Passion, Music & Art
"These days, the only real way to make it is to get your music heard and noticed, and to get the support of a good PR firm and booking/management and tour. Get on the festival circuit, and make some money on ticket and merchandise sales." John Mellencamp
Photo Credit: Forbes Magazine
Some Rock 'n Roll stories are just as compelling as the artist's music is. That is how it is with John Mellencamp. What you see is exactly what you get. It's also why his lyrics in his songs get to us. His story is a mix of passion and timing. It goes like this: Boy lives in a small Indiana town. He plays gigs around this small town by age 14. Years later he hightails it to NYC to try to get into an art school. He gets a record deal before age 20. Oh, he also has a family early on, too. He records three songs and they are hits.
Before Americana Rock ever existed, most storytelling lyrics were on a folk record by Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Baez. John Mellencamp's lyrics and stories (besides the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, or Tom Petty) became emphatic cries about towns and aspirations set to a strong rock beat or guitar riff. The music spoke to us about grabbing that American dream, cause otherwise time flies by mister, so go get your Pink Houses, rock in the US, or just go rebel against authority. "Do something cause that is what this country is all about, making your dreams happen." And his songs did exactly that for Mellencamp.
His music videos in the 80's were American flags, jeans, leather jacket, a guitar in hand, a woman under each arm, dream it, be it. Americana Rock was born from these anthem types of story-telling rock songs. Only now, they had songwriter names: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, and John Cougar (later changing it back to his actual name, John Mellencamp), were all-American kids growing up in the USA, and they wrote relatable songs. These guys could have traveled around with just a guitar strapped across their backs to tell us their woes thru song, but they preferred having killer Rock bands behind them.
John Mellencamp's songwriting style set us firmly on a traveled path, and the chosen riffs were the wheels beneath us. No frills, no massive production, no worries. His take on equality, relationships, living in a smaller town, was just a guy from Indiana telling it like it is. It struck a chord for people. His intros catchy, the stories yanked ya in, "Jack & Diane" or "Pink Houses" his signature style.
His latest album is Orpheus Descending, the title taken from the three-act play by Tennessee Williams. The album also features a song written by his close friend, Bruce Springsteen, "Perfect World." Other songs of his speak of mortality, a beckoning for God to come down to earth, concerns about our country, and sentiment about personal relationships. It has his heartland rock style. "The So-Called Free" is a beautiful single about love, the loss of love, the loss of life, the fears we have. His textured, smokey vocal seems to highlight the false prophecies he talks about. The album is a work of art in textures, instrumentation, soulful backups, elements, a mosaic within each song.
For those of you who only know him when you hear him, his life is interesting. When music industry people disliked the initial songs he recorded, “Hurts So Good,” “Jack and Diane,” and “I Need A Lover” it didn't matter. John went to Polygram and didn't give up. Those songs were instant hits. The songwriting spoke and sales answered. By the 80’s Mellencamp had many hit singles, “Small Town,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Lonely Ol’ Night, “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” are just a few from that time. In the 80's he also helped to launch Willie Nelson’s cause, Farm Aid, also with Neil Young. It has been an annual event since the 80’s with proceeds going to American farmers in need.
In the 90’s “Wild Night” and a few other great albums were released. By 2008 Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is also a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is a Grammy winner and the recipient of numerous awards for his music, including the Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck Awards, ASCAP Foundation’s Champion Award – Founders Award, and the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, as well as the Billboard Century Award.
John has had greatest hits albums like the Universal issued John Mellencamp 1978-2012, a 17 CD set encompassing all of his key albums of his career. In 2014 Republic Records announced an unprecedented “Lifetime Recording Contract” with John. He went on to do an 80 city North American Tour by 2016. He has also self-narrated a musical journey Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theater, featured on Netflix in 2018. Also in 2018, John Mellencamp released a new version of civil-rights anthem "Eyes on the Prize" on a covers album, Other People's Stuff. The album landed at #1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums Chart.
In 2021 The Good Samaritan Tour, a new live album and documentary was released. It was narrated by Academy Award-winner Matthew McConaughey, chronicling how in 2000 he performed on street corners and public parks across the country.
