John Mellencamp took his sweet time putting together a retrospective of his career. And thankfully, he chose not to slap together a collection of greatest hits with a few outtakes and “bonus tracks.”
No, The four-disc set, “On the Rural Route 7609,” is a true retrospective, with a track-by-track commentary, songs in their evolutionary phases and cuts that deserve far more attention than they earned when first released. But it’s also not quite a retrospective, in that it’s not about reflecting every period of his career. It’s more about introspection, a songwriter examining the meaning of his work, and his life.
It all comes into focus when Joanne Woodward reads “The Real Life” to start disc two: “I guess it don’t matter how old you are/or how old one lives to be. I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives/and how we deal with our own destinies,” she says. And that’s what this carefully sequenced set is really about: Mellencamp’s quest to be a better man, for forgiveness, love, freedom. His consideration of youth and mortality. His railing against injustice and inequality, against prejudice, hypocrisy, hate.
Mellencamp hated his early image as a pretty-boy rocker; the very name “Johnny Couger” makes him cringe. As his career has evolved, he’s worked hard to earn critical respect. But even if he never gets as much as he deserves, he’s got something more important: A body of work that’s both topical and timeless. As Anthony DeCurtis correctly points out in his brilliant essay, Mellencamp also had a hand in formulating the sound we now call alternative country/Americana. He isn’t acknowledged for that because he committed the sin of having too many hits, DeCurtis writes. But if ever there was an artist who deserved the Americana Music Association’s “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, Mellencamp certainly does. Or at least, a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting. As much as Bruce Springsteen or his Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young, he’s captured the American experience in ways that make his work a vital part of our musical canon — in any genre.