Friday, June 25, 2010

American Conscience: John Mellencamp's On the Rural Route 7609

A colleague of mine, who didn’t know John Mellencamp, asked me what he would be remembered for in music. I said, the song “Cherry Bomb” one of Mellencamp’s biggest pop songs now part of the musical currency of formatted radio. It remains a catchy track with just enough edge to stand out on any “soft-rock” radio station. I suspect that I have better ears than most, if I may be so bold to say, because there’s something explicitly “American” about John Mellencamp. His songs have continuously featured stories of farmers, the working class, rodeos, county fairs, etc. This new 4-CD box set which looks like a relic from your grandfather’s collection of 78s, seems intended to depict Mellencamp in a particular way. Quotes from Tennessee Williams bracket the collection with an essay by Anthony DeCurtis, music critic for Rolling Stone and The New York Times. If nothing else, this set is intended to re-imagine the songwriter in a less commercial way.

As a songwriter, John Mellencamp has always been the “conscience” of the working class and the poor and I suspect that this set is a full-fledged packaging of that persona. What distinguishes his songs from Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan though is an inherent empathy for the people Mellencamp sings about. Take the song “Jackie Brown,” a forgotten classic telling the tale of hardship for a family on welfare, written during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It’s the fourth song on Disc One yet it sets a serious tone for the whole collection. Disc Two starts with a reading by Joanne Woodward of “The Real Life” that opens the door to Mellencamp’s dark and dusty number called "Ghost Towns Along The Highway" from 2006. Mellencamp's songs are often a little subversive: on the outside they appear nostalgic and idealistic; but on the inside it’s a much darker story. All told, they are compositions that lament a bruised and battered people and a worn-out countryside.

The second disc features songs about Reagan ("Country Gentlemen"), George W. Bush ("Freedom’s Road" & "Rodeo Clown") and Bill Clinton ("Mr. Bellows"), unfavorable characterizations to say the least. Disc Three features a more solipsistic Mellencamp if you will. These tracks are mostly in the first person, including a killer version of Son House's classic “Death Letter.” On this disc, Mellencamp reveals more of himself rather than reflecting on the state of the union. These songs include the very personal “Void in My Heart” and a concert version of “If I Die Sudden” released last year. But the songs are much more varied musically to my ear. While the sounds on Disc One are dusty, old and earthy, Disc Three is much more spirited and joyful, one that makes an important point about the quality of Mellencamp’s ability as songwriter ("When Jesus Left Birmingham," "Women Seem"); he’s not all doom and gloom.

Disc Four features darker, moodier settings and the more personal Mellencamp. Several tracks here were on his last album, Life, Death, Love and Freedom; with the standout song being “County Fair” which trips away like a surreal trip to the carnival. If the intent of this box set is to present John Mellencamp strictly as a songwriter rather than a rock star, then it succeeds majestically.

--John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.

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