John Mellencamp: America’s Unintentional Patriot
Near the beginning of a recent performance in Providence, Rhode Island, John Mellencamp told the theater-sized crowd him and the band were going to play “some songs you know, some songs you don’t know, some songs where you can sing along and some you can dance to.”
This simple descriptor personifies Mellencamp’s musical resume almost perfectly, one which boasts as much mainstream success as it does head scratching yet decidedly intentional left turns creatively. On this night, Mellencamp started “The John Mellencamp Show” with a 20 minute film telling the story of his creative origins and subsequent highs and lows in the music business. While mostly received with polite tolerance by most in attendance, anyone paying attention would quickly figure out Mellencamp, now 67, despises the very industry which now allows him to perform whenever and wherever he wants.
Most of the film’s dialogue was comprised of quick anecdotes by Mellencamp about those who doubted him, tried to mold him, tried to control him or simply tried to push him aside. Nobody succeeded and as a result, we are left today with arguably America’s most underrated storyteller and musical troubadour, an artist who has become an unlikely patriot and national treasure, terms he would almost certainly deem absurd.
His music today resembles some of the very best recordings from the 1950s Sun Records era or perhaps early Bob Dylan more than anything considered modern rock or pop. As this night proved more than once, Mellencamp’s voice is intact and robust, resembling more a southern rhythm and blues crooner than pop star. He would likely sound just as good playing at a local fair as he would in this newly restored and magnificent urban theater. After the documentary ended, Mellencamp and his band tore through a boisterous and varied setlist which touched upon some of his most successful hits while offering broad brush strokes of more obscure blues covers, country ballads and folk anthems.
Mellencamp didn’t shy away from telling stories of keeping his elderly grandmother company as a young man or playfully embarrassing his longtime lead guitarist Mike Wanchic with a tale of bailing him out a Providence jail one morning many decades ago after being charged with “lewd vagrancy”. When the setlist turned more acoustic-based and introspective, Mellencamp told those not interested in this musical shift to “get the fuck out and go grab a beer in the lobby”. This, after all this time, is the Mellencamp we have paid to come see. And judging by the crowd’s willingness to stick with him through each song, it was worth every penny.
Mellencamp started out as a rising pop star in the late 1970s under the name John Cougar for his first six albums. Of those albums, it was his fourth release, American Fool (1982), that catapulted him to stardom, earning him heavy rotation radio play (at a time when that mattered), his lone Grammy Award and a #1 album. He followed up this success by cranking out albums at a respectably consistent rate over the next thirty -five years, dipping his creative toes in all kinds of genres and working with an array of musicians and other artists. He went by John Cougar Mellencamp for awhile in the 1980s until finally settling on his real name by the early 1990s. He remains an artist in every sense of the word and his recorded work defies any real categorization, filled with songs serving as an American storybook, taking listeners through various incarnations of political division, poverty, increased wealth, social progress, wars and everything in between, all told through ordinary characters who lived each day like they were sold a bill of American Dream goods.
Mellencamp isn’t the only musical spokesperson of his era but he is perhaps its most underrated. Nobody questions the stature of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young or other similar musical icons (also Mellencamp’s generational peers), no matter if they like them or not. Their place in musical lore is secure (even if still changing since they are alive and active). Mellencamp, conversely, is widely popular but often not included in this lofty company directly. Yet his body of work contradicts this modest slight in spades, showing a consistent pattern of knowing how to craft songs with lyrical value, musical accessibility and even pop craftsmanship.
Musical artistry comes in many forms but my favorite indicator of one’s appeal is the Backyard Barbecue Test — have a summer cookout and compile a playlist comprised of the above artists. Who would appeal to those in attendance the longest? You would have a challenge with Dylan or Young in terms of pleasing a general audience after a few selections (both can be considered acquired tastes for many). Springsteen has a large swath of music to pick from and much of it would be fine for most listeners (save Nebraska for the people who stay past sundown and have those extra beers, go with Born in The U.S.A. at the start). Only Mellencamp is a lock in nearly every respect, challenging any listener to dive deep into his discography before finding any song remotely divisive or unappealing to a large segment of a general audience.
