Examiner.com: John Mellencamp Rediscovers Himself On The Rural Route

By Jim Bessman

Album promo stickers are usually mere ad copy, but the one affixed to John Mellencamp--On the Rural Route 7609 is actually quite fitting.

"A Journey of Rediscovery" it proclaims, then after typically noting the contents (54 songs--14 previously unreleased--on four discs, 72-page book with essay and extensive annotation by critic Anthony DeCurtis) it further boasts of "chronicling the arc of a remarkable career spanning four decades, from pop idol beginnings to his ascent as one of America's most respected, social activist songwriters."

True for the most part, as the box is short on the "pop idol" part of Mellencamp's beginnings: Big early pop hits like "Hurts So Good" and "Crumblin' Down" are missing, same with ensuing signature hits like "Lonely Ol' Night," "R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A." and even "Small Town." But Mellencamp, who labored long and not so lovingly on the box ("I don’t particularly like digging around in my past and find little enjoyment in doing so," he complained at one point) had a much different objective in mind than chronologically recapping his career in the hits-focused manner of most such undertakings.

Rather, he expressly sought to compile material that he felt had been wrongly overlooked in relation to his pop hits, and arranged the discs as if they were four new and distinct albums. "If you didn’t get deeper into the original albums and know these songs, it will be like discovering new material,” he said.

And so it is indeed. The first disc begins with "Longest Days," originally from Mellencamp's acclaimed 2008 album Life, Death, Love and Freedom. The austere reflection on mortality inspired by a visit with his dying grandmother begins the set with anything but the anthemic, Americana genre-defining roots-rock hits that have distinguished Mellencamp's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame career, and gives way to "Grandma's Theme" from Scarecrow, which actually featured the grandmother's voice in a performance comparable to an old Smithsonian Folkways recording. Then comes the first of two versions of titletrack "Rural Route," this one the previously released cut from 2007's Freedom Road.

The first disc also contains a poetic recitation of the lyrics of "Jim Crow" by Princeton professor of African American Studies Cornel West followed by Freedom's Road's 's duet version with Joan Baez. It closes with three takes on "Jack And Diane," starting with an unreleased demo from the early 1980s, "Jenny at 16," that contained a verse of what would in 1982 become Mellencamp's biggest hit--which then follows in both writing demo and recognizable American Fool album forms.

Disc Two opens with a second dramatic reading in Mellencamp's favorite actress Joanne Woodward's recitation of "The Real Life," from1987's The Lonesome Jubilee. A solo acoustic writing demo of "Authority Song" presents the rocker as essentially a folksinger, and leads into the disc's centerpiece trilogy of disturbing songs about America in "Troubled Land" and "To Washington" (both the original album versions), and "Our Country"--here a more introspective alternate take, perhaps serving to reclaim it from its truck commercial origins, as he has stated such an intent in concert performances.

The third disc features a writing demo of the hit "Cherry Bomb," Mellencamp accompanying himself on autoharp in his kitchen and creating it "in that moment," he tells DeCurtis. Other unreleased tracks include a solo acoustic guitar version of "Sugar Marie," a song that dates back to the 1979 album John Cougar: That album was the first to show a modification in his stage name, having changed from the Johnny Cougar of his preceding albums.

John Cougar, of course, would become John Cougar Mellencamp and then John Mellencamp as the singer-songwriter moved from the rock stardom of "Hurts So Good" into establishing, if not outright founding, Americana music--and unflinchingly documenting the people, places and policies of America. The fourth disc's unreleased solo acoustic version of his 2001 hit "Peaceful World," as DeCurtis notes, not only underscores the continuing relevance of the song's message but that of its messenger.

Final track "Rural Route" ends the collection pretty much where it began, only this is an early acoustic version of the grim story-song based on the murder of a young girl--and a plea to God for mercy and forgiveness. Characteristically mixing cynical observation with idealism, it exemplifies what DeCurtis describes as Mellencamp's "yearning for deliverance and hope."

So On The Rural Route 7609 succeeds in rediscovering and reformatting material Mellencamp cut between 1976, when he began making records, and 2009. Next up is a rediscovery of a different sort in No Better Than This, an album of original material he recorded last summer at the historic sites of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia; legendary Sun Studio in Memphis; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio--Room 414, specifically, where Robert Johnson recorded his classic blues songs in 1936.