The Essentials: Scarecrow by John Mellencamp

(The recent “deluxe” re-issue of John Mellencamp’s classic Scarecrow album reminded me of a Musician magazine-themed Top 5 I penned in 2015 that focused in large part on Mellencamp and his song “Minutes to Memories.” I’ve borrowed from that piece for this essay.)


At the start of his career, John Mellencamp hit a few obstacles, essentially flooring the gas pedal without first opening the garage door. He signed with Tony DeFries, David Bowie’s manager, who insisted on the “Cougar” moniker, released a few slipshod albums—his first, Chestnut Street Incident in 1976, sold a grand total of 12,000 copies—and earned a reputation of being a Grade A jerk. “I really didn’t have any handle on my career,” Mellencamp explained to Musician magazine in October 1985. “I was just insecure enough to listen to anybody who’d been in the business a long time—I figured they knew more.” 

He gradually learned that there was more to rock music than looking the part, however. “I Need a Lover” (1978), “Ain’t Even Done With the Night” (1980) and “Hurts So Good” (1982) were solid stepping stones, serviceable tunes that wouldn’t cause anyone to change the radio station. And then ”Jack and Diane” happened. The reaction that the song, imperfect though it was, engendered caused him to rethink his approach to music. It hailed from the same set as “Hurts So Good”: American Fool (1982). Uh-Huh (1983), his next effort, was better—“Pink Houses” is a classic slice of heartland rock, and “Crumblin’ Down” and “Authority Song” are damn good, too. But those songs didn’t foretell just how good he’d become; his next two albums, Scarecrow (1985) and Lonesome Jubilee (1987), stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best albums of the 1980s.

The Wikipedia entry gives conflicting release info for Scarecrow—September is cited in the first paragraph, but November is listed in the quick-hit section on the right. AllMusic lists November, too, but I recall playing the cassette long before Thanksgiving—and this Billboard record chart from September 1985 proves me right.  

Anyway, at the time of its release, I was a junior at the Penn State mothership in State College, aka Happy Valley. Money was tight, and most of my cash went to non-dining hall food and other essentials, like pencils, typing paper and beer. In fact, there were a few weekends that fall when I hit the road in order to spend Saturday at the department store where I worked over the summer—when I didn’t have a Folk Show gig, of course. I made cash other ways, too: I rented out my season football pass; and sold my plasma. On the former: demand wasn’t great (or I was a bad scalper); I made 15 or 20 bucks a pop. On the latter: I possessed strong antibodies, I was told, so earned more than the going rate. My memory says it was $10 the first go-round and $15 the next.

Anyway, Scarecrow got much play in my life that year. It still does. First off, it features one of the era’s best backing bands—Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, Toby Myers on bass, John Cascella on keyboards and, especially, Kenny Aronoff on drums. Second, it features lyrics that say more than most; they stand for somethin’. Mellencamp took what he’d learned from “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses” and applied it to the world around him in Indiana. As Timothy White wrote in his Musician review, “It’s a rock ’n’ roll Grapes of Wrath.”

“Rain on the Scarecrow,” which Mellencamp co-wrote with childhood friend George M. Green, kicks things off with a state-of-the-farm address that articulates the human toll of the era’s farm crisis across much of the Midwest: “Well, there’s 97 crosses planted in the courthouse yard/97 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.” It’s angry. It’s sad. And, to a large extent, it shed light on an issue many in America had no knowledge—let alone concern—about.

“Grandma’s Theme,” sung by Mellencamp’s grandmother, serves as something of a metaphor for how a large segment of the populace reacts when confronted with any issue. In it, a man traveling with his baby on a dark and stormy night is chided when the son begins to cry: “Make that child stop its noise/For it’s keeping all of us awake.”

“Small Town,” the album’s second single, celebrates small towns and the people who call them home. Some ring bigger cities, others dot rural landscapes, but either/or, it’s a slice of America often forgotten by popular culture (unless it’s to make fun of). Like “Lonely Ol’ Night,” it topped out on the pop charts at No. 6.

To my ears, ”Minutes to Memories”—another co-write with Green—is one of the album’s best tracks, if not the best. The first two-thirds are a story-song accented by an old man offering a young ‘un advice gleaned from his life’s experiences: 

Days turn to minutes
And minutes to memories.
Life sweeps away the dreams
That we have planned.
You are young and you are the future,
So suck it up and tough it out,
And be the best you can

Near the end, however, there’s a dramatic shift: the third-person narration shifts gears, and reveals that the young man, now older himself, is the narrator, and sharing the wisdom with a younger rider on a Greyhound:

The old man had a vision, but it was hard for me to follow.
I do things my way and I pay a high price.
When I think back on the old man and the bus ride,
Now that I'm older, I can see he was right.

“Lonely Ol’ Night,” the album’s first single, was inspired by an exchange in the 1963 movie Hud between the characters Lonnie Bannon (Brandon DeWilde) and Hud Bannon (Paul Newman): “It’s a lonely old night, isn’t it?” asks Lonnie. “Ain’t them all?” responds Hud. The single peaked at No. 6 on the pop chart and topped the Top Rock Tracks chart. “The Face of the Nation” looks not at America’s changing demographics circa the mid-1980s, but its changing soul—“you wonder what happened to the golden rule.”

Side 2 opens with “Justice and Independence ’85,” an over-the-top parable that continues with the theme laid down in “Face of the Nation.” “Between a Laugh and a Tear,” on the other hand, is a tremendous tune that features Rickie Lee Jones on harmonies; Mellencamp has said in the past that he was too nervous to actually meet Jones, so he had her record her vocals in an L.A. studio instead of flying to Indiana to record with him.

“Rumbleseat” is another high point thanks in part to the bouncy beat and Mellencamp’s self-deprecating lyrics. By song’s end, he vows to turn his frown upside down and make things right. “You’ve Gotta Stand for Somethin’” is an anthemic rejoinder to himself on the importance of making his voice heard; that it’s set to a crunchy guitar makes it all the better. The album proper comes to a close with a flat-out rocker that’s also flat-out fun: “R.O.C.K. in the USA (A Salute to 60’s Rock).”

I say “album proper” above because that’s where, on LP, the album came to a close. Those of us who purchased it on cassette or the era’s new-fangled medium, compact disc, were treated to an additional track: “The Kind of Fella I Am,” which was also the b-side on the “Lonely Ol’ Night” 45. It’s a fun throwaway.

An acoustic rendition of “Small Town” was tacked onto a 2005 CD reissue; it sports much of the same charm as the original version.

The 2022 deluxe edition finds the songs remixed for the modern age. The original CD release always sounded thin to my ears; now the songs sound full and alive. It’s buttressed by a second disc of b-sides, outtakes and demos. The b-sides include covers of the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong” (from National Lampoon’s Animal House) that demonstrate Mellencamp’s love of old-school R&B, while the outtakes “Carolina Shag” and “Smart Guys” are more interesting than revelatory, but that’s okay. It’s still cool to hear them. The same’s true of the demos, which show off their charms with just him and an acoustic guitar.

The original album was one of the top LPs of 1985 and of the ’80s as a whole. As such, the first half of the deluxe edition is well worth many listens. As for the second half? Fans will get much out of it, especially the demos, while newcomers will find a few things—”Cold Sweat” especially—of interest.

The track list:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s