The Last Cougar: John Mellencamp’s Big Daddy at 30

Indiana’s finest took a big step forward at the close of the decade that defined him

Promo poster for Big Daddy

Big Daddy completed a major transition in Indiana singer John Mellencamp’s career, taking him for his early incarnation as pop pretender Johnny Cougar to his complete rebirth as John Mellencamp — social activist, heartland hero and unabashed American rocker.

The Cougar tag remained, but only temporarily; it would be shed with its successor Whenever We Wanted, released two years later. But like its predecessor, The Lonesome Jubilee, the album found its maker ploughing themes that that touched a universal nerve, and emerged all the more credibly as a result.

The album was Mellencamp’s tenth album in a career that had begun just a dozen years before. During that time, he had struggled with his image and his record company’s insistence that he use the made-up moniker Johnny Cougar while positioning himself as a punk poser. After a pair of disposable efforts, the poorly-selling 1976 debut Chestnut Street Incident and The Kid Inside, which his management vetoed for release, he reinvented himself as a rural rocker, adding his real name to his unfortunate handle and making a strong statement about his insistence on independence.

 

 

(“It’s John, not Johnny,” he corrected me when I met him at a press reception to celebrate the new album.)

As a result, the ‘80s saw a strong string of albums, and chart hits as well, beginning with the ironically titled Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did (1980), through American Fool (1982), The Kid Inside (1983), Uh-Huh (1983), Scarecrow (1985). The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) and, of course, Big Daddy at the end of the decade. With this essential series of efforts, he established himself as among America’s most significant heartland troubadours, making Bruce Springsteen his only real competition as far as that particular claim was concerned.

Not surprisingly then, Big Daddy was dominated by songs that addressed social issues in much the same way that “Pink Houses” and “Small Town” had done before. This time however, he expanded his palette, taking his concerns beyond a small town malaise and into the larger world of political profundity and social injustice. It cost him his presence on the charts, given that its best received single, the oft misunderstood “Pop Singer,” peaked at number 15 and its Everyman lament, “Jackie Brown,” only reached just inside the top 50.  However the album itself did very well, eventually climbing well inside the top ten, a formidable accomplishment for a set of songs embellished by fiddles and folk accoutrement.

John Cougar Mellencamp Big Daddy, Mercury 1989

Likewise, the themes veered sharply from moon-June, boy-girl scenarios. The aforementioned “Jackie Brown” dealt with the marginalization of America’s poor. “Country Gentleman” addressed the entitlement of then-president Ronald Reagan’s wealthy base. Sadly, “J.M.’s Question” takes on challenges that have yet to be resolved, even despite the passage of the three decades since its original recording. The song puts the focus on pollution and gun laws perverted by the Second Amendment… topics the country still grapples with today. “Void In My Heart,” “Pop Singer” and “Big Daddy Of Them All” find the singer turning more introspective, attempting to resolve personal issues that he continued to find difficult to resolve.

Ultimately, Big Daddy, like the albums that preceded it, helped plot the singer’s way forward, adding to a legacy that lingers still. A big daddy? Perhaps. An iconic artist? Without a doubt.

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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