“Well there’s 97 crosses planted in the courthouse yard,
Ninety-seven families who lost 97 farms,
I think about my grandpa and my neighbors and my name,
And some nights I feel like dying, like that scarecrow in the rain.”
John Mellencamp didn’t have to travel far from his (relatively) small hometown of Seymour, Ind., to see the devastating effects of the Midwest’s farm crisis during the mid-1980s.
And as a legit pop star in 1985, with a half-dozen Top 20 hits under his belt, the Hoosier rocker could have easily gone Hollywood like most musicians who made it big while R.O.C.K.’n in the U.S.A.
Instead, Mellencamp stayed true to his southern Indiana roots and channeled two sets of his idols — the 1960s garage rockers and Motown artists of his youth, and 1930s truth-tellers such as Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck — to make a hard-charging rock record that both glorified and worried about the small towns he knew and loved.
For those who aren’t old enough to remember, a roots-rocking album like “Scarecrow” with a handful of sobering songs about America’s woes didn’t exactly fit in with the mid-1980s pop culture vibe. Synthesizers and drum machines burped out the hooks and beats of many pop hits, from Madonna to a-ha to Howard Jones.
Even rockers trying to address serious topics had a tough time getting their message through. One year before “Scarecrow’s” release, the title song of Bruce Springsteen’s smash album “Born in the USA,” which examined Vietnam veterans’ struggles to find a home in American society, was twisted into a gung-ho campaign theme for Ronald Reagan.
Which brings us to Mellencamp and his successful “Scarecrow” album. Recorded mostly live in a studio in the tiny town of Belmont, Ind., the record celebrated straight-ahead 1960s rock sans keyboards and high-tech trickery, with plenty of guitars and a great drummer (Kenny Aronoff) going crack, boom, bam behind his kit.
The opening track, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” referenced at the start of this column, showed where Mellencamp’s mind was at — no more joking lyrics about chili dogs and lovers who thrill him and then go away.
As a PBS series about the farming crisis notes, by the mid-1980s land prices had fallen dramatically in rural areas of the U.S., leading to record foreclosures and eventually the failure of banks serving the agricultural industry. Other negative economic factors included high interest rates, rising oil prices and inflation, and record production that led to plummeting prices for commodities.
All of this was driving many farmers into bankruptcy and off their land, with Mellencamp noting how several generations of family history were swept away by the financial crisis: “I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land; When I was five, I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand.”
The critical look at domestic affairs also were reflected in Scarecrow tracks “The Face of the Nation” and “Between a Laugh and a Tear” — the latter an excellent mid-tempo song featuring guest vocals from Rickie Lee Jones. These were sober, reflective tunes from a 33-year-old man outgrowing his “Johnny Cougar” stage name of the early 1980s.
And Mellencamp did more than just sing about the farm crisis. He joined forces with Willie Nelson and Neil Young to organize the Farm Aid organization to help small farmers, with 1985’s fundraising concert in Champaign, Ill., the beginning of annual concerts that continue to this day.
It wasn’t all economics, politics and gloom and doom on “Scarecrow,” however. The album spawned three top-10 pop hits featuring more upbeat music and themes: “Small Town,” “Lonely Ol’ Night” and the previously mentioned “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” which name-drops several of Mellencamp’s musical heroes from the 1960s.
There’s even a touching musical moment of Mellencamp playing acoustic guitar while his grandmother, Laura Mellencamp, warbles a traditional song from the 1890s about a baby crying as it rode with its family aboard a train. It’s short, sweet and works well as a change of pace after the angry guitars and words of “Rain on the Scarecrow.”
This album, the final one attributed to John Cougar Mellencamp (the stage name went away with 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee”) holds up well both musically and lyrically, as there’s not a bad song to be heard.
OK, the tongue-in-cheek metaphors of “Justice and Independence ’85” didn’t quite work then and seem really dated now, but otherwise I enjoyed playing this record and reading over the lyrics as the music took me back to my early teenage years in the Midwest.
He’s still putting out new music, with 2022’s “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack” his most recent album, and continues to tour, having played several dates in the Pacific Northwest last month (a review of his March 11 Portland show can be found at his website). And as his website shows, Mellencamp continues to sing and write about politics — you can “Check it Out” at mellencamp.com.
• Joel Donofrio is the business reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic who is much better at chopping down weeds and grass than he is growing anything — as we’ll discuss next month. Contact him at email@example.com.
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