South Africa's On The Rural Route 7609 Review By Mervyn Dendy

Over 45 years have passed since the pop or rock song ceased to be merely a vehicle for conveying the vicissitudes of boys’ relationships with girls. Thanks in large part to the massive strides made, lyrically, by the likes of the Beatles and Bob Dylan in the mid-sixties, it has become artistically and commercially possible for rock musicians to deal in the songs they write with virtually any subject affecting human beings. Love, hate, poverty, wealth, war, peace, sex, cars, food, alcohol, drugs, education, the need for a sense of purpose in life, reincarnation, redemption, God, religion, law, madness, alienation, death, murder, suicide, abortion, family relationships, class divisions, animals, the arts, sport, science, astronomy, major news events, eulogies to important people, philosophies of life – all of these and more now form the subject of successful recordings released by major artistes during the rock era.

One of the subjects that is now beginning to receive greater attention within the rock-music genre is mortality, and the process of ageing. Bob Dylan wrote as long ago as 1965 on “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” that “he not busy being born is busy dying”, and Paul McCartney in 1967 sang hopefully on “When I’m 64” (a song written even earlier), “Will you still need me, will you still feed me/When I’m sixty-four?”. But these were lines written by men in their twenties, with no personal experience of the ageing process, and without yet having the understanding of mortality that begins only in middle age, as one sees contemporaries, or people younger than oneself, dying of heart attacks, cancer and the like, not to mention unnatural causes such as suicides and motor accidents.

So it is not surprising that many of the songs on John Mellencamp’s recent 4-CD retrospective, On the Rural Route 7609, deal with the subjects of mortality and death. Mellencamp turned 59 on 7 October, and in a man of this age (particularly one who, like Mellencamp, has himself suffered a heart attack) thoughts about these issues are entirely appropriate. In fact, On the Rural Route 7609 is in a sense a portrait of life lived in the shadow of the grave. Its key statement is “Life is short, even in its longest days” – a line given to Mellencamp by his late grandmother Laura and featured in the opening song of this 54-track collection, “Longest Days”. The most affecting song in the set, however, is “Don’t Need This Body”, in which Mellencamp, over a haunting melody, intones: “This getting older/Ain’t for cowards/This getting older’s/A lot to go through . . . Ain’t gonna need this body much longer/Ain’t gonna need this body much more/I put in ten million hours/Washed up and worn out for sure”. The result is a most moving portrayal of Weltschmerz, a theme echoed on “A Ride Back Home”, where Mellencamp sings: “Hey Jesus this world is just too troublesome for me/I try to fight off all these devils but I’m just too weak/When I’m out here walking alone/I feel like taking my life but I won’t/Too big a coward, can you get me a ride back home”.

Death features in several other songs on the collection as well. In its harrowing title track, “Rural Route”, which appears here in two versions, one at each end of the set, Mellencamp recounts the true story of a ten-year-old girl, raped and murdered by a friend of her father, to whom the father had made the child sexually available in return for money to fund his addiction to crystal meth; in his moving depiction of poverty, “Jackie Brown” (taken from the album Big Daddy (1989)), Mellencamp asks “Is this your grave, Jackie Brown?/This little piece of limestone that says another desperate man took himself out”; on “Troubled Land” from his 2008 album Life Death Love and Freedom, Mellencamp sings “Judgment getting closer all the time”; death is the central theme of “If I Die Sudden” and the cover of the Son House blues classic “Death Letter”; and on “County Fair”, a random act of murder – the result of an apparent case of mistaken identity – is chillingly described.

