When I found Mark at the festival, he was in a dorm room lobby area sitting alone. I introduced myself by telling him how much his music had impacted me and that his manager had set up an interview. Mark said he was too tired, had traveled all night, and wouldn't be able to do the interview.
Without skipping a beat, I then began to get out some radio liners for him to voice, thinking that would be much easier than a full interview. He again politely, but a little more sternly this time, declined. I pushed a little harder and will be forever embarrassed about my insensitivity in that moment. He then, more sternly, declined and I backed away feeling very dejected and embarrassed at how I'd acted upon the first meeting of my musical hero.
Fast-forward to 1987. I was a huge believer in the Ideola project and actually took a radio promotion position for Myrrh Records and the Myrrh Records/A & M imprint What? Records. Maybe I'd actually get the opportunity to work more directly (on the inside) with Mark Heard and have a chance to prove I'm not such a jerk!
A couple of staff people told me how hard it was to get along with him and to not get my hopes up.
The "play stupider" sessions were based around the career of Randy Stonehill, a true father figure in the early days of CCM and someone who'd had a fair amount of success in the industry but was not climbing in new sales and radio play with his newer records. He was a pop balladeer from '81 through '86, then put on an electric guitar and brought in Dave Perkins as a producer to create the balls to the wall rock & roll The Wild Frontier album in '86.
There was a bit of confusion at the label and in the marketplace as to who Randy's audience was. Perkins produced Randy's 1988 project Can't Buy a Miracle, featuring a sweet ballad called "Coming Back Soon." It tied a true-life story about Randy's daughter missing her dad while he was in Nashville making a record, and connecting that to the believer's cry for the return of Christ. The song went to #3 on AC Christian radio charts, and the album probably had a couple of songs in the top 5 at CHR and Rock.
But even with the radio success, sales were not as strong as expected for Stonehill, and nowhere near what his talent deserved.
So Myrrh A&R man Tom Willet brought in Mark Heard to produce Randy's '89 project Return to Paradise (a Top 100 CCM Albums Book pick). The album, though gorgeous and featuring great songs, had almost no radio success and even worse sales.
In early '90, Tom Willet and Mark Heard approached me to find out exactly what kind of songs Christian radio stations were playing at the time and how they could get another hit for Randy like we'd had with "Coming Back Soon," and many other top 5 songs he'd had in the early to mid-80's. I told them that it was sad but true that radio was appealing (and I suppose always has and always will be) to a lowest common denominator sound and lyric content. If they could come up with a ballad that drew parallels between a natural every day experience and the eternal-Christian radio would eat it up.
They accepted the challenge and seemed very concerned about not "messing it up."
Within a matter of weeks, they brought back the song, "Faithful," which would release on an album that same year that was half live and half studio. The live tracks were Randy standards, and the studio tracks were all new songs.
The lyrics for "Faithful" were absolutely lowest common denominator. As it turns out, Mark Heard was the writer but was so embarrassed by the lyric, they listed the songwriter as an Italian version of his real name: Giovanni (John, Mark's real first name) Audiori (Heard).
Tom Willet clued me in to the studio process early on, and to the "play stupider" line that was being slung around. My point all along had been, If you want to have success at this format and don't feel like it's compromising your art, then this is what Radio wants.
I went over to Mark's studio in a small outbuilding in his backyard in Montrose, CA, just up the road from where I lived in Eagle Rock, to listen in on the session. I don't exactly remember handling the faders for the song but that could've happened.
A battle raged in me at the time because I wanted so much to fit in with this group of people. Tom Willet was a brilliant A&R guy, who was consistently attached to records that remain some of my all time faves (including Tonio K. and The Choir). Stonehill and Heard were huge influences for me and I loved being around them but I also felt embarrassed that I had to be the bad news guy with the report that many of their best efforts would not be embraced by Christian music radio and thus, consumers.
I wanted to have success in my career as a radio promoter too and worked very hard at getting as much airplay as possible for all the artists on the roster.
One thing that is just not true in Mark's Image journal entry: he writes that after "Faithful" was turned in, I called him and said, "Mark, we had no idea you were capable of such brilliant production." I knew Mark was completely capable. But he and the artist and the label all were trying to "Keep It Simple, Stupid" (the KISS theory) to get Randy back on the map of successful CCM artists. ("Faithful" peaked at #2, but Randy's album and accompanying full-length concert video did not sell up to expectations.)
Every time I was around Mark Heard, I was a bit in awe and would never say something so condescending to him as "We had no idea you were capable of such brilliant production."
I felt a little stupid being the guy that represented the stupidity at Christian radio and didn't have many more dealings with Mark before his death. I saw him perform at Cornerstone '90, and stopped by his record table afterwards. Much to my surprise, he grabbed my hand, pulled me in close, and acted like we were old friends. He said, "Hey, we've got to get together sometime. I'll call you soon." I didn't expect a follow-up, but sure enough, he called me within a month and took me out to lunch. I still remember various subjects we discussed, but I simply hold those in my heart.
My thoughts on Mark as an artist: I bought Appalachian Melody
in 1980 at a used record store only because I'd seen ads for it in CCM Magazine
completely taken in. 1981's Stop the Dominoes did more for me but it was 1982's Victims of the Age along with Mark's production of Pat Terry's Humanity Gangsters and my getting married in May of '82…more than at any other point in my 22 years of life, those three events brought me face to face with what a fallen and selfish person I was (am) and what a messed up world we live in.
I feel his best work was from '80 to '87 and I know I'm in the minority with most Orphans of God on that one. When I was in Christian radio from '80 to '87 I found ways to play his music on the air. Even though it was not as slick and pop sounding as other better selling projects, to me it was life giving.
I wish radio and thus, the Church, embraced the music and convictions of Mark Heard and his ilk. By and large, in my career, I have fought for the underdog and those artists that are truly connecting with their audience no matter how small, on an intellectual and visceral level.
To me, Mark Heard will always be near the top of that list. He was
too good, too smart, and too honest for much of the Christian music industry.
I wish I could have gotten to know him better and without the attending drama
of being the guy who asked him to dumb down his gifts and talents, for the
sake of a hit. But on the other hand, I wouldn't have told him to do
that if he hadn't asked me HOW to do it in the first place!