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John Cougar Mellencamp, ‘The Lonesome Jubilee’ Turns 25

The Lonesome Jubilee
Mercury Records

‘The Lonesome Jubilee,’ considered by many to be John Mellencamp‘s finest album, turns 25 years old today (Aug. 24).

In 1987, he was still using “Cougar” as a middle name, but the brash rocker image was beginning to wear thin on the singer, as exemplified by an album that was more honest and devoted to folk or Americana sounds than previous efforts.

‘Paper in Fire,’ ‘Cherry Bomb’ and ‘Check It Out’ were the three singles that came from ‘The Lonesome Jubilee.’ It was a success critically and commercially, selling over three million copies in America.

Rolling Stone called it a complex and moving project that blends “fatalism and celebration … the pleasures of life and the specter of death.”

Mellencamp refers to Bible verses in different songs, and the album jacket. He sets the tone for whats to come by quoting the book of Ecclesiastes: ”Generations come and go but it makes no difference,” he writes.

The man pictured behind Mellencamp on the album jacket represents every broken dream and compromised opportunity he’s singing about on songs like ‘Down and Out in Paradise,’ ‘Empty Hands’ and ‘Hard Times for an Honest Man.’ The figure is Woody Baker, a WWII veteran who died in 2009.

“They wanted somebody who was kind of a rough, working class, family man,” his son — also named Woody — told Indiana’s Bloomington Herald Times at the time. “So they went and got Dad at work and brought him in. He was pretty dirty. He wanted to clean up. But they said, ‘no, no, you’re perfect.’”

The old man was proud of the picture, which was not nearly as spontaneous as it seems. Mellencamp’s team sought out the perfect bar to reflect the spirited if slightly dejected backdrop he was painting with his music. Famed photographer Skeeter Hagle took the picture at the Midway Tavern in Elnora, Ind.

Next: A Landmark Fleetwood Mac Album Turns 15

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