Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

Happy humpday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings where I take a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all. If you’ve been a frequent visitor to my blog or are aware of my music taste otherwise, you probably know John Mellencamp has been one of my favorite artists for many years. As such, it was only a matter of time before I would cover him as part of this weekly recurring feature.

I guess the heartland-straight-rock-turned-roots-artist from Seymour, Indiana doesn’t need much of an introduction. Mellencamp, who at the time still was John Cougar, first entered my radar screen in 1982 with a little ditty about Jack & Diane, his second big hit single in the U.S. and Canada. Strangely, according to Wikipedia, the tune, off his fifth studio album American Fool, didn’t chart in Germany, even though I seem to remember hearing it on my then-favorite mainstream radio station all the time. The first Mellencamp album I bought was Scarecrow released in August 1985.

By the time Big Daddy appeared in 1989, Mellencamp had started his transition from straight heartland to more roots and Americana-oriented rock. He had begun to take that direction on his 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, which remains among my favorite Mellencamp albums to this day. While I continue to dig his earlier straight rock sound, I’ve come to prefer his roots-focused music. I also like how his vocals have become much rougher over the decades.

This brings me to my song pick for this week: Big Daddy of Them All, from the aforementioned Big Daddy, Mellencamp’s 10th studio album – the last released as John Cougar Mellencamp. He hated the Cougar name, which had been given to him by his former manager Tony DeFries who insisted “Mellencamp” was too hard to market and pretty much imposed the awkward stage name Johnny Cougar on him.

Big Daddy of Them All did not become one of the album’s four singles. Like all except one track, it was penned by Mellencamp. While overall Big Daddy didn’t match the chart and sales success of its predecessor The Lonesome Jubilee, it still did pretty well, becoming Mellencamp’s first album to top the Australian charts, climbing to no. 3 and no. 7 in Canada and the U.S., respectively, and charting in various European countries. Eventually, Big Daddy reached 2X Platinum status in Canada and Platinum certification in the U.S. and Australia.

Here’s a live version of the tune from 2005, captured during Mellencamp’s Words and Music Tour.

Following are some additional tidbits on Big Daddy of Them All from Songfacts:

“Big Daddy Of Them All” was inspired by Burl Ives’ portrayal of Big Daddy in the 1958 movie version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Mellencamp said in the liner notes for the On The Rural Route 7609 box set: “This song was more or less a postcard to myself, saying, ‘You think Burl Ives wasn’t so nice? Guess what, John.'”

This song is one of the more personal in Mellencamp’s canon. By his own admission, he could be bossy and dismissive, and outright hostile to the media. Still, he was one of the most successful recording artists of the ’80s, earning money, fame, and adulation. Just one problem: None of those things were important to him.

In this song, he draws a parallel to the Big Daddy character in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy was rich, philandering, and cantankerous, which did him no good when he reached the end of his life. Mellencamp was still in his 30s, but he could see where his life was headed. At the time, his second marriage was crumbling down.

This is the lead track on Mellencamp’s Big Daddy album, and the song that provided the title. It has a very rootsy feel, with a prominent violin (by Lisa Germano) and accordion (by John Cascella). This kind of instrumentation is prominent throughout the Big Daddy album.

It’s worth noting that Paul Newman stars in the 1958 adaptation of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which inspired this song. He plays Brick, Big Daddy’s son. Paul Newman movies also made their way into Mellencamp’s songs “Paper In Fire,” which cribs a line from Hud, and “Rain On The Scarecrow,” which borrows from dialogue in Cool Hand Luke.

This song was a milestone for Mellencamp, who had a bit of a revelation. “At one time I thought I had all this stuff figured out, then I realized I didn’t,” he explained. “And I realized, like I said in ‘Big Daddy,’ when you live for yourself it’s hard on everybody. I didn’t realize I was hard to live with. It never dawned on me.”

“You gotta grow up and deal with what’s real,” he added. “Happiness, finding out who you are, and learning how to be a human being is what’s real.” (This interview appears in his VH1 “Coming Of Age” documentary.)

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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