In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
I wanted to put this in the Under the Radar category. Then it hit me: whose radar could John Mellencamp possibly be under? It’s true, but, equally, his spotlight has always veered from mass appeal towards the niche, albeit to different niche audiences at different times, encompassing different genres and different tastes. How much traction, for instance, is there between the effervescent Johnny Cougar in his sequined satins, and the grizzled dustbowl road warrior of only a few years later, let alone the renaissance man of musician, artist and actor he is seen as now? Today’s answer: Precious little, yet more than you may think.
Starting his career off in the unlikely setting of Tony DeFries’ Mainman management roster, the erstwhile Bowie manager spotting Mellencamp as someone he could engage with and influence. To be fair, given Mellencamp’s first band had been a glitter and glam-rock outfit called Trash, maybe not such a stretch, but the first album, under the Johnny Cougar moniker, failed to gel. As to the name, Mellencamp later said that the first he had heard of it was as the record sleeves first were printed: “I thought the name pretty silly.” A second album was made and discarded, only later to reappear, later, when Cougar was no longer his name.
Dropped by the record label, Mellencamp moved to London, having been taken on by another unlikely patron: Rod Stewart manager Billy Gaff. Johnny Cougar became John Cougar, and he got his first taste of chart success with “I Need a Lover,” a number 28 single in 1979. More success came with his next disc, from which came a further brace of singles, even if Mellencamp has subsequently dismissed them as “stupid little pop songs.” It wasn’t until his 1982 album, American Fool, that he began to feel comfortable about his persona, if still far from fully content. This contained his still widest and best known songs, with “Hurts So Good” hitting number 2 and “Jack and Diane” doing one better, taking the pole position for four weeks. That year saw him win a Grammy for best male rock vocal, but it still wasn’t right for Mellencamp. “There’s three good songs on that record, the rest is just sort of filler,” he later said.
The ’80s saw him embrace his given name, Cougar now relegated to a middle name, and the string of albums he then produced saw him at last begin to deliver the songs the way he himself heard and wanted them to sound. And this was in a very specific amalgam of rock with roots, initially the roots of rock’n’roll and ’60s pop for Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, with, gradually and more significantly, an array of rural traditions creeping in. Drawing fiddle, mandolin and accordion into his band, yet retaining the thunderclap drums of Kenny Aronoff, this certainly wasn’t country and western, or even country rock; it was an altogether different hybrid, helping to beget the later Americana movement. Given Steve Earle was then treading his opposite path from country into rock, it was said that The Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp’s 1987 masterpiece, was where they might meet, Mellencamp headed the other way. He was a natural for the run of Farm Aid concerts that took place, often performing alongside the likes of Willie Nelson and Neil Young. When the follow-up, Big Daddy was released–the earthiest yet, he called it–ever the contrarian, he elected not to tour it, staying home and painting instead. It was his last record to contain Cougar in his name.
The next decade had him take on more urban themes and influences, R&B and electronica now absorbed into his polyglot mix. Between the raw proto garage of Human Wheels and the experimentalism of Mr. Happy Go Lucky, sometime he astounded and sometimes he confounded. Towards the millennium, he again switched direction, losing the trademark thump of his rhythm section, steering in an almost percussion-free and all-acoustic direction. Indeed, in 2000, he embarked on a low key tour, just himself on guitar, with violin and accordion for accompaniment: Live in the Streets, the Good Samaritan Tour, these dozen odd shows were all free. He also made a number of duet recordings, with singers as varied as Trisha Yearwood and India.Arie.
2002 saw him drop a set of vintage standards, Trouble No More, covering Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, and (if a little presciently) Lucinda Williams. This then heralded an intense period of productivity, with a run of records helmed by T-Bone Burnett, each as individual as the last: Live, Death, Love & Freedom, a moody set of Dylanesque country blues, and No Better Than This having each song recorded at a specific iconic locations, like Sun Studios and First African Baptist Church in Savannah. With vintage equipment and one microphone, it was recorded in mono. Much around this time he seemed to weary of the process, playing mainly at prestige tribute shows and tiny halls. After another recording with Burnett came a duets album with Carlene Carter, stylized as country gospel, at least in aspiration, and another covers set, this time a collection of earlier material from tribute albums and the like: 2018’s “Other Peoples Songs.”
