07/12/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Hidden Gifts: Remembering Mark Heard

A few nights back, I watched a new documentary that chronicles the rise and demise of the rock band Big Star. Nothing Can Hurt Me was a powerful film -- by turns riveting and tragic in its exploration of what might have been for an incredibly talented group -- and celebratory in its closing scenes, where a stellar array of musicians disclosed their debt to groundbreaking artistry. Forty years on, Big Star's place is secure. Would that they had known such acclaim long years ago.

* * *

The British playwright Joseph Addison once wrote of "virtues that shun the day, and lie conceal'd." I think about that haunting phrase when it comes to Big Star, and wish a less somber line somehow seemed to capture who they were.

I think too that Addison's phrase is no less true of Mark Heard, a folk rock songwriter of prodigious gifts, whose lyrics blurred the line into poetry. He died in the summer of 1992, but not before giving us a stunning trilogy of albums: Dry Bones Dance, Second Hand, and Satellite Sky.

Twenty years after Heard's death, Bruce Cockburn spoke movingly of "the joy and energy in his music." Peerless craftsmanship burnished Heard's recordings, and Cockburn took note, saying, "The expertise with which his albums were put together, excited and inspired me... He also was the center of a group of us who knew and appreciated him. Mark was pretty underground, and it felt special to be among those who 'got' him. When he died it felt like there was suddenly a vacuum where he had been."

Not long ago, at a writers' conference, I had the privilege of spending time with singer/songwriter Pierce Pettis, and of hearing him perform. When it came time for him to leave, I offered to help him carry his equipment to his car, and we spoke about Mark Heard, whom he had known and recorded with. That conversation was a gift.

More recently, Pettis memorably recalled overhearing a phone conversation when Heard said no to an invitation from T-Bone Burnett to join Burnett and Bob Dylan for a concert tour. After the call, Pettis got the whole story from Heard. "Are you crazy?" Pettis said in stunned disbelief. "How can you turn that down?"

* * *

My own sense of amazement over this refusal is deepened when I recall one concert that Heard said yes to. It was the spring of 1990. I'd already attended two Mark Heard concerts in earlier years. Now, toward the close of my senior year at college, I looked forward to a third. What a great way to round out my time at school. I looked forward to that night more than anything else all year.

Still, I remember thinking: why would someone like Mark Heard perform in the student lounge of a small liberal arts college? I knew coffeehouse performances offered an intimacy that artists often welcome. But then, so few would be able to attend. There was only so much space. All the same, I was glad I'd be one of the people there.

Or so I thought. About a week before the concert, I came down with a bad case of bronchitis, and was bedridden for two weeks. Too sick to cross the quad for Heard's performance, I asked a friend (who was doing sound for the gig) to bring my CD copy of Dry Bones Dance over. Could he ask Heard to sign it for me?

A day or so later, my friend told me it had been a tough night for Heard. The music was great, but the sound equipment was acting up, and causing frustration. Then too, the concert audience had been smaller than hoped. "What a shame," I remember thinking.

But despite the tough night, Mark Heard gave me a gift I'll always treasure. My friend had told him I was sick, and said how much it would mean for me to get my copy of Dry Bones Dance signed. He said yes, and my CD came back with a fine inscription that ran to just four words: "Hi Kevin, Mark Heard."

Best of all, and true to form, Heard had written his greeting backwards. I held it up to the mirror, and it read the right way round. How could he have mastered that, I wondered, and what was the story behind it? I never found out. All I know is that he brightened a trying time for me, on a night that had been trying for him. It was a quiet act of generosity, much in keeping with the man.

* * *

All these years later, I think about the tour that wasn't -- and the 1990 concert that did take place. Set them side-by-side, and there seems a sad irony about it all. Heard's years of toiling in obscurity might have ended. Still, who can say?

Those who care about a songwriter's art wish them an audience that welcomes their gifts -- halls full of people to hear their songs. Why had Heard said no to something that could have led to that, or at least given it a chance?

Answers are elusive, but I've often thought that if we find ourselves among the fortunate few to have heard a departed artist's songs performed live in concert, and to be among those who bought each new album in the years when they first appeared -- we can give something back. We can remember how the music was the first time we heard it -- how it took hold, and wouldn't let go. We can tell someone else about it. And maybe time will bring the kind of audience that should know the songs of a musician's musician.