Mel­len­camp puts fear­less touch on Amer­i­can clas­sics


John Mel­len­camp, "Other Peo­ple's Stuff" (Repub­lic Records)

In his youth John Mel­len­camp was known to be cocky. That brash­ness car­ried him to the big stage, where he be­came a sta­dium-scale rocker with an ad­ven­tur­ous spirit.

He mostly fell short of the stature at­tained by con­tem­po­raries named Bruce Spring­steen and Tom Petty, but he some­times took big­ger risks.

Mel­len­camp’s fear­less­ness is well-rep­re­sented on his lat­est al­bum, “Other Peo­ple’s Stuff," a col­lec­tion of cover songs, some of them Amer­i­can clas­sics, from four decades of work.

There’s a ver­sion of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” the old civil rights an­them, which Mel­len­camp in­tro­duced at a White House event in 2010. Mel­len­camp’s gen­tle in­ter­pre­ta­tion may sur­prise those not ex­pect­ing such soul­ful notes out of a white man from the heart­land.

There’s also a slowed-down take on “Wreck of the Old ‘97,” the iconic train song, and a Merle Travis song called “Dark as a Dun­geon” that Mel­len­camp orig­i­nally per­formed for a doc­u­men­tary about coal min­ing. Mel­len­camp’s earthy, cig­a­rette-shaped growl con­veys work­ing-class hon­esty on both.

There are cuts that would fit in neatly on “The Lone­some Ju­bilee,” Mel­len­camp’s finest al­bum, with ac­cor­dion and fid­dle en­hanc­ing the hard-charg­ing vibe. And there are hints through­out, in the range of song­writ­ers he’s em­braced — from Jim­mie Rodgers to Robert John­son to Ste­vie Won­der — that Mel­len­camp’s brash­ness some­times takes him where oth­ers won’t go.

That’s an es­sen­tial truth about Mel­len­camp’s ca­reer that this col­lec­tion re­in­forces with gusto — that even when the songs are not his own, the man takes chances.


This cover im­age re­leased by Repub­lic Records shows "Other Peo­ple's Stuff," the lat­est re­lease by John Mel­len­camp.

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