Fire Note Says: Twenty-five years after his death, Nashville talents come together to resurrect the music of singer/songwriter Mark Heard, and it’s a treasure.
Album Review: The commercial success of tribute compilation albums usually depends on three factors: 1) It’s a tribute to an artist whose work you already recognize and appreciate, and/or 2) the variety of artists who step in to do covers of said artist are also recognizable to you, and you are curious what their approach to this familiar material might sound like, or 3) you understand that it’s a benefit for a good cause that you believe in. In 1993, when Sweet Relief; A Benefit for Victoria Williams was released, it got a lot of attention not because anyone had heard of Williams, but with recognizable artists like Pearl Jam, Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed, Matthew Sweet, and Maria McKee they were able to sell some records. Plus, Sweet Relief, a charity for musicians who were dealing with chronic illness and large medical bills without the benefit of health insurance, was attracting a lot of independent buzz.
Treasures of the Broken Land has none of that going for it. Most folk haven’t got a clue who Mark Heard might be, most of the artists covering his songs here, generally speaking, are not all that well known, and the only charity mentioned here is Sweet Relief, but only inside the packaging and in small type. That said, this fine album rises above expectations, due first to the high quality in Heard’s songwriting, and secondly because of the consistently solid cover versions, owing a great deal to producer Phil Madeira’s steady hands and regular reliance in the studio on the solid players who make up his Red Dirt Boys: Will Kimbrough on guitars and mandolin, Chris Donohue on bass, and Bryan Owings on drums. There’s a vitality in these songs and a fun energy in the performances, that fans of Americana/folk & country rock will quickly find their bearings and eager to hear more of Heard’s music and influence.
Mark Heard died 25 years ago from heart failure. He experienced a heart attack while performing with fellow artist Pierce Pettis in the folk/acoustic tent at a music festival in the farm fields north of Chicago. He was rushed to the hospital and recovered and left the hospital shortly after, only to have a second, more serious attack, fall into a coma and die some weeks later. The last three years of Heard’s life had been ridiculously productive at a high artistic level. He released three of the best albums of his 18 year career as a recording artist – Dry Bones Dance (’90), Second Hand (’91), and Satellite Sky (‘92). Perhaps sensing he was running out of time, he was working frantically, seeming burning his candle at both ends, producing albums for friends like Pettis, Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill, and co-produced with Peter Buck of R.E.M. an album with the band, Vigilantes of Love. He even did a tour playing guitar for singer/songwriter Sam Phillips who was married at the time to famed producer T Bone Burnett. Now, 25 years later, executive producer Jeff Grantham is seeking to reintroduce Mark Heard to a new audience, inviting long-time fans like myself to rethink his legacy by and re-recording 18 of his songs, all from the last three albums.
You get a feeling of what Madeira and company are capable of right off the bat with country singer Matt Haeck’s take on “The Dry Bones Dance,” set to a funky swing beat, with fine electric guitar soloing provided by Kimbrough and Madeira. Of course, the Red Dirt Boys found each other and their name a few years ago with they toured supporting Emmylou Harris on tour, and they are currently on the road with her opening shows for John Mellencamp. Turns out they’ve enjoyed each others company enough to play as a band even when Emmylou is off playing with other people (They’re working on a RDB debut album due next year), and they provide a solid basis for many of the tracks here. Another new folk/country rock singer, Levi Parham comes next performing “I Just Wanna Get Warm,” this time with Madiera tossing in some accordion and Hammond Organ licks to mix up the groove a bit, and some tasty fiddle by David Mansfield.
Some of the better known performers that came on board are Rodney Crowell, a fabulous songwriter as well, who offers up “Nod Over Coffee,” Heard’s ode to the family life of an artist and the daily grind of scraping together a living. Buddy Miller, who’s played with Harris and Robert Plant and is the choice of many, delivers the album’s title track, “Treasure of the Broken Land.” But the real star here is often the lyrical images, the deep humanity in the lyric’s poetry, and the melodies that came from Heard himself.
Other highlights include “Rise From the Ruins” performed by the entire band of Birds of Chicago, but it’s Alison Russell’s soulful vocal that will draw you in, and a guitar solo by Pat Terry (playing Heard’s own Stratocaster) seals the deal. A couple other real strong female vocalists include “House of Broken Dreams” by Amy Speace, “Lonely Road” by Sarah Potenza, and ”Strong Hand of Love” by Sierra Hull, who also plays some tasty mandolin here and both of these last two.
Sean Rowe brings his deep voice to a reading of “Everything Is Alright,” Cruz Conteras brings a bit of a Roy Orbison reading of “Mercy of the Flame,” Red Dirt Boys take one of Heard’s great songs, “Satellite Sky,” with Madiera singing the lead vocal. Kimbrough sings “Worry Too Much” (a song Buddy Miller covered on his album Universal United House of Prayer), while adding Guitarbox guitar picking to Anthony Crawford’s violin. There’s no doubt a Nashville country vibe that’s inescapable here, but Madiera’s addition of bluesy accents, the occasional horns by John Mark Painter, and background vocals that hint at a Gospel choir.
The North Mississippi Allstars give a suitable reading of “Freight Train to Nowhere,” with Rachael Davis singing lead and playing banjo, Luther Dickenson conjuring the train’s horn on his slide guitar. Over the Rhine, made up of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, who hosted the debut performance of music from this album at their Nowhere Else Festival, a music & arts festival in the backyard of their rural Ohio farmhouse, close out the album with a quiet, intimate rendition of Heard’s “Look Over Your Shoulder.”
On the whole, this is a superior compilation outing, re-inventing and breathing fresh life into songs that some of us have loved since they were first released. Mark Heard was a serious artist, a lyricist in touch with the raw and tangible substance of human longing, and remarkably his self-aware songs of struggling to make sense of life, to live fully and well, had such universal currency that they seem as fresh in this offering as today’s headlines. In “Orphans of God” he imagines a future generation who will dig up the ruins of our lives and pull from our graves our bones to make flutes. Strangely this image of music way deep in our human marrow living on for generations to come, is coming to fruition in this album, and perhaps it will drive curious listeners back to those original recordings where Mark Heard sang his own story.
Key Tracks: “Rise From the Ruins” / “Lonely Road” / “The Dry Bones Dance”
Artists With Similar Fire: Buddy Miller / Steve Earle / Bob Dylan
Mark Heard Tribute Project
Mark Heard Tribute Project Facebook
Album Info/Storm Weathered Records
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb