"If they wanted to call me Rumpelstilskin, I would have done it to have the opportunity to make records. Johnny Cougar indeed.- John Mellencamp
I have previously written on this site about John Mellencamp and his place in the Americana community and with On the Rural Route 7609, a box set which will be released on June 15, the music speaks for itself. Over the course of the set's four discs, many different sides of Mellencamp and his music are revealed and since the box focuses on album tracks and outtakes as opposed to hits, there are many songs here that will be new to even die-hard fans. Those who want to hear "Small Town" and "Hurts So Good" can look elsewhere. In fact, I'll be more than happy to direct you to the right place in the comments section. But those who want a career-spanning portrait of a modern American folk singer and roots rocker need to look no further.
The set begins with 2008's stark, acoustic ballad "Longest Days," inspired by the illness and subsequent death of Mellencamp's grandmother. The song addresses Mellencamp's career in an honest and revealing way with lines such as "So you tell yourself, you'll be back on top someday/But you know there's nothing waiting up there for you anyway." The song makes as compelling an opening to this set as it did on the album Life, Death, Love and Freedom.
The next track, "Grandma's Theme" from the 1985 album Scarecrow features Mellencamp's grandmother performing the traditional American folk song "The Baggage Coach Ahead". This is followed by 2007's "Rural Route," which is the absolute antithesis of "Small Town" or "Jack and Diane". Instead of describing "Two American kids growin' up in the heartland" or people who were "Taught to fear Jesus in a small town", this track examines the rural underbelly with lines about how the "air stinks of crystal meth" and its real-life tale of a rape and murder of a 5th grader near Mellencamp's parents home. It is perhaps the bleakest track of Mellencamp's career and will serve as a wake-up call to those who thought he only wrote anthems meant to be sung along to in arenas.
Things do not brighten up any on the next track, "Jackie Browne". The song, an acoustic folk ballad from 1989's Big Daddy, is a heartbreaking tale of poverty and how it affects one family. This is followed by "Rain on the Scarecrow," probably the best known track thus far, but this is not the version are most familiar with. This is the acoustic version of the song from 1999's Rough Harvest and the acoustic setting really helps to underline the serious nature of the song which deals with a family losing their farm and contains some of Mellencamp's most cutting lines: "Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land/He said John it's just my job and I hope you understand/Hey callin' it your job, ol' hoss, sure don't make it right/But if you want me to I'll say a prayer for your soul tonight".
The next two tracks deal with social problems of another nature. The first features Dr. Cornel West, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University reading the lyrics to John's 2007 tune "Jim Crow". This is followed by the original version of the song, a duet with folk legend Joan Baez. The song is one of many Mellencamp song's to address the issue of race in America.
The next track, one of my personal favorites, is "Big Daddy of Them All," which, according to the liner notes by Anthony DeCurtis, was inspired by Burl Ives' character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and how Mellencamp felt he related to that character. This is not the first nor the last time that Tennessee Williams and his works are referenced in the liner notes. The following track, "Deep Blue Heart", is a duet with Trisha Yearwood and was one of the highlights from Mellencamp's 2001 album Cuttin' Heads. This is followed by 2007's "Forgiveness" which examines in a very personal way dealing with our mistakes and longs for "peace of mind".
The next track, 2008's "Don't Need this Body" ranks with "Rural Route" as one of Mellencamp's bleakest. But it is also among his best. Produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring sparse instrumentation, the track frankly declares that "All my friends are sick or dying and I'm here all by myself/All I got left is a head full of memories and the thought of my upcoming death". Not exactly the type of sentiments one expects from an artist as commercially successful as Mellencamp.
The next track is a previously unreleased demo from the early '80s entitled "Jenny at 16". The song, featuring just Mellencamp on acoustic guitar, sounds like a pleasant enough folk-rock track and would easily rank among his best of that time period. Then we get to the second verse and we immediately realize why it was included here. Mellencamp sings: "Suckin' on a cigarette outside the Tastee-Freeze/Sittin' on a young man's lap, got his hands between her knees/Takin' off her Bobbie Brooks behind the shady trees/Cussin' like a sailor you know that that's Jenny". Sound familiar? The next two tracks will reveal why. The first is a short demo of "Jack and Diane" featuring the signature guitar riff along with the first verse and the unfinished chorus. This is followed by the classic, finished version of this song which is one of the best rock songs of its' period and the song that made John Mellencamp, or John Cougar, a household name.
