What does it mean that children who were born when Mark Heard died are now 19 years old? It means that, except for those reared by parents with uncommonly deep album collections, an entire generation has come of age without encountering one of the best, boldest, and most influential Christian singer-songwriters ever.
When Heard's Appalachian Melody appeared on Larry Norman's Solid Rock label in 1979, its acoustic sheen and overtly faith-centered songs guaranteed it a warm reception among fans of what people had only recently started calling Contemporary Christian Music.
But, from the beginning, Heard criticized the genre's self-imposed constraints. He would eventually record six albums for labels distributed mainly to Christian bookstores but not without savoring (and occasionally writing songs about) the irony that he-as someone particularly resistant to letting even a "spiritual" bottom line dictate to his art-was doing so.
What he came to do best was expose and probe the shallowness of much mainstream evangelicalism. "Don't we take exclusive pride that we abide so far from hell?" he sang on his 1984 album Ashes and Light. "We might laugh together, but don't we cry alone / for the ashes and the dust we've swept beneath the Holy Throne?"
Also, with the exception of the intermittent ballad and 1982's stripped-down Eye of the Storm, Heard's CCM albums unabashedly rocked. On one level, "going electric" may have been his way of putting to rest the James Taylor comparisons that his gentler recordings had provoked among well-meaning fans oblivious to the extent that such "compliments" drove him up the wall. To Heard, finding and embracing one's uniqueness was inseparable from achieving full maturity in Christ. Not for nothing did he name the record company he founded in 1990 Fingerprint.
A lot of good it did him: By the mid-'80s, he was sometimes being likened to T Bone Burnett and no doubt chafing under that assessment too.
He needn't have. For one thing, going from being compared to James Taylor to being compared to T Bone Burnett is itself indicative of big aesthetic strides. For another, to the extent that Heard ever sounded like anyone else, he usually sounded better.
Perhaps what he found most irritating about such comparisons-apart from the extent to which they suggested people were missing the point of his emphasis on individuality-is that they were a kind of easy answer to the question of what made him so effective at what God had put him on the earth to do.
Heard was unsatisfied with easy answers. Even as the developing quality of his work and the respect it engendered among the more serious circles of the singer-songwriter community nudged him toward crossover popularity, he never stopped asking tough questions.
When after three years behind the scenes he returned with the zydeco-driven Dry Bones Dance in 1990, he seemed more determined than ever to find fresh ways of keeping both himself and his listeners sensitive to the deepest meanings of being alive.
Second Hand followed in 1991, Satellite Sky in '92, musically adventurous albums that made even the strongest of his '80s efforts seem like blueprints and that won Heard fans among those who'd probably never given religion a second thought. He co-produced a Vigilantes of Love album with R.E.M.'s Pete Buck. Finally, widespread recognition beckoned.
Then, suddenly, he was gone: dead of cardiac arrest at the age of 40.
He would've been 60 on Dec. 16. One could do worse this Christmas than to give a young person the gift of his song.