John Mellencamp – On the Rural Route 7609

January 01, 1970

(Mercury/Universal)

 

It took awhile for John Mellencamp to get the respect he
deserved. Branded by the nom de plume Johnny Cougar early on — the idea of management
team intent on cashing in on the glam imagery that was so prevalent at the time
— he slowly but deliberately morphed into the guise of a journeyman rocker
better befitting his Midwestern roots. To his credit, he maintained his
proficiency for stacking up the hits along the way — good, sturdy songs that
paid homage to the heartland and garnered him a loyal following that extended
well beyond its bounds. Today, he’s granted the same gravitas and import of
purpose bestowed on Springsteen, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and other seasoned
singers and songwriters who have been the voice of the Everyman, the
disheartened and ignored. Like a modern day Woody Guthrie, he sings of simple
truths from an unflinchingly blue-collar point of view.

 

It’s no surprise then that the first full retrospective of
Mellencamp’s career should be minted from such a rustic perspective.  Indeed, On
the Rural Route 7609
further defines its subject, not simply as a steady
pop purveyor, but more importantly, as a weathered, old school troubadour,
i.e., a populist rocker and a traveling preacher of sorts who rallies the
masses by offering to sanctify their souls. It’s not an actual anthology per se
– no weight is given to chronological milestones – nor is it merely a greatest
hits package, given that the material is tapped for its relevance and not
merely for its weighting on the charts. Yes, there’s a smattering of rarities
and outtakes, but being they’re in short supply, they’re not the main draw
here.  And of course, there’s the
prerequisite presence of “Jack and Diane” (given extra emphasis by the original
demo segueing into the finished track),” “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Pink
Houses,” but their inclusion vindicates the theme as much as it does their
popularity. A handful of other possible inclusions are notably missing – for
example, here we have “Authority Song” and “Cherry Bomb” only in their original
acoustic templates, while his sterling remake of “Wild Night” is omitted
altogether. Indeed, for both the casual fan and committed devotee, this set
offers an opportunity to pierce the veil of Mellencamp’s rugged, down-home
persona and share the aural imagery that shaped his song craft as viewed up
close and personal.

 

“I wanted these discs to play as brand new records,”
Mellencamp says in describing this set. “For people who associate me with ‘Jack
and Diane’ and ‘Pink Houses,’ I wanted to be sure they heard these songs as if
they were discovering new material – even hearing the old material they might
not know as new material.” Clearly, the concept works; here emphasis is on the
back-story and the journey’s richer in its discovery. Songs that were hardly
given a second hearing as album tracks now become front and center. So too, a
handful of spoken word segments — Joanne Woodward’s read of “the Real Life” in
particular — become especially poignant, enhancing the theme and giving the
package a vivid cinematic feel.

 

As befitting a package imbued with such authority and
importance, On the Rural Route 7609 is handsomely packaged, the four discs encased in a coffee table style volume
that traces Mellencamp’s career journey and offers extensive notes for each
song, describing the inspiration and origins in personal detail. With photos
cast in a sepia tint, it further enhances the stoic sensibility. Then again,
this is more than merely a mark of some sort of milestone. Rather its
affirmation of a career cast by a posture and determination that’s managed to
remain relevant and vital, often oblivious to the demands of commerce and
commercial fortunes. Indeed, Mellencamp’s latest work, much of which receives
the spotlight here, shows his willingness to eschew mass success even as he
appeals to the masses. It’s a fine divide, but these rural routes circumvent
them brilliantly.

 

Standout Tracks: “Jackie Brown,” “To Washington,” “Our Country (Alternate Version),” “What If I
Came Knocking” LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

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