The set's second disc begins with a reading of Mellencamp's 1987 song "The Real Life" performed by legendary actress Joanne Woodward. I've always loved the song and hearing it read by a woman in her 80s really brings a lot of meaning to the lyrics. This is followed by "Ghost Towns Along the Highway," a tale of the demise of small town America which Mellencamp calls the "sister song" to "Rain on the Scarecrow".
"The Full Catastrophe," which follows, was originally written for Johnny Cash's American Recordings after Cash asked Mellencamp to write a song for him. However, Mellencamp says Rick Rubin didn't "get it" and he subsequently recorded it for his own album Mr. Happy Go Lucky in 1996. The next track is an acoustic demo of Mellencamp's 1983 hit "The Authority Song" performed in a Jamaican accent, no less.
This is followed by 2008's "Troubled Land," a political track Mellencamp says was inspired by the works of Tennessee Williams. Next up is "To Washington", which was among the most controversial tracks of Mellencamp's career. Upon the song's release, Mellencamp recalls hearing a caller on his local radio station saying "I don't know who I hate worse: John Mellencamp or Saddam Hussein". The song is actually a re-write of a traditional folk song recorded by Charlie Poole as "White House Blues" and Woody Guthrie as "Baltimore to Washington" among others. Mellencamp's lyrics are anything but subtle and include such lines as "So America voted on a President/No one kept count on how the election went", "A new man in the White House with a familiar name/Said he had some fresh ideas but its worse now since he came", and "He wants to fight with many and he says it's not for oil/He sent out the National Guard to police the world."
This is followed by an alternative and much more rootsy version of 2007's "Our Country" which was infamously used and abused by Chevrolet. Lost in all the seemingly patriotic lyrics were lines about how "There's room enough here for science to live/And there's room enough here for religion to forgive" and how "Poverty could be just another ugly thing/And bigotry would be seen only as obscene/And the ones who run this land help the poor and common man...".
Next up is one of Mellencamp's best tracks, a 1989 tune about a "Country Gentleman" who "...Ain't-a gonna help no women/He ain't-a gonna help no children/He ain't-a gonna help no poor man/He's just gonna help his rich friends". Mellencamp leaves little to the imagination by ending the song with the line "Thank God he went back to California". The next track is "Freedom's Road" , a 2007 track about the state of the union and the war in Iraq. An acoustic version of 1996's "Mr. Bellows" follows and Mellencamp admits in the liner notes that the first verse was inspired by Bill Clinton.
There's an interesting story behind the next track, "Rodeo Clown," where Mellencamp boldly declares that "There's blood on the hands of all the rich politicians" and refers to George W. Bush as a the titualar rodeo clown. The country band Little Big Town did the backing vocals for the Freedom's Road album and refused to participate on this track because "They were afraid that country radio would hear about it and that would be the end for them". This, along with the Dixie Chicks boycott, demonstrates how far country radio has disintegrated since the days when songs such as "Okie from Muskogee" and "Man in Black" could co-exist.
The next track is the Rough Harvest version of "Love and Happiness" and this is followed by "Pink Houses" one of Mellencamp's best known tracks.
Disc three begins with a live version of "If I Die Sudden", a wonderful blues rock tune from 2008 and is followed by "Someday", a socially conscious garage rocker from 2007 and 1999's re-recording of "Between a Laugh and a Tear".
The next track is an alternate version of 1989's "Void in My Heart" recorded at Chess Records. An extremely personal song about Mellencamp's life ("Well I pured miles of concrete and strung wire for telephones/Dug ditches when I was a young boy and I first left my parents' home/Sang my songs for millions of people, sang good and bad news/Now there's a void in my heart and a fire at my fuse"), this version is much more upbeat than the album version and contains more traditional instrumentation such as the dobro and accordion. This is followed by Mellencamp's 2003 cover of Son House's "Death Letter".
The next track is a recent solo acoustic re-recording of 1979's "Sugar Marie" from the John Cougar album. The track is essentially about a good time in a small town and the characters are drawn straight from life. "I got this cowboy comin' with me," he sings, "This guy's name is Jeffery Jack/He can shoot the eyes out of a pool ball/He can get those young girls into the sack". This is followed by another similarly themed tune from 1989, "Theo and Weird Henry".
The next track, "When Jesus Left Birmingham" is from 1993's Human Wheels and contains electronic beats, a gospel chorus, and various sound effects atop the spiritual lyrics. It has never been one of my favorite tracks, but I can respect it for what it is. "L.U.V." from 1994's Dance Naked follows. A breezy, political garage rocker it was among the standouts on that particular album. This is followed by 2004's "Thank You", a bluesy gospel-inspired track.