John is working on Turner Classic Movie projects, also he has always been a painter. In fact, in a recent interview with David Letterman he stated how the reason he wound up with a record contract was because they would give him money, whereas he would have had to pay a hefty tuition to attend the art school he applied to in NYC. John’s permanent art exhibition at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened a year ago, “Legends of Rock: John Mellencamp.'
He has a new biography written by music writer Paul Rees, titled, “Mellencamp” featuring exclusive interviews and never-before-told stories about his life. He also has a Coffee Table Art book of his work, John Mellencamp: Paintings and Assemblages by Rizzoli New York.
In 2021 Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen did a duet and video, “Wasted Days.” It was praised by NPR Music and many critics as a strong message about precious time in ones life. A reissue of his previous album Scarecrow is now out with bonus tracks.
Cheers to John Mellencamp. I was glad he gave us some of his time. As always, he was real, with no bones about it:
By Abbe Davis, September 2023
Abbe: Growing up in Indiana, around age 14, what was it like in your home of many kids, and then friends? You were in your first band at age 14. Did you guys jam and then get on bikes to go to the Tasty Freeze? What was your typical free time like?
John: Well, times were definitely different back then for sure. I grew up in what was a small town back then. We knew all our neighbors and our neighbors were like an extension of my family. But that's how it was in many communities back then. Tasty Freeze was the go-to place for most of us, too. I was always getting in some kind of trouble as a kid, getting into a lot of fights. I had some anger issues even back then.
Abbe: Restless teen, artistic temperament, parents just don't understand? When you got your first record deal, with money to record, after you recorded those three songs (that went on to be hit songs) the label didn't even like the songs. They wanted you to be like Neil Diamond. So, tell me, how did you get them to agree to release the tunes if they didn't like them? They could have just walked away, why didn't they?
John: Uh, yeah. Neil Diamond. Me, like Neil Diamond. That's pretty fucked up. I told them that. That was a pretty tough time. At that time, I had written and recorded "Jack and Diane" and "Hurts So Good." My label did not like them at all. They were trying to move me in a completely different direction, artistically, and were trying to make me into something I wasn't. I stood my ground and said those were the first two songs that had to be released. I threatened to take them somewhere else, and they finally agreed to release them.
Abbe: I think it is good that you had that much conviction at a younger age. It's cool that you just knew. I cannot see you wearing Neil's blue sparkling shirts. That would have been way too Siegfried and Roy for you. Not sure whey the industry still does that at times. What do you like or dislike about the music industry today, as compared to when you were starting out in it?
John: I feel bad for bands that are trying to make it in the industry these days. It's a completely different game, an entirely
different business than it was 30 or 40 years ago. There's really no sense in spending all your money to record an album now.
Why do that if someone can just go online and get the music for free? These days, the only real way to make it is to get your music
heard and noticed and to get the support of a good PR firm and booking/management and tour. Get on the festival circuit, and make some money on ticket and merchandise sales. The days of the labels throwing money at you and getting paid royalties are long gone. Bands today should save their money, record a couple of songs, get out there do gigs, and submit to festivals.
Abbe: I'm glad you're saying this for those musicians trying to figure it out. Nowadays, whose music are you currently enjoying listening to? Do you put on music when you paint at all?
John: I really enjoy Lana Del Rey, blues, soul. I wouldn't say I tend to listen to one or two artists. If you hear something and it
moves you, that's what it's about. Do I put on music when I paint? Not always but yeah, sometimes. When I'm painting, I just get
immersed in what I'm doing and really lose focus on anything else going on around me.
Abbe: Good to hear that you lose yourself in it. Must be fun to either grab a guitar or paint brush. I went to Indiana Univ for classical voice (which lasted a semester with Classical Voice, was intense for that), Yet, while I was there, people would randomly tell me how you'd drive your Vette with the top down through town sometimes. I would just say to them, "OK, he's having fun, good for him." Did you do that or were guys just trying to "be all that" and maybe they never even saw you do that?
