John Mellencamp Retrospective Set On the Rural Route 7609

By Darryl Morden

John Mellencamp’s new retrospective set, On the Rural Route 7609, is not just another anthology of hits and a scattering of previously unreleased bits. True, you’ll find some of his biggest songs here, but they are blended, carefully, with prior album tracks, unheard-until-now numbers, outtakes, and alternate versions.

The set — a vinyl LP-sized book of sorts, not a “box” — came out in mid-June and takes time to digest. It’s an archive on four discs, each thematically arranged, offering new perspectives on his body of work. This is not a collection for the hit-driven fan. For them, the two-disc, compact (and certainly still great) Words and Music fits that bill. Rural Route 7609 is for those want to dig deeper. Much deeper.

There was a time — a long time ago now — that Mellencamp was considered a solid enough heartland hit-maker but in the creative shadow of Springsteen. That changed with visionary albums such as 1985’s Scarecrow and 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. His work over a quarter-century has proven to been compelling, probing, and yeah, darn tuneful as well. Motivations, inspirations, whims and focus are explained in detail in must-read liner notes from music journalist Anthony DeCurtis and Mellencamp. Though each disc could be listened to as a single piece, let’s take it in order.

Disc one begins with acoustic ballad “Longest Days” from the relatively recent Life, Death, Love and Freedom in 2008 — a song about the death of Mellencamp’s grandmother and how sickness and age together take us. It’s followed by her voice on “Grandma’s Theme” from 1985’s Scarecrow, as she sings a rendition of the “The Baggage Coach Ahead,” a traditional American folk song. Next comes “Rural Route,” the collection’s semi-title song and a bleak, dark contrast to the nostalgic American images of “Small Town” or “Jack and Diane.” Here, drugs, rape, and murder infest that beloved once-seemingly idyllic heartland, though most know it was never truly that way in the first place.

The structuring isn’t feel-good in any way, advancing to tracks that include “Big Daddy of Them All,” yet balanced by a soothing duet with Trisha Yearwood, “Deep Blue Heart” from 2001’s Cuttin’ Heads, which then gives way to more brooding on sickness and dying in “Don’t Need This Body,” then an attempt at easing troubles with “Forgiveness.” The lyrics found in “Jenny at 16″ reveal “Jack and Diane” in progress, flowing into that #1 hit from the ’80s that made the then John Cougar a big star.

Disc two opens with a spoken-word reading by actress Joanne Woodward of “The Real Life” from 1987’s John Mellencamp album. Again, it’s a new perspective, in this case of his words alone. Mellencamp calls “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” the “sister song” to “Rain on the Scarecrow” as ways of life in America disappear. Originally written for Johnny Cash during his American Recordings years but never tracked, “The Full Catastrophe,” from Mr. Happy Go Lucky in 1996, bumps into an acoustic demo sung with a Jamaican lilt of the “I Fought The Law”-ish “Authority Song.”

Politics flare up with seething anger in “Troubled Land” and the scathing anti-George Bush “To Washington” — the latter a song that brought out right-wing hate against Mellencamp. An alternative take of “This Country” (to many, a good song marred when it became a Chevy ad theme) looks for affirmations in the American ideals, including key lines such as “There’s room enough here for science to live/And there’s room enough here for religion to forgive.” Roaming over political landscape continues on with “Country Gentleman” from ‘89 and, clearly about Reagan, the conflicted “Freedom’s Road” and an acoustic rendition of the Bill Clinton-inspired “Mr. Bellows.” Bush is targeted again in “Rodeo Clown,” which gives way to hope again through the Rough Harvest version of organically funky “Love and Happiness” and the anthem “Pink Houses,” given a new context in this setting.

For disc three, things kick off with a live, blues-washed “If I Die Sudden” and raw-rocking “Someday,” then downshifts for the bittersweet reflection of a 1999 recording of “Between a Laugh and a Tear,” one of the best songs from Scarecrow 13 years earlier. An alternate version of the biographical “Void in My Heart,” recorded at Chess Records, is buttressed against a version of Son House’s “Death Letter.” A recent acoustic rendition of “Sugar Marie,” dating back to 1979’s John Cougar, shows it may have the production and marketing at the time that kept an emerging artist in check.

The run of songs on this grouping also include the electro-beat gospel of “When Jesus Left Birmingham” from 1993’s Human Wheels, something of a throwaway in “L.U.V.” from 1994’s Dance Naked, and gospel blues for “Thank You. In “Women Seem,” recorded in 2001, Mellencamp says, in the liner notes, that its his view of his ongoing lady troubles over the year while also plagiarizing The Kinks’ Ray Davies. There’s more delta-grounded blues in “This World Don’t Bother Me None” from 2004, which until now was only used in a documentary. A demo of the sweet-look-back hit “Cherry Bomb” is another curious archival moment, Mellencamp alone on just auto-harp. A new track, “Someday the Rains Will Fall,” comes from sessions for his next planned studio set, No Better than This; it’s stark, just voice and acoustic guitar, recorded in mono on vintage, circa-’40s equipment in the Houston hotel room said to be where blues legend Robert Johnson was also recorded. Another duet ends this song set, Karen Fairchild joining Mellencamp for the spiritually imbued “A Ride Back Home.”

The cheerier rock-along tune, “My Aeroplane,” launches the fourth and final disc, which also includes Mellencamp’s version of “Colored Lights,” the song he wrote for 1980s Los Angeles roots-rockers, The Blasters. The soulful “Just Like You” is a remembrance for a friend who died, and the acoustic “Young Without Lovers” almost sounds like a lost hit, had it been punched up more for radio’s fussy parameters. Another acoustic treatment of an old song, “To M.G. (Wherever She May Be),” dating back to 1980, is another more personal piece, with a tone that matches 1993’s folksy “Sweet Evening Breeze” which follows. One of the few harder rocking tracks on the set, “What if I Came Knocking,” almost seems the odd rocker out yet works — a burst of bravado met by the murder tale of “County Fair” and then a solo acoustic yet stirring reading of “Peaceful World,” the 2001 hit duet with India.Arie. Liner notes address the song’s view of contemporary racism and reveal it was thriving and ugly at Mellencamp’s own record label at the time. One of his finest songs in the past dozen years is next — “Your Life Is Now” — a pop record as a challenge to one’s own ethics and convictions. The last track is an alternate take of “Rural Route,” even more claustrophobic and tension-wrought than the version on the first disc and with an extra verse of cautionary words: “Loneliness and isolation on the rural route/Slowly change the look of this nation from the rural route.”

This isn’t a party — far from it. That might be another collection in the future, perhaps one of concert tracks from over the years or perhaps live material and also one-time b-sides (now on reissued albums on bonus tracks), such as “Shama Lama Ding Dong.” For now, Mellencamp is traveling those dark paths and, as it stands, On the Rural Route 7609 is not just another “box set.” It’s not the ultimate chronology of his work for more than 30 years. It’s not something for a single sitting. A good part of the selections come from his past decade, which finds him as vital as ever — charts, radio and all be damned. It’s Mellencamp’s opus — a treatise on a decaying America where hope and good still live. But you have to find it, and that’s the hardest part of the journey.

John Mellencamp is touring this summer with Bob Dylan, and you won’t find a better double-bill out there (except, perhaps, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on dates with The Drive-By Truckers). You’ll find tour info on Mellencamp’s official website.