"Women Seem", from 2001, follows. Mellencamp says in the liner notes that the comical tale of his troubles with women is "just me plagiarizing Ray Davies [of the Kinks]". "This World Don't Bother Me None", a blues track from 2004 could previously only be heard in an obscure documentary. This is the first time I have heard it and it contains some great slide guitar work and lyrics invoking imagery of America and contemplating mortality and being happy with your life.
The demo of "Cherry Bomb" follows and it features Mellencamp alone accompanying himself on autoharp. This is followed by the newest track on the set, "Someday the Rains will Fall", an outtake from the upcoming album No Better than This. The track seems to feature just Mellencamp on acoustic guitar and was recorded in mono with 1940s recording equipment in the Houston hotel room where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson recorded much of his output. If this is any indication, we are all in for a real treat this August. Disc three ends with "A Ride Back Home", a gospel duet with Karen Fairchild which Mellencamp compared to "one of the....songs that Johnny Cash and June Carter sang together."
The fourth and final disc begins with the 2007 roots rocker "My Aeroplane" which promotes the idea of peace and happiness among everybody. This is followed by "Colored Lights", a song which John wrote for the Blasters and they recorded for their 1985 album Hard Line. I'm not sure this version compares to the Blasters version, but it's always interesting to hear the songwriter's take on a song. "Just Like You", a soul track from 2001 inspired by the death of one of Mellencamp's friends follows.
Another 2008 tune, "Young Without Lovers" is up next. It is a very catchy acoustic number with a chorus that is begging you to sing along. This is followed by a recent solo acoustic version of 1980's "To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)" a real life tell of a relationship Mellencamp had at 15. It is a song I'm sure most of us can relate to and this version is much more personal and heartfelt than the original. The similarly themed folk-rock "Sweet Evening Breeze" from 1993 follows. This is followed by the rocker "What if I Came Knocking" which Mellencamp says was inspired by the beginning of his relationship with his wife Elaine.
Next up is the 2008 electric murder ballad "County Fair" which, much like "Rural Route" and "Ghost Towns Along the Highway" turns the idea of rural isolation being an escape from the problems of the world on its head. This is followed by a solo acoustic version of 2001's "Peaceful World", originally a duet with soul artist India.Arie. According to DeCurtis's liner notes the lyrics about how "Racism lives in the U.S. today" did not go over well with his record label with one executive going as far as to ask "Why does Mellencamp insist on writing about these niggers?". (The same album contained a collaboration with Chuck D., leader of the rap group Public Enemy who are noted for their anti-racism messages.) This acoustic version sounds like a classic American folk song in the vein of Pete Seeger.
"Your Life is Now" from 1998's John Mellencamp follows. A gentle folk-pop song, it finds Mellencamp telling the listener that "Your fathers days are lost to you/This is your time here to do what you will do" and asking "Would you teach your children to tell the truth?" This is followed by 2008's "For the Children" which is one of Mellencamp's most stark and heartfelt tracks ever. The final track on the set is an alternate version of "Rural Route". This version is even bleaker than the studio version and it contains an extra verse that sums up not just this set but most of Mellencamp's music: "Father's been brought up on charges on the rural route/Young man awaiting death sentence conviction from the rural route/Loneliness and isolation on the rural route/Slowly change the look of this nation from the rural route."
Is the set perfect? No. There's no way that everybody will be 100% pleased with a set like this. There will always be a track or two you don't care for and there are always better tracks that should have made it. One problem I have with the set is the fact that it contained nothing written prior to 1979. I know that Mellencamp is not a fan of his earlier albums, but "Chestnut Street" and "Sidewalks and Streetlights" are very revealing tracks that should be included. Other tracks that I feel are missing are 1983's "Golden Gates", 1985's "Minutes to Memories", and 1998's "Eden is Burning", the sequel to "Jack and Diane". But these are minor complaints. If you have any interest in John Mellencamp at all or if you want to get to know his music beyond the hits, this set belongs in your collection.
In Anthony DeCurtis's liner notes there was a paragraph about the Americana and No Depression movement. I will end my review by quoting it:
"If he has not been properly credited for that groundbreaking role, it is largely because he committed the unforgivable sin of actually having hits while making innovative music. Part of the No Depression mythology requires either a tragic early death or decades of unacknowledged masterpieces created during a life of grueling poverty. Writing and recording great songs that millions of people like and buy is not part of that sentimental picture- regardless of how comfortably the music itself sits within the genre's parameters. As Neil Young pointed out, sometimes you are made to pay a price for having hit records."