An urgency in the ringing guitar and thunderous drums that opened the 1985 album “Scarecrow” was the first hint that this was something different for the artist then billed as John “Cougar” Mellencamp.
The disc, which is getting the deluxe reissue treatment this week, stands as a rare reputation-changing work. It elevated Mellencamp from a popular heartland rocker to a serious artist with something bigger to say, helping spark Farm Aid, a movement that lives on.
In that first song, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Mellencamp described the financial crisis that was swallowing family farms in the Midwest. The Indiana-bred singer embraced his roots in the anthem “Small Town.” At age 34, his writing in “Minutes to Memories” showed a new maturity about life.
A high standard is maintained through the closer, “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” which neatly summarized the musical approach—even if Mellencamp had to be talked into putting it on the album.
Ask him now, at age 71, whether “Scarecrow” represented an elevated standard, and you’ll discover the chip that remains on his shoulder. He’ll remind you of multiple hit songs that predated the album.
“I didn’t know,” he said, “because I didn’t know I had to change my game.”
Still, the singer professionally christened “Johnny Cougar” against his will at age 21 admits he made five albums before making a good one. “Scarecrow” was No. 7, excepting one shelved when his first record company dropped him.
“I think John really found his voice on this album,” said veteran music writer Anthony DeCurtis, who contributed liner notes to the reissue.
“There were certainly signs of it before, like on ‘Jack and Diane’ and ‘Pink Houses,'” he said. “But the sense of him looking at the world, taking his personality as someone who grew up in Seymour, Indiana, and making a wider statement about it, that was all a big deal for him. It raised him to the level of someone who was an important musical voice in the culture.”
As someone who didn’t think much about songwriting until he had a record deal, Mellencamp saw others around him setting a high benchmark and thought, “I better step up my game.” He mentioned Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell.
As two chart-topping rockers aware of comparisons made between them, Springsteen and Mellencamp circled each other warily in the 1980s but are good friends today.
You can see, in “Scarecrow,” Mellencamp creating a musical world from what he knew growing up in the Midwest, much like Springsteen did for the Jersey Shore. Mellencamp’s “Lonely Ol’ Night” is a thematic cousin to Springsteen’s 1984 hit “Dancing in the Dark” in the narrators’ late-night search for a connection.
“What I learned from him was to be a good observer of life,” Mellencamp said. “You don’t have to be the person. You can watch. I’ve had people say to me, ‘John, have you ever had writer’s block?’ And I would say no, all you’ve got to do is look out the window.”
He remembers a long conversation with his late friend and songwriting partner, George Green, wondering why so many of the small towns they knew were fading away. From those talks, they wrote “Rain on the Scarecrow.”
The album’s cover features a serious-looking Mellencamp on a farm, a fuzzy scarecrow and tractor in the background. He dedicates it to his grandfather, Speck, who died at the end of 1983.
After he made the record, he recalls another conversation with someone who was making some of their music videos, “who looked at me and said, ‘you know, this is a really special record for these times.’
“I said, ‘You think so?’ he said. ”That was the first time I had ever given it any thought that it was much different than anything else I’d done.”
With the spirit of Live Aid and the themes of “Scarecrow” in the air, Mellencamp helped organize the initial Farm Aid concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. To date, the organization says it has raised $64 million for family farming; Nelson and Mellencamp both appeared at its most recent show, in September in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Mellencamp and his band were tight from years on the road in the mid-1980s, but he still gave them an assignment prior to making the new album: learn to play dozens of rock hits from the 1960s, a sound their leader wanted to recreate.
They included several from artists name-checked in “R.O.C.K. in the USA.” Mellencamp didn’t want the song on “Scarecrow,” figuring it sounded “cartoonish” compared to the rest of the material. To his gratitude now, he listened to the pleas of record company executives to change his mind.
Versions of songs from the band’s assignment, like James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong” from Otis Day & the Knights, make it on the “Scarecrow” reissue.
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant,” he said, “but I was not surprised that people liked that record. I’m not surprised that ‘Small Town’ stuck around for as long as it has. I don’t listen to the radio anymore, but when I do, I always hear that song.”
Through the 1980s, Mellencamp built a formidable jukebox worth of his own hits. But his time at the top coincided with his unhappiest time personally, and he stepped off.
“I had a girlfriend over who was a real famous actress,” Mellencamp said (He didn’t drop names, but a good guess is Meg Ryan, who he dated for several years in the 2010s). “She looked at me one night and said, ‘You know, John, we’ve both been to the moon and we both know we don’t want to go back there.’ She was right.”
He has a new album, “Orpheus Descending,” due out in February and a lengthy concert tour booked from February to May. Theaters, not arenas.