It’s a strange contrast — despite his well known outspoken profile and stark lack of political correctness, Mellencamp’s music is almost universally liked by a lot of people, even if they don’t know it yet. This is another measure of a musical artist’s appeal and merit — would someone relatively unaware of this person’s work like it upon first listen? I would argue most would enjoy Mellencamp’s songs from the beginning. This is a rare concept since we are conditioned to think artistic value — REAL artistry — is conditional on the degree of investment required, usually in terms of time or energy. This is akin to going to a museum you really would rather skip or reading a book because people suggest it demands to be read during one’s lifetime. Mellencamp defies this notion fairly easily, especially considering he has taken a far from safe artistic road during his long career.
A review of his albums is a musical tour of creative, interesting, at times perplexing and ultimately proof Mellencamp possesses very little concern for what he should do as an artist as opposed to what he wants to do — a character trait most modern artists of any medium eschew in light of not wanting to forfeit potential commercial gain. This is not entirely lacking merit. After all, if an artist wants to maintain relevance and grow an audience, some measure of fan service goes a long way. Mellencamp, however, did just this in his earliest recordings, work which was imbued with his later-trademark snarl and self-effacing machismo but laced with pop sensibilities of that era, the slick musicianship and polished tone belying the gruff and defiant grassroots singer and songwriter who would emerge years later on subsequent albums.
Following up his breakthrough American Fool success with the more forgettable but passable The Kid Inside, Mellencamp struck gold again with Uh-huh, an oddly titled but chart-friendly album featuring songs that Mellencamp still plays live today. At this point, Mellencamp was releasing virtually an album per year for six years (he released two in 1983 alone) and was developing a reputation as a talented singer and performer with a particular capacity for hit songs.
Undoubtedly, the release of Scarecrow in 1985 marked a significant juncture in Mellencamp’s career for it separated him wholly from the pop music world while still allowing him to succeed in it; a hybrid of sorts that only happens every so often and only with certain artists. It cannot be underestimated how significant an album Scarecrow was both for Mellencamp the artist and for the music scene at the time of its release. By the mid-1980s music had reached its most decadent and shameless synthetic nadir, with the majority of music drowning in keyboards and bombastic, precise percussion designed to align with the video music medium and formulaic top forty airplay. Not all of it was bad but there was simply too much, a classic case of excess in a time where excess was already on display. Scarecrow is a sparse, tight work comprising of a set of songs thematically related but not enough to be lumped into the sometimes silly “concept album” category.
Throughout Scarecrow, Mellencamp channeled 1960s R&B and British pop rock as much as he did country music, showing vignettes of American life no artist at this time came close to replicating with such sincerity. And there were hits from this album, big chart toppers which still find spots in Mellencamp’s live sets today. “Rain on the Scarecrow” is a powerful diatribe against the marginalization of the American farmer, a hot political topic in the 1980s (and fuel for the first-ever Farm Aid Concert) and one Mellencamp still champions today. “Small Town” puts every American folk song in a three-cord blender, creating a middle America anthem for the ages and one of the most recognizable songs of Mellencamp’s career while “Lonely Ol’ Night”, “Justice and Independence ‘85”, “Rumbleseat” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” sound like takes from a great Saturday night at a local American Legion.
Scarecrow has a rare timeless sound very few albums (especially from this time period) achieved, standing on its own as a collection of songs which could sound just as fresh and at home in today’s musical world as it did in 1985. Scarecrow is the type of album every single country artist today would sacrifice their right arm to record. It’s a musically accessible, deeply authentic, lyrically powerful masterpiece, defying the era during which it was recorded and as listenable and relevant in many ways today as it was over thirty years ago. I am absolutely convinced if Scarecrow was released by a country artist today it would be hands down the most successful album of the year while hailed as a masterstroke statement of modern American life for the working class. In 1985, however, it was seen as a really good album among many others released that year.
