Sound Waves Magazine: Authority Never Won

Authority Never Won - By Mark T. Gould

“If a song you wrote can actually become part of the fabric of the listener’s life, that’s as much as you can hope for…….that’s as good as it gets.”

“This getting older ain’t for cowards.”

---John Mellencamp

Passion. That’s what comes to mind when I think about the incredible career and legacy of John Mellencamp.

Passion. When he fought back against being pushed, prodded and manipulated as “Johnny Cougar” early in his career.

Passion. When, despite all that irrelevant distraction, he soared through “Hurts So Good,” his first major hit.

Passion. When, soon after, he simultaneously placed both his given surname and his personal stamp of Americana on his, and our, music and destiny.

Passion. When he flicked away his half-drawn cigarettes at the beginning of his concerts.

Passion. When he added a hip-hop element to his Appalachian swing.

Passion. When he sold one of consistently noble and righteous songs about his country for an automobile commercial.

Passion. When his band members and he adorned Midwestern town greens and street corners just over decade ago, performing timeless acoustic shows for, sometimes, just a handful of fans. “Small Town,” indeed.

Passion. When after selling what seemed like a gazillion records, he decided it was not time to sell his soul. And, guess what? In doing so, he sold another gazillion records.

Passion. When he stayed at home in Indiana, and fought, and continues to fight, for family farms and other causes close to him, so much so that there’s grassroots swell to get him to run for the U.S. Senate.

Passion. As he paced around a concert stage, alternating between his anthemic hits, enough of them to fill an entire concert in themselves, with those glorious, poignant, heartrending, yet somehow less conspicuous, but arguably more indispensable, song stories, fables and parables that have served to make us all sit up, take notice, think, and, yes, act.

It is, to my ears, heart and conscience, more those somewhat less noticeable, but yet so vital songs, than the hits that have defined the career, and, of course, the passion of John Mellencamp. And, nowhere is that particular truth more evident, and those songs, those unique, united and meticulous contributions to our American way, more apparent then in his recently released box set, “On The Rural Route 7609,” and his upcoming new studio release, the ambitious “No Better Than This.”

To me, the box set may be the most detailed, thought-provoking release he’s ever done; that is, until you listen to “No Better.” As Mellencamp himself has pointed out in numerous interviews about “Rural Route,” and, as he explains in Anthony DeCurtis’s splendid liner notes and track-by-track lineage therein, most box sets overemphasize a cacophony of hits sprinkled with a semi-teasing handful of unreleased tracks, demos and/or outtakes, most of which, for most recording artists, were, let’s be honest now, left unreleased for a reason. That’s clearly not how Mellencamp approached this project, and, for that reason alone, it’s pretty much setting the standard for what other box sets should represent and present to listeners.

Put it this way, if you’re expecting “Jack and Diane,” followed by “Hurt So Good,” and then “Pink Houses,” and “Cherry Bomb,” well, then, maybe you just don’t get what John Mellencamp is all about.

Sure, it would have been easy for him to just to repackage the hits, drop an unreleased track here and there, and sell, well, maybe another gazillion records. But, that’s not what John Mellencamp’s passion for his songs makes him do.

Yes, it’s Mellencamp’s passion that comes to the forefront of this project. From its name to its rustic packaging to its virtually total acoustic presentation, Mellencamp, yet again, thumbed his artistic nose at corporate convention, and went, for my money, for a much more difficult, yet ultimately rewarding, route. To paraphrase his good friend Neil Young, Mellencamp veered into the ditch and we listeners have a much more intense and interesting ride because of it.

What you will get, then, is that “ P” word again. Passion. For me, like many of his fans, I cannot listen to the concurrent pathos and beauty of the stark numbers like the incomparable “Jackie Brown;” perhaps the best and most moving song he’s ever written; the roughness of the scaled down “Rain on the Scarecrow,” the austere acceptance of “Don’t Need This Body,” the brutal frankness of “To Washington,” the possibilities of “Someday,” and the clench of his cover of Son House’s “Death Letter,” just some of the highlights of this thoughtful and thought-provoking collection, without raising a lump in my throat and catching a tear in my eye, all the while refocusing, rejoicing and reacting to our potential and possibilities as a people, all within the forthright jubilation that someone like John Mellencamp cares enough about us, and himself, to write, rediscover and cover these astonishing works.

And, if this box tour-de-force isn’t enough, we also have “No Better,” a collection of 13 brilliant new songs that, naturally, pits Mellencamp’s scaled down approach against contemporary, state of the art recording technology. Faced with and wholly rejecting a more modern approach, he, instead, bequeaths us a mono recording, produced by T-Bone Burnett, recorded on a 55-year-old tape machine over only two weeks, in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, First African Baptist Church in Savannah and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, the last location where another Americana pioneer, Robert Johnson, once recorded.

In many ways, as both the box set and new release aptly reveal, John Mellencamp may well be this generation’s Woody Guthrie, singing and writing songs about responsibility, maturity and owning up to our place in society, in ways that other great writers and performers, for one reason or another, can only hope to do.

You may not always agree with what John Mellencamp has to say. At times, I certainly don’t, but he’s always had the guts, the nerve, and, yes, the passion, to get the debate going and get us off our collective asses to do something.