As a kid growing up in rural New York state, I may have idolized Springsteen, but I identified more with Mellencamp. Both Rock & Roll Hall of Famers were progenitors of the loosely termed “heartland rock,” but Upstate NY resembles southern Indiana much more than coastal New Jersey. Hell, I even grew up on what could be called a farm (mostly Christmas trees, with a few random animals mixed in). So for a rural 80s kid worn out on synth rock and silly love songs, John Mellencamp’s 1985 album Scarecrow felt like being heard. Nearly four decades later, it’s receiving the deluxe reissue treatment, giving the listener a new look at how Johnny Cougar, purveyor of jangly pop ditties, became John Mellencamp, one of our most vital songwriters.
Scarecrow gave Mellencamp some of his biggest radio hits – “Small Town,” “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” – but it’s the de facto title track that really represented his new, more outward-focused songwriting. “Rain on the Scarecrow,” in less than four minutes, gives the entire life story (and death knell) of family farming in the United States, from the assumption of a lifestyle passed through the generations – “When I was five, I walked the fence while Grandpa held my hand” – to the ruination of those legacies that reached a peak in the 80s and continues today – “The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans.” This time also coincides with Mellencamp’s involvement in the nascent Farm Aid project – the singer, in fact, calls himself “naive” in the Anthony DeCurtis-penned liner notes for believing that the September 1985 show alone would solve the problem, but he remains committed to this day to trying to make a difference..All this history and sadness is stuffed into a great rock song, what with Kenny Aranoff pounding his drum kit through the floor and a squall of a guitar solo, all of which pop on this new remaster. Along with 1983’s “Pink Houses,” it’s Mellencamp’s best song, and its presence alone makes Scarecrow a worthwhile revisit.
So, what else do we find in this deluxe edition of the reissue? Writers’ demos for “Small Town,” “Between a Laugh and a Tear” and “Rumbleseat” show up, giving the listener an earful of the early days of those tracks. New-to-us songs “Carolina Shag” and “Smart Guys” are spotlighted, and the former in particular is a nifty flashback to a time when “shag” referenced not to Austin Powers but a rather innocent dance and a trip to Myrtle Beach with (presumably) fewer golf courses and strip clubs. Covers like “Under the Boardwalk” (originally, a suitable B-side to “R.O.C.K.”) and “Shama Lama Ding Dong” spring from Mellencamp’s penchant for running his band through rock classics as a sort of revivalist warm-up exercise The band’s take on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” in particular, shows that, even with a shift in his songwriting focus, Mellencamp stayed committed to rock ‘n’ roll tradition.
But the best moment on the Scarecrow reissue may be the acoustic version of “Small Town” at the end of the first disc. John Cascella (accordion) and Lisa Germano (violin) join Mellencamp for a gorgeous take on what would become a “big rock song” later on. This cut, though, hews closest to the demo found on Disc 2, and also presages more use of the country-fied arrangements Mellencamp would delve into a few years later. Here, though, fiddle, mandolin, and gorgeous harmonies reflect an aching, reluctant love of the type of place that folks like Mellencamp (and folks like me) grew up in. That fondness counteracts the anger and displacement found in songs like “Rain on the Scarecrow,” but both are themes that, for better and for worse, continue from 1985 through today and well into our future. Ain’t that America.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live – “Rain On The Scarecrow” – Just a great damn rock song. (Surprisingly, I’ve never seen Mellencamp live).
Scarecrow was produced by John Mellencamp and Don Gehman (reissue produced by Mike Wanchic, executive produced by Mellencamp and mastered by Bob Ludwig). Additional musicians on the album include Mike Wanchic (guitar), Larry Crane (guitar), Toby Myers (bass), Kenny Aronoff (drums), John Cascella (keyboards) and Lisa Germano (violin).
Go here to order Scarecrow (out November 4): https://www.mellencamp.com/description?albumId=56
Check out tour dates here: https://www.mellencamp.com/tour
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: John Mellencamp “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack”