Blurt Magazine: On The Rural Route 7609 Review

By Lee Zimmerman

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"