John: LOL I probably did. That was about as close as I'd ever gotten to college. Well, I actually went to a Junior College. Vincennes College. LOL. It was a college for idiots. In all seriousness though, I've always supported Indiana University as a benefactor of sorts. I never attended the school but do all I can for the school and am always there to support them.
Abbe: LOL! Go Vincennes, we believe in you. Wow, those guys weren't kidding? They actually saw you? Oh wow, I passed up maybe some decent guys. Ha. It was a good school. That's great that you support IU. Back to music now, do you recall one of your own most disastrous gigs or shows and what went on? I like asking because a lot of musicians and fans can relate to what goes on, etc.
John: Hell, how much time do you have? LOL. I can't really recall one in particular, but being in this business as long as I have, there's definitely been quite a few. Hmm. Well, there was a show recently in Cleveland. Anyone who knows me or has been to any of my
shows, knows that I really hate it when people start screaming at you during the show. I'm here to do my thing and respect everyone who showed up, and to appreciate and thank them. So, at this show, there's some drunk guy who's just screaming at me to shut up and sing.
I was talking to the audience about some things going on in our country for a minute, and this guy didn't want to hear it. So, I told him to shut the "F" up or I'd be leaving the stage. I guess I can be a bit hostile at times, not as patient as I've been or maybe should be.
Abbe: LOL! I laugh because I feel any professional musician in that situation might get sick of some dude ruining it when you pause to show you care to talk to the audience, opening up between songs. That guy wants to get lost in some party, while you're there going, "Dude, this is actually shit and I wanna talk about it." Tell me, which musicians have you met, where it was interesting being with that person? Do any stories stand out?
John: I love Bruce Springsteen. We've known each other forever. I remember years ago when I was in the studio recording, I think it was "I Need a Lover Who Won't Drive Me Crazy" and Bruce was in another studio recording I think, "Born in the USA." LOL Come on now, which song has a stronger meaning? LOL I hear him and I'm thinking to myself, "Man, Bruce writes great songs." I didn't think I was anywhere even close to writing like that. Then, years later, here we are, he's singing on some of my songs. He's just a great guy, one of my closest friends. I also kinda pissed off Arlo Guthrie. We were doing some event and we were going to do "This Land is Your Land" and at rehearsal, I ask him, "Hey Arlo, what the fuck is it with all these passing chords?" He says that's the way the song goes. I told him that wasn't the way it goes and he said, "Yeah, it's always been that way." I'm shaking my head and tell him, "Your dad didn't play the song that way and he says, "Yeah, he did, he always played it that way, that's the way it's played." Well, I told Arlo that was pretty fucked up and I'd never played that song that way and he tells me, "Alright man, we'll just play it the way you play it" and he laughed it off.
Abbe: That is wild that you and Bruce were recording around the same time like that. Arlo Guthrie! OMG! You really do fight authority and always win! LMAO! You are a classic, I mean, it was his dad, he would know. LOL! I love this. Next question, if you decided to paint a huge canvas to represent scenes of your life, (let's take fatherhood as a separate canvas next to this one) which scenes would you paint and why?
John: It would be scenes of my best memories, worst memories, best times, worst times. Family, friends, places I've been fortunate to visit, people I've been fortunate to have met. I guess it would kind of look like the cover of the Beatles Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. A big mish-mash of stuff.
Abbe: Ah, a collage. I thought you'd name a few things. This is even better! It's interesting you'd include the bad times, too. All part of the bigger picture. Why do you think that in the past ten years (when it has gotten seemingly much worse) in the US, that it has been so easy for people to just twist civil rights backwards, when so many have worked hard to create equality?
John: I blame it on the politicians, our "leadership" and the media. The politicians are out to get rich off all of us and they want to create this rift in the country, which they've obviously done. The media are out to only share what they want to share, which for the most part is a lot of melodrama.They are out for ratings and to shock the masses. All the hard work in the 60's has taken many big steps backwards and I don't see it ending anytime soon. It's getting worse every day. What did Rodney King say several years ago? "Why can't we all just get along?" Well, why can't we? Can't we all just sometimes agree to disagree and then shake hands and go about our lives as civilized people?
