruins by and by
The engines are droning with progress
The pistons are pounding out time
And it’s you and me caught in this juggernaut jaunt
Left to rise from the ruins down the line

4. “I Just Wanna Get Warm” (Second Hand)

There are things I should remember
But I have forgotten how
I’m all tied up with no time
Trying do too much
And the thoughts that I’ve avoided
Are the ones I need right now
Like a warm wind and love’s hand
And I just want to be touched

3. “Tip of My Tongue” (Satellite Sky)

I’ve been boxed-in in the lowlands, in the canyons that think
I’ve been pushed to the brink of the precipice and dared not to blink
I’ve been confounded in the whirlwind of what-if’s and dreams
I’ve been burned by the turning of the wind back upon my own flames
Knock the scales from my eyes
Knock the words from my lungs
I want to cry out
It’s on the tip of my tongue

2. “Worry Too Much” (Second Hand)

It’s these sandpaper eyes
It’s 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
It’s the flicker of our flames
It’s the friction born of living
It’s the way we beat a hot retreat
And heave our smoking guns into the river
Sometimes it feels like bars of steel
I cannot bend with my hands
Oh, I worry too much
Somebody told me that I worry too much

1. “Orphans of God” (Satellite Sky)

“They have packaged our virtue in cellulose dreams
And sold us the remnants ‘til our pockets are clean
‘Til our hopes fall ‘round our feet like the dust of dead leaves
And we end up looking like what we believe
We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God.”