Springfield, MA The Republican: John Mellencamp's American Journey Comes To Life On Box Set

By Kevin O'Hare - John Mellencamp, "On the Rural Route 7609" (Mercury/Island/UMe). 4 stars.

He started his career under the fake name of Johnny Cougar, eventually evolved into John Cougar Mellencamp and finally reclaimed his life and his real name simply as John Mellencamp.

Why he could not be billed just as John Mellencamp in the beginning says as much about the perils of the music industry in the 1970s as it does about any artistic insecurities. But the truth is, a lot of Mellencamp's early work was pretty lackluster.

Even he says so in Anthony DeCurtis' exceptional liner notes that accompany this very non-traditional, beautifully-packaged four-CD box set chronicling Mellencamp's recording career from 1976 until 2009.

"My first five records were terrible!" Mellencamp proclaims in the notes, which partially explains why this set has hits - but is most definitely not a "greatest hits" package. Instead, it's Mellencamp's look back at his own career through 54 tracks of well known and obscure material, detailing his journey from a wannabe superstar and a third-rate imitator to one of America's most revered storytellers, a voice from the heartland that helped define the spirit of Americana and modern roots music.

"On the Rural Route 7609" contains 17 previously unreleased versions of Mellencamp material, including such revelatory works as early demos of "Jack and Diane" and "Authority Song." There's also an alternative version of "Our Country," which was probably best known for its use in a Chevrolet commercial, but in this rendition carries a far deeper lyrical meaning about a nation's need to live up to its ideals.

Many of the hits are here in their original form, including "Rain On The Scarecrow," "Jack and Diane," "Jackie Brown," and "Pink Houses." And while those tell part of Mellencamp's story, so do fascinating bits such as the reading of "The Real Life" by actress Joanne Woodward; Mellencamp's dramatic Woody Guthrie-styled political rewrite of a traditional ballad, "To Washington;" and the poignant homage to Mellencamp's beloved grandmother on the first two songs of the set, "Longest Days," and "Grandma's Theme."
All the heartland-styled raw guitar sounds are interspersed with Mellencamp's more favored latter day choice for backing instruments, such as fiddles, mandolins and accordions.

In keeping with the theme of the box, it is not arranged chronologically. Eras jump from one to another and some of the finest material shows up late with songs like the hard rockin' live version of "If I Die Sudden," an acoustic writing demo for "Peaceful World," and the unforgettable reminder "Your Life is Now."

It took Mellencamp some years to realize that his life was indeed now, but he is a perfect example of a guy who not satisfied with his early taste of stardom and decided to be something more. And as the man says, "Ain't that America?"

Click HERE to read the article on The Republican website.