So what’s he been doing since then? Apparently not resting on his laurels, if maybe recycling some of them. There is the teaser of a stage musical based on the back and front story of Jack and Diane. With much recording of new music being, to some extent scuppered on account of the pandemic, a new album, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, has been completed, enticingly revealing that he has been working with Bruce Springsteen, the two of them paired up for the lead single, dropping barely a month ago. “Wasted Days” is a treatise on ageing, with the album it comes from penciled in for a January release, with 80 live dates to follow, virus willing.
I confess this has been a longer preamble than anticipated, what with my having failed to quite grasp the broad expanse of his career. And, yes, I totally concede, so much for Under the Radar, when he is an alumnus of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame since 2008, as well as of the Songwriters equivalent. He has Grammys aplenty and prestigious accolades that include the Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck Awards, the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, and a Billboard Century Award. Plus, when you consider his retrospective set, 2005’s Words & Music gives the eye-watering statistic that 22 of his then 35 singles had attained a top 40 status, lightweight dilettante he ain’t. Indeed, it raises more the question as to why there has only ever been the one formal tribute album made and dedicated to him, with that, 2015’s A Tribute to John Mellencamp being mostly the work of anonymous session and studio hands. Imagine how his peers could handle it? While that is something we have to hope for, here’s a bevy of other people’s songs, plucked from throughout his career, to show what Mellencamp can do with their work.
Johnny Cougar – 20th Century Fox (The Doors cover)
Possibly telling us more about his manager than the man, this decidedly odd cover of the Doors staple seems to be doffing a hat at David Bowie, whom DeFries had previously managed. I guess the arrangement is solid enough, in the trebly glam rock tradition of Bowie’s Pin Ups, but Mellencamp doesn’t have the voice for yelping and it comes over karaoke in a club where the original had never been heard. The record, Chestnut Street Incident, sank, and the embarrassed sounding singer was dumped. Luckily it wasn’t the end.
John Cougar – China Girl (Levon Helm cover)
The song may not be that well known; Levon Helm had performed it on his third solo album, American Son, after the first dissolution of the Band. The fact that Mellencamp had chosen it gives maybe an idea of the direction of future flow, or, at least, the sort of music he was listening to. (Mind you, manager Billy Gaff knew a good tune when he heard one, as early Rod Stewart releases also reveal.) True, it’s not a patch on the original, being fairly buffed up with some standard issue rock gloss, with any of the faux oriental chopsticks music far removed. But, listening to each version in turn, am I alone in thinking that David Bowie and Iggy Pop may have done the same at some time, ahead of their own song of the same name bursting into inspiration?
John Cougar Mellencamp – Under the Boardwalk (The Drifters cover)
It is here that the M.O. of Mellencamp is really beginning to mold. The B-side of a single between the Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee albums, his voice has now matured into the grit ‘n’ gravel of his hoarse holler, it fitting the venerable soul ballad like a scuffed sneaker. But it is the arrangement, fairly straight, bar the instrumentation, with prominent if muted banjo, that beckons the way for the hoedown hooks of the album soon to follow. The backing and duet vocals are gloriously ragged, the acoustic guitar solo in the middle eight a joy, and best of all, the mariachi style violin joining in to nail this one to the barn door. The Drifters never sounded so hick, but it works.
John Mellencamp – Baby Please Don’t Go (Big Joe Williams cover)
Anyone remember Blue Chips, a 1994 basketball movie featuring Nick Nolte? The fact that Rotten Tomatoes awarded it 27% suggests you might keep quiet about it if you do. [Editor’s note: Unless you’re a big Bob Cousy fan.] The soundtrack features Mellencamp’s version of “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Possibly tossed off in a spare moment, it isn’t Mellencamp’s finest moment, the backing vocals are truly dire. But take them away and it is a whole lot better, the meandering bass a neat contrast to the cut and paste clatter of the drums, the whole certainly suggesting an overall fraught angst befitting the lyric. It actually owes more to the jump of the Big Joe Williams original than to the later, better-known version of Them, with Van Morrison.
