2020 Album Draft- Round 5- Pick 8- Dave- A Sound Day selects- John Mellencamp- Scarecrow.
Dave’s A Sound Day’s blog can be found at- https://soundday.wordpress.com/
Some things just can’t be planned. Like the coincidence that yesterday Run-sew-run wrote about Carlene Carter and noted she opened for John Mellencamp on tour recently. Well, guess who Carter opened for in these blogs, so to speak?
America’s long celebrated and perhaps revered their male troubadour, singer/songwriters. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen…average guys who just play music and write words a better than the average person. The creators of the Anthems for the Common Man. I can appreciate that, but it’s long seemed to me that there’s one name oft-overlooked when looking at that category – the “cat” we used to call “Cougar” and now call John Mellencamp . For my fifth album pick, I go to his 1985 roots rock classic, Scarecrow .
It was a massive step forward for John although he was certainly not unknown by then. Far from it after having two of the biggest rock hits of the decade three years prior in “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane” off his American Fool album. Scarecrow was actually his eighth album, although the first three of them were usually (and probably rightly) overlooked releases on small labels. In between those two, we saw John begin to find himself musically with Uh-huh , the 1983 album which gave us the memorable “Pink Houses” and saw “Mellencamp” on the cover for the first time. Before that he’d gone by “John Cougar” on the demand of Mercury Records who thought “John Mellencamp” wouldn’t sell. They told him “Mellencamp” sounded like he was a hillbilly, to which he angrily responded “I am a hillbilly!”.
I liked “Jack & Diane” and thought Uh-huh was quite a decent effort, but it was Scarecrow which really elevated John to a footing where he was on the podium with his more critically-adored contemporaries. If Springsteen gave voice to the working class urbanites from his New Jersey home, Mellencamp did so for the working class rural Americans from the middle of the fields of Indiana.
To me, the entire album rather took the concept of “Jack & Diane” and then “Pink Houses” and built upon, grew them to maturity. Look back pleasantly on years gone by but work to make the coming years better. John himself thought so, saying “I was finally starting to find my feet as a songwriter. For the first time I realized what I thought I wanted to say in a song. I wanted it to be more akin to Tennessee Williams, John Stenbeck, Faulkner…”
He did that by creating a masterpiece that looked at the U.S. of the ’80s and managed to invoke a bit of anger, a lot of nostalgia wash it with optimism and hope all at once. I’m sure if I was on a desert island, I’d be nostalgic for when I wasn’t but also hopeful for the future! These are feelings that somehow feel more relevent today than they did in most of the years since the album came out.
With references to Greyhound buses, rumbleseats and “girlie magazines”, he certainly evoked images of a simpler America of times past. And he didn’t waste much time getting to it, with the title track “Rain on the Scarecrow” kicking off the album with its thundering drums and angry lament about the disappearing small farms of America. The song contains one of the best protest verses in any rock song, about the friend who comes in to take the land back on behalf of the bank:
“ He said John it’s just my job, and I hope you understand. Well, calling it your job ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right – But if you want me to , I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight.”
Of course, this really was an issue Mellencamp took to heart. Only a couple of months after the album came out, he got together with Willine Nelson and Neil Young to begin Farm Aid, an event and charity which carries on to this day.
The album rocks on through with great songs about the glory of America past, and how it can be wonderful again if we all try. Like in “Minutes to Memories”, ostensibly about a conversation with an old man on a bus: “you are young and you are the future, so suck it up, tough it out and be the best you can.” And there’s the metaphorical “Justice and Independence ’85” about the nation given birth to by Justice and Independence. It ran wild and “Independence and Justice felt so ashamed.” It’s a powerful song but one Mellencamp isn’t happy with. “I don’t think people are getting the idea of what the song’s about,” he said, “so I must’ve not done a very good job.” I would beg to differ. “Face of the Nation” rocks along wondering “what happened to the golden rule?” and suggesting “the face of the nation, I don’t recognize it no more” – words that a lot of people can relate to still in 2020, sadly enough. And of course there’s the radio classic “Small Town”, which 30-odd years on maybe seems prescient to him, with his lines about “married an L.A. darling, brought her to this small town” given his ongoing love affair with Meg Ryan.
Now, granted a dozen songs about how the past was a fine way of life and things aren’t all wonderful now could get a little tedious were it not for the optimism, and most importantly, the great music the lyrics are set to. The album finds his backing band in great form with straight-ahead toe-tapping rock with lots of crunchy guitars and especially big bold drumming of Kenny Aranoff which built a strong foundation for the entire album.
John breaks out the harmonica on “Small Town” and Ry Cooder dropped by to play some slide guitar on “The Kind of Fella I Am”, but for the most part it’s relatively straight rock and roll with a little bit of a country accent. John would later bring in many more rustic elements to some of his records which worked well, but Scarecrow was pretty basic in its playing and instruments, which seemed to fit. For that we can probably thank Don Gehman who did a great job of producing it with a big sound but stopping well short of over-production. As well as the idea of John’s to get ready for the album by having his band in his hometown rehearsing for a few weeks while listening to hours of ’60s rock. As Rolling Stone noted, the album “consilodated the band’s rugged roots-rock thrash and the ongoing maturation of Mellencamp’s lyrics.”
The album was a deserved hit, getting to #2 on both American and Canadian charts, ending up 5X platinum in both lands. “Small Town”, “ROCK in the USA” and “Lonely Ol’ Night” were all top 10 singles and “Minutes to Memories” got to #14 on rock airplay despite not being released as a single. For my money most of the songs on the album were good enough to stand up on their own next to most of what was on radio in the day.
Back in 1985, I listened mainly to what we then called “new wave”. But I had Born in the USA , Sports , Reckless , like almost every one else I knew and liked them all. But from all the “mainstream rock” then, it was Scarecrow that really spoke to me somehow. It still does.
It is a call to make America great again; highly ironic given how that phrase has been manipulated lately and that Mellencamp endorsed the song “Small Town” being used in a commercial advocating a candidate opposing the politician who likes that particular type of red cap. And how do we do that? “The key to the record, according to John is to stand for something. “Each person should come to grips with their own individual truth”… and remember that golden rule, ol’ hoss!
John Mellencamp might make an OK politician. But as Scarecrow shows, we’re lucky he’s chosen to be a brilliant musician instead.