Gets A Sneak Peek At The "Rural Route"

We haven't heard John's four-disc “On The Rural Route 7609” box set (to be released in time for Father’s Day)--at least not the way its 54 tracks have been compiled and sequenced. But we have had a sneak peek at Anthony DeCurtis's cut-by-cut liner notes--and now have a much better understanding of John's concept.

You'll recall how he's previously explained his focus on album material that he feels has been overlooked because of the huge pop hits that tended to dominate those albums--and his decision to arrange the songs as if they comprise four new and distinct albums, rather than in the chronological order of most box set career retrospectives. Well, it all makes more sense now that we've read the notes, in which John tells Grammy-winning Rolling Stone contributor DeCurtis about the varied origins of his songwriting.

For his part, DeCurtis offers thoughtful commentary. As he writes in reference to the first song "Longest Days"--which was inspired by John's visit with his dying grandmother--"It’s hard to think of another song in which an artist as successful as John Mellencamp meditated so forthrightly on the ups and downs of a career--and, to broaden the perspective even further, tied those concerns to mortality." The comment applies to the rest of the set as well, and is "the perfect track to begin the journey," as DeCurtis also notes. (The next track, incidentally, is "Grandma's Theme" from Scarecrow--which actually features John's grandmother's voice.)

The box's titletrack "Rural Route" (from Freedom's Road) is also on the first disc. John movingly tells DeCurtis of the song's origins: "a phone call from my mother, who said that the body of a 10-year-old girl who’d been raped and killed had been found not far from where my parents live." The last verse, he relates, "prays for forgiveness, because nobody could have done such a gruesome thing if they had been in their right mind. When you live out here in the middle of nowhere, it’s easy to get lost.”

There are similarly revealing stories for all of the songs. For example, John says that Rough Harvest was made quickly in order to "get me off a record label," but that it turned out to be a fun album to make--as evident in its version of "Rain On The Scarecrow" that is included in the box. He credits his favorite playwright Tennessee Williams for inspiring “Big Daddy of Them All”--specifically Burl Ives' portrayal of Big Daddy in the movie "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof: "This song was more or less a postcard to myself, saying, ‘You think Burl Ives wasn’t so nice? Guess what, John.’”

Williams' "displaced" characters likewise influenced the lyrics of "Troubled Land," John notes. Musically, The Kinks provided the impetus for the Cuttin' Heads track "Women Seem": "That's just me plagiarizing Ray Davies," John admits. "Don’t forget, I did something like 150 shows with the Kinks over a three-year period, and everything I’ve learned about being a live performer is from Ray."

"The Full Catastrophe of Life,” meanwhile, was written for Johnny Cash--at The Man in Black's request--but John cut it himself for Mr. Happy Go Lucky after Cash's producer Rick Rubin didn't "get it"--and after meeting New York producer/DJ Junior Vasquez by way of Madonna.

John revisits the controversy that erupted over his anti-war message in "To Washington": "It got so bad," he tells DeCurtis, "that my boys’ school had to hire extra security. That’s how enflamed people got.” "Rodeo Clown" was such an obvious swipe at then President Bush for the Iraq War that country group Little Big Town, which did background vocals on the album, decided not to sing on it. "They were afraid that country radio would hear about it, and that would be the end of it for them,” John discloses, adding that the chorus was actually sung by Mike Wanchic, Elaine Mellencamp, and anyone else who was in the room at the time.

On the other hand, John says he not only knew "Pink Houses" would be a hit but that no one would recognize its savage indictment of America "because the chorus was so huge." Regarding "Jackie Brown," which shares a bleak vision of the country, he says, "There’s a line in it that says, ‘We shame ourselves by watching people like this live.’ And we should be ashamed."

One particularly personal song is "Just Like You” from Cuttin’ Heads, which John was working on when his best friend, Billboard editor Tim White, died suddenly. “It took all the wind out of my sails," he recalls. "This song was written after Tim’s death. I was pretty unhappy, and I was trying to make myself feel better.” Death, of course, was central to “Don’t Need This Body” from Life, Death, Love and Freedom: "I’m not a kid any more," he tells DeCurtis, "and I have to accept the responsibility that comes with getting older and what that leads to. And if I’m having these thoughts, every boomer in the world probably is. Death is not exclusive to me.”

John had said that the box set would also feature different takes of album cuts as well as new or unreleased recordings altogether. These include Princeton's renowned professor of African American Studies Cornel West's poetic recitation of the lyrics of "Jim Crow" ("He was the perfect guy to read these lyrics, and he brings them across with the focused power of a sermon”), which is juxtaposed with the Freedom's Road duet version with Joan Baez, and The Lonesome Jubilee classic “The Real Life,” which is read by favorite actress (Academy Award-winning) Joanne Woodward.

“The World Don’t Bother Me None,” which John says was written "in a sort of blues, ‘I’m a Man,’ Muddy Waters vein,” was previously available only on the DVD of the 2004 documentary America’s Heart & Soul. He wrote and produced “Colored Lights” for The Blasters’ 1985 album Hard Line, then recently put in his own vocal to Blaster Dave Alvin's guitar part for the version included in the box (Both Dave and brother Phil Alvin of the Blasters, of course, have participated in the soundtrack recording of "Ghost Brothers"). “To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)” is a previously unreleased solo version of a song that originally appeared on John's 1980 album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, and as John notes, is about his first girlfriend (M.G., you may recall, lives in Columbus, Indiana, and was in the audience when John returned to perform at the Crump Theater there in 2008).

"Sugar Marie," which dates back to the 1979 album John Cougar, "suffered from young musicians not knowing how to present the music,” John tells DeCurtis. So he presents it here in a solo acoustic guitar version. He accompanies himself on autoharp on the box set's "Cherry Bomb,” which is actually the writing demo and being performed in his kitchen--"the song being created in that moment.” Also included in writing demo form is “Authority Song”: It's faster tempo, he explains, results from the limitations of tape machine technology in the early 1980s: "I never would have played the song that fast and my voice is so high. I also must have been feeling very Jamaican that day--my voice sounds like I was singing with a Jamaican accent, which was entirely possible."

The set offers a remix of the “Deep Blue Heart” duet with country star Trisha Yearwood from Cuttin' Heads, and a more introspective alternate version of "Our Country.” And it documents the creation of "Jack And Diane," starting with an old abandoned writing tape of "Jenny At 16" and moving ahead to the writing demo of "Jack And Diane" (which used some of the first song's lines) and then the final American Fool version--a four-day production that used a drum machine borrowed from the Bee Gees and Mick Ronson's suggested baby rattles and bridge.

One of our favorites, “Peaceful World,” is another solo acoustic guitar performance that DeCurtis says lends "even more impact to the song’s message, which is, if anything, even more relevant now." And the set ends pretty much where it began, with "Rural Route.”

“That’s me and Andy York playing the song out in the garage for the first or second time, with the rest of the band listening to us,” John tells DeCurtis, who describes the acoustic version as "if anything even more chilling than the original."

The song indeed "channels the horror of the murder of a child," DeCurtis writes, just as it evokes "the yearning for deliverance and hope." It's a fitting summation of the entire box, and the career that the set encapsulates.

--jim bessman