John Mellencamp’s Freedom’s Road heralded a complete, still on-going artistic rejuvenation

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I understood what John Mellencamp was thinking, eight years ago. It almost got away from him, however.

See, he optioned “Our Country” from 2007’s Freedom’s Road to Chevrolet, knowing that new songs by mid-career guys don’t get much airplay these days. Chevy proceeds to run the thing every time they play football on TV. All of a sudden, Mellencamp has a hit.

Freedom’s Road, released on January 23, 2007, peaked at No. 5, selling 56,000 CDs in its first week to become his highest charting release since Scarecrow went to No. 2. But then Mellencamp had a problem. While there was plenty of his diehard rural populism here, the tenor of Freedom’s Road had more to do with that earlier smash hit from the fall of ’85 than with the commercial’s flag-waving jingoism. The marketing was threatening to screw up the message.

See, a rangy activism actually threads through Freedom’s Road, which takes a welcome moment to ruminate on the issues of forgiveness and tolerance. For instance, on this album’s best cut, “Someday,” John Mellencamp references the verse “blessed are the peacemakers” from the Book of Matthew: “Good fortune will come to those who create peace,” Mellencamp surmises, “for those are the ones that will walk in heaven … someday, someday.”

Such weighty themes couldn’t be hinted at in between voiceovers detailing the Z71 off-road package and GM’s patented Vortec V8 engine.

John Mellencamp, with his now-familiar passion and accessibility, recognizes that this is a complicated world, and if he doesn’t quite solve its mysteries, at least he is honest enough to admit that — and to give it a try. He wants to get there by getting along, joining a pitched battle against (among other things) the veiled racism of the post-Jim Crow landscape and the trumped-up reasons for sending young people into faraway conflict.

“You can drop your bombs, you can beat the people senseless, that won’t get you anywhere,” Mellencamp sang on the title track. “Hide your agenda behind public consensus and say that this world just ain’t fair. … You’ll never fool us with all your lying and cheating.” He also offered searing political commentary on “Rodeo Clown,” a hidden bonus track.

That’s not to say that John Mellencamp didn’t sometimes struggle to find purchase on the high ground that he’s always sought to share with artists like Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen. Still, he’d never sounded more comfortable in relating the uncertainties that exist inside the reliable traditions of middle America. Too, Mellencamp’s garage-band associates displayed a gritty toughness that lends instant, urgent credibility to the proceedings.

They gave his first original songs since 2001’s transitional, oddly unaffecting Cuttin’ Heads a feel more in keeping with Mellencamp’s often brutally honest ’03 blues tribute Trouble No More, providing an infrastructure that gives these tunes real heft.

That’s best experienced in “Ghost Towns Along the Highway,” one of 10 tunes John Mellencamp wrote and produced for this album. It had an open, echoing stillness inside an insistent beat that matches this oh-so lonely lyric: “Our love keeps on movin’, to the nearest faraway place …”

“Our Country,” in this context, sounded less like an anthem and more like a moment of celebration after a lament — like that moment when a jazz funeral goes from sad and solemn to resolutely joyous in the face of such grief. “Small Town” held the same position as part of Scarecrow back in the mid-1980s. Both songs, situated as they are on records with larger, darker concerns, crash through their own preconceived notions.

Really, not much about Freedom’s Road was what you thought it would be. Mellencamp improved upon the musical achievements of earlier triumphs like Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy — and, to me, bested those two releases because (as with Scarecrow) he was willing to be far more emotionally honest with a lyric.

It took some time to discover that, and he didn’t always completely succeed. But John Mellencamp hadn’t, at this point, attempted a better record in more than two decades. Freedom’s Road, in fact, heralded a complete, and still on-going artistic rejuvenation.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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