Abbe: How I wish. The public needs to research and fact find. The true politicians that fought for causes, solved problems and met across the aisles to actually get things done and solve issues. Farm Aid, and many other charities some might not realize you've contributed to. Of the various causes, which ones are closest to your heart and why?
John: Definitely Farm Aid. l have also supported Indiana University in Bloomington and continue to do so. Musicians On Call (brings live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients, families and caregivers in healthcare environments). That's a good one there. Project Clean Water, is a very important organization, don't you think? (note: Project Clean Water serves as a resource for both government agencies and the general public, to prevent contaminants in drinking water). I've been a long-time contributor to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Abbe: All of these things are critical and very interconnected. Education, farmers, food to the table, community, clean water. It is inspiring to see how you and others care to get behind these causes. On your website, you speak about the killings out there, how politicians aren’t signing bills to prevent it, and how it will continue. What do you see as a way to fix it already? Can a group of rock names like yourself go after it or not? I realize the greed and deals out there, and illegal arms coming in. What do you feel has to happen to change it?
John: How do we fix it? Can we fix it? Education. That starts and ends at home. We've got to teach our kids right from wrong and really educate them as to why "This particular thing is right and this other one is wrong." The entire country has to wake up and really realize that what's going on here is not normal. The only way to change these things is through hard work and family and education. Emotional education, moral education. We've got these "leaders" that we've elected who are not doing what they should be doing. They are driven by greed and power. These people work for us! And, if they're not doing their job, we should be the ones to fire their asses. Look, not all of them are bad and only out for themselves, but those are the ones who aren't vocal enough. Can the rock industry get together and help out? Well, we tried during Live Aid. Where did all that money go to? I guess we could try. But, would it be just a big one-day event or would it continue on afterward? That's the trick. How do we open that window and continue to bring in the right amount of air and light on an ongoing continuing basis? It can't just be this big musical event helping to raise attention for a day. It has to be ongoing in some capacity and that's the hard part. Anyone can organize an event, but to make it really sink in to help promote action and change, that's the big issue.
Abbe: It takes community and people who have the means to affect solutions maybe. Changing gears here, a Fantasy Question! You can put together any band for one live show, even people who have passed away can be in it. Who is your drummer, your bass player, anyone, which legendary star band would you put together and who are the players with you that night?
John: Drummer would be, hmm. That's a tough one to start. I guess it would also depend on what type of music is going to be playing. Let's say, Charlie Watts, Phil Collins, Bass, maybe Paul McCartney. Guitar Stevie Ray, Eric Clapton. I really don't know.
Abbe: Charlie Watts and Phil, with McCartney and add in two legendary blues guitarists! This is a new one! Usually it is one legendary guitarist. I'd go to that concert immediately. Farm Aid is around the corner for you, what else do you want to share about where you will be, your Art showings, and what would you like to let us know about for the year ahead?
John: Farm Aid is in Indiana this year on September 23rd. It was close to your area last year in Raleigh. I believe you're in Asheville. It should be a nice showing. Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews. There's going to be a ton of talent there. After that, we'll see if I add some more shows. I recently finished my tour in June. It went on for about half the year. Any art showings? I'm sure there will be some. I don't really have any scheduled so after Farm Aid, I'll probably do some more painting and take it easy for a while and try not to get all pissed off at people, at least for a little while. LOL.
Abbe: Sorry I missed it! This year's Farm Aid sounds like a great lineup! Hope all of you have a blast. Thanks for your music, I grew up on it and love too many of your songs to mention. This was fun! Thanks for being you. Namaste.
Abbe Davis, Editor of TRR / Musician
Abbe Davis is a Rock singer/songwriter and the editor of Tru Rock Revival magazine. She has performed alongside legendary Blues artist, Buddy Guy, at the Riverwalk Blues Festival. She performed at the Parkland Memorial concert in South Florida. The Abbe Davis band is currently performing at the TRR Series: Day of Rock shows in Asheville, and is recording for release in Winter. Abbe is also an intuitive healer at One of Asheville.