John Cougar Mellencamp: Scarecrow – Super Deluxe Edition Box Set

John Mellencamp was making waves. Unfortunately saddled with the stage name “John Cougar” when he came onto the scene in the late-1970s, once he began climbing the singles and sales charts, he asserted his artistic identity much more forcefully by crediting his hit October 1983 LP Uh-Huh to John Cougar Mellencamp. He did so again on his full-artistic breakthrough album, August 1985’s Scarecrow, before dropping the Cougar moniker entirely when the ’90s rolled around.

Scarecrow is the LP that catapulted Mellencamp from being known as a brash hitmaker showing flashes of brilliance into the echelon of insightful, observational songwriters to be reckoned with, on par with the best scribes of the rock era—i.e., the likes of Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty, and, yes, Bob Dylan. Suppose you paid attention to the Cougar mythos beyond all the MTV-era “Little Bastard” noise. In that case, you’d have already picked up the scent in pre-Scarecrow songs like 1979’s “Great Mid-West” (from the self-titled John Cougar), the bridge section of American Fool’s chart-topping 1982 hit “Jack & Diane,” and the defiant slant of Uh-Huh’s “Crumblin’ Down” coupled with the melancholic, wistful verses of “Pink Houses.”

My initial copy of Scarecrow was the 1985 Riva/PolyGram cassette—it was the height of the Sony Walkman era, mind you. The first time I cued up the ostensible title track, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” I felt immediately attuned to a world I was learning about firsthand while attending college in a Midwestern city. I was surrounded by the very farmlands and personal hardships Mellencamp was describing. I’m forever transported to the feelings garnered during that first-impression experience whenever I subsequently played the 1985 Riva/Mercury LP, 1994 Mobile Fidelity UDCD, and 2005 Mercury/Island CD.

But now we have a Scarecrow Super Deluxe Edition box set to spin. Mercury/UMe does it right by including two CDs, one Blu-ray with the core album in 24-bit/48kHz Dolby Atmos, one 180-gram LP with a new half-speed-mastered stereo mix (via DMM), a 7-inch 45 replicating the original picture sleeve for “Small Town,” a poster, and lithographs. The Scarecrow box set was manufactured in the Czech Republic, and it measures 13 x 3 x 12⅞ inches (w/h/d)—a relatively standard box set size, making it that much easier to shelve. The decision to go with a textured, saddle-brown outer box mirrors the weathered intent of the music, and I also like the grooved framing around the stark, sepia-toned cover image (which was a B&W shot surrounded by a thin red square frame on the original album).

The sturdy cardboard sleeves, half-slots, three discs, and lone 45—reside within the tape-box-delineated gatefold sleeve. All have just about a full ¼-inch of breathing room, akin to the slots in The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor – 1972 box set I reviewed for the last issue. Inside the softbound 24-page booklet, Anthony DeCurtis offers an essay that shares insider knowledge befitting his decades of knowing and interviewing Mellencamp in depth. One note regarding the LP—the back cover of the box set erroneously lists “Small Town (Acoustic Version)” as the last song on Side 2, but it’s not there. (Thankfully, it’s not listed on either the LP sleeve or Side 2’s label.)

And the music? As good as ever—even more so in Atmos. That said, the even-dozen, stereo-only bonus tracks show how in the groove Mellencamp and his band were in the studio. The unreleased “Smart Guys” marries ’80s ska with superfast narrative patter, while the funk ’n’ roll cover of “Cold Sweat” reverently honors its originator, James Brown.|

David Leonard’s Atmos mix of the core album’s 12 tracks indeed respects the original “we’re an American band, growing up in the heartland” intent of Mellencamp and Don Gehman’s 1985 mixes—but Leonard smartly chooses to highlight just how good John’s underrated band is in the trenches. Drummer Kenny Aronoff has one of the most impactful snares in rock, as evidenced by how he blisters through “Rain on the Scarecrow.” (Also, dig the darting, snakelike tambourine hits wisping from channel to channel all throughout the track.) Mellencamp’s lead vocals are properly centered and mostly hover just above eye level. Select moments of guitar interplay split wide left and wide right, while male background vocals are correctly understated in the ether on “Lonely Ol’ Night” (enunciated as “arms around yew”) and “You’ve Got to Stand for Something” (the punched repetition of “stand”).

The best realized Atmos track is “Small Town (Acoustic Version),” stripped down to highlight clean acoustic guitars out front, and fiddle and mandolin accents out back—a back porch Indiana duende reading that foreshadowed all that came next in Mellencamp’s recording career.

I hope this expanded Scarecrow is but a precursor to future box sets feting other key entries in John Mellencamp’s catalog, starting with his full-on Americana follow-up, August 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. Scarecrow is the album that planted the seeds of an artist in deep reflection, one whose small-town proclivities struck a profoundly resonant chord with the big-town world at large.