But On the Rural Route 7609 is not simply a morbid or lugubrious collection of songs about death, for another of its keynote themes appears from the song “Your Life Is Now”, and the tale told in one of the two Tennessee Williams quotations (from Orpheus Descending) that bookend the beautifully printed book of lyrics, biographical and song information, sepia-tinted photographs, musical and other credits accompanying the set. Williams writes about the ghosts of the dead on Cypress Hill, who “chatter together like birds”, but say only one word over and over: “live”. On the Rural Route 7609 is an injunction to live life to the full, mindful of the inevitability of death and final judgment, and it therefore contains music about other important aspects of life as well. There are songs of political protest, such as “Jim Crow” (an attack on American racism, presented here in its original version from the Freedom’s Road album (2006) and in a spoken reading (without musical accompaniment) by Cornel West, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University), the traditional song “To Washington” (with rewritten lyrics, wryly commenting upon Bill Clinton’s philandering, then scathingly attacking George Bush (Dubya) over the 2003 invasion of Iraq), the even more blistering indictment of Bush on “Rodeo Clown” (“there’s blood in the streets from the lies and liars/The bloody red eyes of the rodeo clown”), “Country Gentleman” (an attack on the policies of Ronald Reagan, written at the end of Reagan’s term of office as US President), and “Peaceful World” (“Racism lives in the US today/Better get hip to what the King had to say/I don’t want my kids being brought up this way”) – among others. And there are songs about various aspects of human relationships – including teenage sex (the Number One hit “Jack and Diane” from the American Fool album (1982), together with two earlier incarnations of the song), the need to be considerate of the feelings of others (“Big Daddy of Them All”), the role of forgiveness (“Forgiveness”), the rebel’s relationship with authority (“Authority Song”, originally from the 1983 album Uh-Huh, but featured here in a demo version), relationships with women in general (“Women Seem”), Mellencamp’s relationship with his (third) wife (“What If I Came Knocking”), and affectionate recollections of old girlfriends (“To MG (Wherever She May Be)” and “Sweet Evening Breeze”).

Musically, On the Rural Route 7609 is oriented towards Mellencamp’s deeper and more reflective material – and hence towards his later songs. His two immediately preceding albums, Freedom’s Road and Life Death Love and Freedom, are represented by no fewer than eight songs each. Some of the better-known earlier songs on the set are featured in versions which are sometimes startlingly different from their famous incarnations: “The Real Life” (from The Lonesome Jubilee album (1987)) appears here as a spoken poem, read by actress Joanne Woodward; “Rain on the Scarecrow” is excerpted from the Rough Harvest album (1999) rather than from the more famous Scarecrow album (1985) on which it was first heard; “Void in My Heart” is a captivating acoustic rendition recorded after the original release of the song on the Big Daddy album; and “Peaceful World” (initially featured on the Cuttin’ Heads album (2001)), released shortly after the 9/11 atrocity, eliminates the female vocal which accompanied Mellencamp on the original version. On the Rural Route 7609, however, is not only a journey along Mellencamp’s musical back roads, for it includes such famous songs as “Pink Houses”, in its original version from Uh-Huh, “Love and Happiness” from the Whenever We Wanted album (1991) and “When Jesus Left Birmingham” from Human Wheels (1993). But the set is no mere trundle through Mellencamp’s greatest hits either, so that popular material such as “Hurt So Good” from American Fool, “Crumblin’ Down” from Uh-Huh, “Small Town” and “Lonely Ol’ Night” from Scarecrow, “Paper in Fire” from The Lonesome Jubilee and “Pop Singer” from Big Daddy are all omitted from the collection. (Buy a copy of Mellencamp’s 2004 greatest-hits package Words & Music to acquire all of those songs on one release.)

In the result, On the Rural Route 7609 is a thought-provoking and, ultimately, brilliant collection of contemporary American music by a man who, in his fifties, is writing some of the strongest material of his career. As he matures artistically, Mellencamp is growing in stature as a songwriter and recording artiste. The work that he has given his audience over the past decade rivals that of no less a figure than Bruce Springsteen. It matters not whether or not Mellencamp is finding his way into the top ten any longer, for he is producing music of lasting power and emotional resonance. His future musical journey promises great rewards to all those who choose to accompany him on it, and I look forward immensely to hearing his new album No Better Than This, from the sessions for which the outtake “Some Day the Rains Will Fall” (taped using 1940s equipment, in the same hotel room as that recorded in by the late Robert Johnson) has been excerpted on the Rural Route collection.

On the Rural Route 7609 (the number signifying the years, 1976 and 2009, that begin and end the period over which Mellencamp’s recording career had stretched by the time the set was compiled) is not merely yet another box-set summary of a musician’s work: it is a timeless classic, and I expect to be listening to songs from this excellent collection for many years to come.