Mellencamp moved on relatively quickly from this success, cranking out six albums in nine years, never mimicking the material from Scarecrow but never abandoning the themes which formed the foundation of that landmark album. The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy relied more on mandolins and folk-infused arrangements than loud guitars. Whenever We Wanted returned Mellencamp’s amplifiers to maximum volume with guitar-based numbers more in line with his early 1980s work. Human Wheels, Dance Naked and Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1993, ’94, & ’96 respectively) represent perhaps Mellencamp’s wildest and most creatively diverse recording arc with decidedly different sounds on each recording, ranging from Van Morrison covers (“Wild Night”) to dance-pop grooves (“Key West Intermezzo”) and brooding anthems laced with self pity (“Junior”), not only defying easy classification but arguably demonstrating an artistic identity crisis. By the late 1990s, Mellencamp slid into a more consistent adult contemporary groove before finally settling on a sparse, folk-based brand of Americana doled out over a handful of fine and memorable albums, including Freedom’s Road, No Better Than This and a wonderful 2017 country collaboration with Carlene Carter, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.
It’s necessary to review Mellencamp’s catalog because it remains an astoundingly consistent record of artistic output while featuring a cavalier disregard for any roadmap to pop success, a consistent torrent of hits or even artistic credibility. Yet Mellencamp has managed to accomplish all three of these things and more in the process. Iconography is a curious thing in American culture, often putting people on pedestals and tearing them down with equal aplomb, establishing a supposed canonical club of “great” artists providing very little room for discussion or inclusion no matter how patterns change or one’s impact on society or culture at large. Nobody questions Dylan’s place in this pantheon nor should they. His place is permanent and at this point, nothing could jettison him from this club. Springsteen’s place has become much more secure in recent years and is probably solid (as it should be) as is a few other contemporaries in Mellencamp’s era. But maybe by his own design and resistance to categorization, Mellencamp remains a bit outside this fraternity and continues to do things however he wants, at times making music seem like a side project along with his other pursuits.
He’s a critically acclaimed fine arts painter (he claims to be just as deeply inspired by German expressionism as he is old American folk music), playwright (Ghost Brothers of Darkland County), actor (numerous roles), and collaborator (he wrote the musical score for fiance Meg Ryan’s film Ithaca). He still smokes (according to his own claims) and had a heart attack in his early 40s. He’s had his share of marriages (three and counting), kids (five overall) and political controversies (he’s always been an outspoken critic of American wars and the increased marginalization of the working class. His current tour features him “taking a knee” in protest during each performance). Considering his entire career, John Mellencamp has earned perhaps the most impressive distinction of being compared to the great peers of his generation while simultaneously carving out territory completely his own and unlike anything anyone of his era has done. Mellencamp is as every bit a true artist as anyone alive today. Moreover, he doesn’t give any indication of caring what people think of him or what he does.
Those coming to see Mellencamp on this Friday night in Providence got an understated but masterful performance filled with inspired, rock driven hits (“Crumblin’ Down”, “Rain on the Scarecrow”, “Pink Houses”, “Authority Song”, “Lonely Ol’ Night”, “Small Town”), rockabilly tinged jukebox jams (“Lawless Times”, “My Soul’s Got Wings”) to more dialed down, intimate songs (“Minutes to Memories”, “Troubled Man”, “Longest Days”, “The Full Catastrophe”), a setlist as symbolic and diverse as the artist himself. He played the hits. He played songs that he never recorded. He sang. He danced. He told stories. He was a preacher and a critic. Despite decades of heavy use and a persistent penchant for smoking, Mellencamp’s voice sounded powerful and distinct. His band played great. He channeled James Brown as much as he did Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan. John Mellencamp did it all for two hours and it was every bit reflective of who he’s become in the latter stages of his performing career while reminding everyone present how it should be done.
John Mellencamp has done it all and more than once. He is arguably our Great American Storyteller, through art, music and words. You just might have forgotten he was still here.