This week’s pick is a monumental album from 1985. It saw an established artist break through record label politics and define his sound on his own terms, and kicked off a run of success that would form the creative peak of his career.
John Mellencamp – Scarecrow
Released August 5, 1985 via Riva Records
My Favorite Tracks – Rain On The Scarecrow, Minutes To Memories, Small Town
John Mellencamp had been at war with music executives seemingly from the start of his career. What to record and release was one battle, what to call himself was another. His label had insisted on the “Cougar” moniker for whatever reason and had tried to shoehorn him in as a Neil Diamond-like act.
As chart success came, Mellencamp was able to pivot to doing his own thing, and Scarecrow marks the beginning of a run that would contribute greatly to a series of music movements perhaps best described as alt-country. While the start of alt-country and its associated subgenres is a topic of unsettled discussion, it’s clear that Mellencamp made a huge imprint on everything.
While “Cougar” would still sit on the album’s cover, this was a John Mellencamp album. The useless nickname would take a few more records to disappear, but Mellencamp had truly and finally arrived with what was technically his eighth record.
Today I’ll run down the original version of the album, comprising eleven songs. There are various reissues and bonus tracks available, including a super deluxe set that was just released a few weeks prior.
Rain On The Scarecrow
The opener gets straight to the point – this haunting tale speaks about the loss of small-scale farming, a massive issue in the 1980’s. Single-plot farmers were caught in loan and insurance issues that caused many to lose their land, stock and equipment. In what can’t be a coincidence, decades later much of US agriculture is owned by a few mega corporations.
While mournful, Rain On The Scarecrow is also heavy. It is hard rock and even bordering on heavy metal in its stark delivery. It was an attention-getter on airwaves in 1985 and, while the battle for farmland seems to have been a losing one, did bring the issue to the attention of a far wider audience.
A brief traditional song Grandma’s Theme appears next.
One of the album’s three Top-10 hits, Small Town has been a staple of rock radio since its release. The song is a simple and pleasant look at life in rural America, this time simply recounting the experience as opposed to fighting off a corporate oppressor. Mellencamp’s experience of growing up in small town Indiana is translated nationwide for anyone in a small town. While there would be a huge melancholy vibe in a lot of Mellencamp’s music, this song leaves that behind to simply extol the virtues of a simpler life.
Minutes To Memories
Though not a single, this song about an older man advising on the fleeting nature of time and life has been featured on greatest hits packages and in live setlists. The topic can be unsettling to think about but the song is presented in a motivating, upbeat way. Might as well toughen up and grind it out, one day it will all be memories.
Lonely Ol’ Night
A very simple tune that recalls Mellencamp’s earlier hits, this track joins Small Town as the best-charting singles from the record. This song leaves behind the look at society and instead focuses on a few lonely people who inevitably cure their loneliness together.
The Face Of The Nation
The rocking, upbeat music belies the harrowing lyrical fare. This is a recount of the pain and suffering seen around and how everything is changing into something not very good. For its dire message it is a very snappy tune.
Justice And Independence ’85
Another bright rocker that personifies the title concepts as well as that of Nation. Again the lyrics aren’t quite as peppy as the tune, as Nation stumbles in his life to the dismay of his parents Justice and Independence. The song does close out on an uplifting note.
Between A Laugh And A Tear
One of what would become many Mellencamp songs about how life can be crappy and weigh you down, and the struggle to get through it all. The ultimate message is inspirational and the music is a bit of a preview of what Mellencamp would sound like on future albums.
Another Top 40 single, this is yet another snappy rocker that is examining a hard life and the attempt to move on from it. It’s another great presentation of grinding through the crap and failure to move on to a better tomorrow.
You’ve Got To Stand For Something
The Heartland rock is in full effect here with the song’s title communicating its simple yet important message. This song title would be a country hit for Aaron Tippin several years later but the two songs are not otherwise related.
R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock)
The album closes with another Top 10 hit, this time a homage to the rock Mellencamp grew up with and what the band played a ton of before recording this album. While this diverges greatly from the album’s pretty grim themes, the song is an obvious crowd pleaser and another of many Mellencamp tunes that still see regular airplay.
Scarecrow was a huge success for John Mellencamp. Besides the well-received singles, the album peaked at number 2 on the Billboard 200, sitting only behind the Miami Vice soundtrack. Scarecrow has gone on to 5 times platinum in the US and also has several Australian platinum awards.
More than anything, this marked where Mellencamp truly set out on his own as a songwriter and began shaping his true musical legacy. The blueprint laid for “alt-country” here would be expanded upon on his next release and the pair of albums would go on to forge a great deal of what are considered his greatest songs. It’s hard for the record label to argue with you when you bust the singles and album charts with music on your own terms.