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The Story of John Cougar Mellencamp’s Rootsy ‘The Lonesome Jubilee’

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On Aug. 24, 1987, John Mellencamp released one of his best albums, The Lonesome Jubilee. He was still using “Cougar” in his name at the time, but the brash rocker image was beginning to wear thin, as the singer-songwriter dug deeper into the folk and Americana sounds that he started to explore on 1985’s Scarecrow.

“Paper in Fire,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Check It Out” were released as singles, as The Lonesome Jubilee was on its way to selling more than three million copies.

Mellencamp uses references to the Bible, borrowing a quote from Ecclesiastes — “Generations come and go but it makes no difference” — as a theme. And the man pictured behind Mellencamp on the album cover represented every broken dream and compromised opportunity the characters in songs like “Down and Out in Paradise,” “Empty Hands” and “Hard Times for an Honest Man” were living through.

“They wanted somebody who was kind of a rough, working-class family man,” Woody Baker, Jr.  — whose dad, a World War II veteran — told Bloomington Herald Times. “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 seemed. Mellencamp’s team searched for the perfect bar to capture the spirited if slightly dejected backdrop painted in the music. Photographer Skeeter Hagle took the picture at the Midway Tavern in Elnora, Ind. — a perfect reflection of the music inside.

See John Mellencamp and Other Rockers in the Top 100 Albums of the ’80s

Next: Top 10 John Mellencamp Songs

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