Poor old Johnny Cougar.
You see that's what they used to call him way back in the day when he was first managed by Mainman's Tony DeFries, whose other big name client at the time was a guy named David Bowie. Cougar's problem at the time was respect, or more specifically the lack thereof.
The way around the problem? Dump the manager. Change your name. Change it several times actually, first shortening the Johnny to John, than adding your birthname of Mellencamp, then finally dumping the Cougar moniker altogether.
Yet even with the numerous name changes, respect would be a long, hard fought battle for John Mellencamp. The biggest problem dogging him was the constant comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, and the perception (at the time) that Mellencamp was little more than the poor man's Boss. I'll even confess that for the longest time, I was one of those who snickeringly referred to John Mellencamp as "the Employee."
That all changed with the release of Scarecrow in 1985, an album even I begrudgingly had to confess at the time painted a more accurate portrait of the problems facing working class America — or more specifically in this case, the American farmer — than anything on Springsteen's then-current Born In The U.S.A.. The songs weren't half bad either.
Now before I'm engulfed by the howls of protest I already hear coming from my fellow Boss fans, I'll also admit that Springsteen's message was widely misunderstood (and misappropriated by certain opportunistic politicians) at the time. But what do you expect when you wrap your album sleeve in an American flag smack dab in the middle of the Reagan era? The thing that makes Scarecrow the better record for my money is it's honesty and straight forwardness. There's no mistaking what the title track there was all about. None whatsoever.
So with Scarecrow, Mellencamp was finally taken seriously as an artist. And for awhile there, he took the ball and ran with it. Scarecrow's followup, the mountain-folk (okay, hillbilly) inspired The Lonesome Jubilee added an Appalachian flavor to the mix, brimming with fiddles and accordians a full twenty years before Springsteen explored similar instrumentation on The Seeger Sessions.
Unfortunately, Mellencamp's catalog gets very spotty after that, with the last really great album being Human Wheels in the early nineties. Which, unfortunately sold less than half what Scarecrow did.
Which brings us to the present and John Mellencamp's new record, Freedom's Road. And damned if Mellencamp hasn't gone and done the exact same thing Bruce did with Born In The USA. By allowing the real message of this record's most visible song, "Our Country," to be obfuscated by linking it to a damn car advertisement, Mellencamp paints himself into a picture straight out of a Toby Keith redneck tailgate party.
The thing is, do lyrics like "theres room enough here for science to live, and room enough here for religion to forgive," and "poverty will be just another ugly thing, and bigotry is seen as just another fiend" sound like they were written by a George Bush worshipping, gun-toting neo-conservative to you? I didn't think so. Just to be clear, those are just some of the lyrics you won't hear on that damned commercial.
It's too bad, because this is also Mellencamp's catchiest melody since "Smalltown" and taken on its own, outside of it's commercial use, the song evokes similiar images of rural populism. I understand an artist like Mellencamp has to do what he's gotta do these days to get his song heard. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done there.
The good news is aside from it's questionable marketing, Freedom's Road is John Mellencamp's most consistent record since Human Wheels, and his most direct and straight forward–both lyrically and musically–since Scarecrow. Like those records, the songs are pretty damn good too.
This is basic, rootsy Americana style rock and roll like Mellencamp hasn't done in what seems like ages. With the guitars front and center in the mix throughout the record, they chime like bells when necessary, but also rumble with a Link Wray sense of urgency when the lyrics turn toward the darker subjects here.
Because make no mistake, this "Freedom's Road" is paved with "Ghost Towns Along The Highway" where "no one wants to live here anymore." There's even a "Rural Route," the scene of an unspeakable crime which prompts "an amber alert all over the nation" and "someone predicts a young girls death." But for all of those darker side streets found on Freedom's Road, the hope of America never lies too far beneath.
In the album's opening track, Mellencamp yearns for a "Someday, I don't know when…" and then never really even answers the inherent question. But the contrasts are clear. On the one hand this is "the road of madness and trouble, paved with intolerance, ignorance and fear," yet Mellencamp is still able to "look at your face, you look just like me" and conclude "hey brother, I'm not your enemy."
If there is an overall theme to this album, it is in fact that tolerance is an American family value. In fact, Mellencamp could just have well titled the album "Tolerance." He puts it simply and succinctly on the track "The Americans" with it's refrain of "I'm An American, I respect you and your point of view. I'm An American. I wish you luck with whatever you do."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but on "Jim Crow," he enlists America's favorite folkie liberal Joan Baez to drive it home.
If Bruce Springsteen represents the conscience of America to many, John Mellencamp is a prime candidate as it's illegitimate little bastard son. So great as this record is (and it is a very early candidate for best of the year in my view), I just cant stop thinking of that damned car ad.
Yes, poor old Johnny Cougar.
His best record since Scarecrow could well end up being his least politically understood since that of another certain patriotic rock star.