by Donovan Wheeler
I didn’t much like John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow when it debuted in 1985. At the time, I was a high school junior who had just landed my driver’s license, desperate to shake off everything which had defined me to that point. I spent the first twelve years of my life growing up on my granddaddy’s farm near a tiny little town in Owen County dubbed “Freedom,” and then I spent the next handful of years immersed in the small-town life swirling around the culture of my school. By the time Mellencamp was crooning about his “Small Town” and the “Blood on the plow,” I was more interested in Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” Sting’s Blue Turtles, and Tears for Fears’ quest to “Rule the World.” I’d had enough of hard guitars, scratchy voices, and stories of open fields and little communities. Despite Scarecrow’s massive popularity among my friends (and even my old man), I was done with all of that.
—–What a difference three decades makes.
—–It’s hard to grasp the reality that, 30 years ago this month, Mellencamp and his band mates hunkered down in a Brown County, Indiana studio and began recording the album that would become his biggest selling record across North America, but something even more difficult to comprehend is how all the warning signs buried within the grooves of Scarecrow went largely ignored, and how that collective blind eye has led to a world much more economically tumultuous than the one which resulted in “97 crosses planted in the courthouse yard.”
We rode in [Granddaddy’s] lap as he pulled a two-bottom plough through the sandy soil sitting in the bottoms along the banks of the White River—today Child Protective Services would probably take us from him, if not for the exposure to the high-decibels emanating from the tractor’s exhaust then certainly for sitting unrestrained atop a powerful piece of farm machinery. Today’s risk to life and limb was yesterday’s act of love and bonding.
—–Granddaddy’s farm was a tiny one, only 73 acres. When I was growing up there, of course, it seemed like a vast empire, a colossally endless stretch of territory where my younger brother and I could (and did) create our own mythologies. Using cornfields, driveways, and gardens to mark off the “ocean,” we transformed a plot around the farmhouse and played our own variation of Gilligan’s Island. We flipped over Grandma and Granddaddy’s old steel yard chairs and turned them into spaceships, semi-trucks, and anti-aircraft machine guns. And when we weren’t play-acting, we got lost in the real work of the farm. We traveled around the property on Granddaddy’s 1969 Ford 3000, hauling water for his hogs in a pair of rusted 10-gallon milk cans set on the back end of the eight-foot trailer he’d put together himself years before. We rode in his lap as he pulled a two-bottom plough through the sandy soil sitting in the bottoms along the banks of the White River—today Child Protective Services would probably take us from him, if not for the exposure to the high-decibels emanating from the tractor’s exhaust then certainly for sitting unrestrained atop a powerful piece of farm machinery. Today’s risk to life and limb was yesterday’s act of love and bonding.
—–Unlike the unfortunate souls in Mellencamp’s Scarecrow, Grandma and Granddaddy didn’t lose their farm. They were struggling…they always did. At the time Granddaddy finally fell too ill to keep going, the combination of corporate and large-acre farming along with haphazard government subsidization had crippled the profits he used to make from growing corn and beans, and their primary source of income turned out be the four lots-worth of Durocs (a specific hog breed, a bit more moody than the Hampshires he had raised in the 70s and early 80s if you ask me) he and I would haul to the stockyards in Worthington every three or four months. Had they continued to farm for another decade, however, the corporate sausage farms—where steroid and antibiotic-laden pigs are stuffed into closet-sized indoor pens to sit in their own waste for the rest of their lives—would have more than likely put their own cross on the square as well. Granddaddy was lucky enough to become too old at the right time.
—–About a month ago, I joined my fiancée and some friends for a Mellencamp concert on the Indiana University campus. Comfortably settled into our balcony seats in the warmth of the IU Auditorium, several hundred of us enjoyed not only several of the singer’s newest tracks, but his staples as well. As the material from Scarecrow wafted across the theater, and when I looked onto the crowd around me, bobbing their smiling heads to the beat of “Small Town,” I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these people came from any of the now crumbling little hamlets dotting the state. And I also wondered how many of them unwittingly voted for the people who escalated the end of all things small in American life.
—–In 1985, it wasn’t hard to read into Scarecrow as an anthem against the sins of Reaganomics. But today, neither political party gets a free pass from the scourge. Regan and Nixon may have ushered it in, but Clinton pushed NAFTA and Obama let the banks off the hook. We have traded Granddaddy’s trips to the Worthington stock-yards for Con-Agra and Archer Daniels Midland, and anyone looking for a leader in Washington who’s even remotely interested in reversing the direction of the wheel might as well strap a two-row planter onto a tiny open-top tractor and dream of getting rich.
—–This sort of nostalgia does become the clichéd tightrope. Wishing for the chance to own and work on a farm that’s smaller than the average modern golf course is not only economically suicidal, it’s as wistful and impractical as wanting to trade in the Chevy for a Conestoga wagon. On the other hand, nostalgia reminds us what we’ve lost, and it sometimes takes us far enough to even consider why we lost it. If listeners want to interpret Scarecrow as nothing more than an homage to days gone and the sadness which naturally comes when one generation succumbs to the vitality of those which follow…great. If others want to read into the album as a condemnation of the supply-side economic model which wrecked small farms (and small stores, and small trucking operations, and small…everything), then so be that as well.
—–I have a vinyl copy of the record (fittingly, it scratches and jumps three times during “Rain on the Scarecrow”), and as I listen to it I’ve decided that for me, the album is both themes. Consequently, it’s more relevant now than ever.