John Mellencamp – Without Expression (Terry Reid cover)
The bonus new track for a(nother) retrospective collection, as is the way, this again betrays Mellencamp’s good taste in listening. (We like Terry Reid here.) The version is a step back to the hay and sawdust of the decade before, the contrast between the keyboard and fiddle unison play especially affecting. Mellencamp sounds comfortable in his rendition, undaunted by covering “Superlungs.” As good as anything on The Lonesome Jubilee. If you think you recognize it under a different name, you’d be right, as the Hollies, CSN&Y and REO Speedwagon have all played variants of it, under different names.
John Mellencamp – Lafayette (Lucinda Williams cover)
From his 2003 Trouble No More set, a first all-covers project, the songs largely standards of blues and folk, bar the insertion of some decidedly biting and critical barbs to the traditional “To Washington,” establishing the singer no fan of George W. However, within these oldies is the Lucinda Williams song “Lafayette,” not that you would know it any younger than its surrounding songs. Mellencamp shares much the vocals with his backing singers, and it is a guitar and mandolin led sashay with accordion adding the Louisiana textures more overt in the original. Williams wrote this for her first self-penned recording, Happy Woman Blues, and it was pretty much purebred Cajun in her iteration.
John Mellencamp – This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover)
The Song of America was an ambitious 2007 project, a triple CD “telling the story of American culture”, through everything from “John Brown’s Body” and “The Star Spangled Banner” to, well, this, with a fair few curveballs between. Given the legacy of this Woody Guthrie unofficial anthem, much as admiring the sturdy rawness displayed here, there remains a thought that this may have been a ploy to wrest the song from some of the others staking some contemporaneous claim thereto, one Bruce Springsteen looming large under that thought. Be that as it may, it is a decent version, and not Mellencamp’s first stab at Guthrie, his version of “Do Re Mi” appearing on the Folkways: a Vison Shared 1988 tribute to both Guthrie and Leadbelly.
John Mellencamp – Down By the River (Neil Young cover)
Mellencamp, by now, had proven himself much in demand for the live TV extravaganzas paying tribute to, and often featuring, the great and the good. Having shown his chops on the 1993 Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert, he was still much in demand for the 2011 MusiCare tribute to Neil Young. In cahoots with his buddy (and producer) T-Bone Burnett, this is a slightly more spiky version of “Down by the River” than Young’s own, that edge adding an appropriate frisson of angst. This is, after all, a song about a murder, crime of passion or otherwise, and it feels, thereby, very much a sister song to “Hey Joe,” with its not dissimilar subject matter.
John Mellencamp – Eyes on the Prize (Traditional cover)
From the Other People’s Stuff project, a compendium of cover songs contributed to prior tribute projects or included on earlier albums, this was the only otherwise unavailable inclusion. Of traditional origin, a variant being ‘”Eyes on the Plow,” this is a rough and ready blues entreaty, with bottleneck guitar and what sounds like tea chest bass. Simple and untainted by any hint of polish, it is a charming reminder as to what he can do by himself, near alone and with little accompaniment. His voice is perfect.
John Mellencamp – White Line Fever (Merle Haggard cover)
Another live tribute concert, this time to Merle Haggard, a 2017 concert begetting a 2020 release on disc. This is one of the Hag’s better known songs, perhaps thanks to the Flying Burrito Brothers’ version. Mellencamp sounds distinctly hoarse here, possibly wondering why the band latched into the song in this lower than anticipated key. It sort of seems wrong, but, I guess it’s maybe meant that way, he sounding half Keef and half latter-day Bob. The harp and fiddle keep the feel of relentlessness going, propped up at the wheel, eyes half closed. I remain uncertain if this is terrific or terrible. Which seems a sad place to end, but I’m not going to fret, I’m going to to crank up Lonesome Jubilee and wait for Strictly a One Eyed Jack.