Nearly 36 years ago, John Mellencamp stood among 10,000 family farmers and their supporters in Chillicothe, Missouri, his shaggy hair flying in the hot May wind. “I’m not here against any specific person,” he told the crowd, and television cameras, before performing a three-song set. “I hope for a moment we can have your voices be the voices of millions of people across the United States who are suffering the exact same thing.”
Mellencamp, then at the apex of his celebrity, swooped into the small Midwestern town after learning of local protests against farm foreclosures and delays in federal aid. Months earlier, he’d helped launch the first Farm Aid benefit concert in Champaign, Ill., with performances by Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others, which drew 80,000 attendees. With this appearance, he dug in his heels. Mellencamp may have been topping the charts, but he was committed to the common man.
Since ascending to fame in 1982 with “American Fool,” which occupied the Billboard album chart’s top position for nine weeks, the artist formerly known as John Cougar has protested in song, onstage and in interviews. “He ain’t a gonna help no women/He ain’t a gonna help no children/He’s just gonna help his rich friends,” Mellencamp sang on 1989′s “Country Gentleman,” a scathing indictment of President Ronald Reagan from the album “Big Daddy,” released amid the former president’s last year in office. More than two decades later, in 2020, during a virtual broadcast of Farm Aid amid the coronavirus pandemic, he took a knee and heaved his fist in the air in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting some ticket holders to demand a refund.
Now, at age 70, after a lifetime of speaking his mind, he doesn’t hesitate to name his adversaries. “Reagan is my biggest enemy,” he says on a phone call from his home in Bloomington, Indiana, decrying the former president’s deregulation and its ripple effect. “That guy f—ed everything up.”
Long considered an unpretentious champion of the marginalized, Mellencamp now inhabits a liminal space between past and present populism; between being an indefatigable symbol of the working class, and a megaphone condemning the racism, xenophobia and misinformation that has surfaced in the Trump administration’s wake. He’s a storied American voice who finds himself in the crosshairs of a culture war that has divided his fan base and his Midwestern home.
“Somehow, we’ve lost our way,” he says. “And I suppose that’s not comfortable, but it’s to be expected. What did we really expect to happen when we elect a guy like Trump?”
At the same time, he’s an enduring example of the multitudinous nature of Middle America, of its diversity of people and perspectives, of a complexity ignored by those who paint the region with a broad, red brushstroke. With Mellencamp, many things are true at once. He’s a committed smoker who doesn’t drink. He’s fascinated by bygone rules of etiquette and swears like a sailor. He’s an irascible activist and self-described liberal who makes his home outside of America’s cultural and political capitals. He was born in tiny Seymour, then moved an hour away to Bloomington and never left.
“He’s pretty fearless,” says Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp’s longtime guitarist, co-producer and friend who’s worked with the songwriter since 1976. “He’s not going to pander to anybody. You’re gonna get the straight s—. And that’s why he’s still here. His integrity is still intact.”
For Mellencamp, that has meant carrying the torch for his progressive folk heroes, like musicians Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and author John Steinbeck, even if it alienates some fans. In 2012, Mellencamp was presented with the John Steinbeck Award, given to individuals who “capture Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values and belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes.”
Over the years, his evident populism has caused opportunistic politicians and guileless fans to incorrectly interpret Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” with its “Ain’t that America” refrain, as a dime-store expression of patriotism, allowing its emotion-stirring to cloud its subversion. “Small Town,” from his pivotal 1985 album “Scarecrow,” is at once diaristic and combative, a paean of rural America that also swipes at agrarian fantasy. Both have become essential entries in the canon of American music, but their author is first to point out the hypocrisy of our nation’s anthems. “The rocket’s red glare? The bombs bursting in air? … That’s a pro-war song,” he says. “This country was founded on murder.”
With his 24th studio album, “Strictly A One-Eyed Jack,” Mellencamp continues to amplify and interrogate American life and its shadow sides. The set, released on Jan. 21, brims with burning tales of nostalgia, pain and deceit. Its compositions span a breadth of tradition, from Delta blues to roots rock and melancholic popular song. It’s his strongest album since 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” a similarly earthen affair that positions Mellencamp as a brawny Everyman poet—a world away from his early days as a pop-rock singer.
“John’s at the pinnacle of his writing because the art form doesn’t stop,” Wanchic says. “You don’t hit age 50 and then are no longer creative and have nothing to say. The process continues. And his writing is the best it’s ever been.”
“It’s not about me,” Mellencamp says of the new record. Instead, he insists, he’s the medium for a character stunted by his own worst instincts, a guy who’s lonely, but who never shows his hand or allows anyone to get too close. “The one-eyed jack is the most dangerous card in the deck,” he says. “You only see half his face, so you’re not seeing the true person.”
The album opens in media res as Mellencamp’s antihero wanders life’s back alleys: lying, threatening, subsumed by worry and teetering on the precipice of violence. His gravelly voice, poisoned by decades of cigarettes, sounds worn by a life of combat, like a veteran of war. Even the album’s apparent lighter moments are lined with darkness. “That’s an old term,” he says of “Driving in the Rain,” the album’s second track. “My grandfather used to tell me, ‘John, you better be careful or you’ll be driving in the rain soon,’ which means you’re getting into dangerous territory.”
The album may not be about the singer, but it echoes his contrarian disposition, his lack of concern for social mores, his passion that abuts rage. “Meg Ryan [Mellencamp’s former girlfriend] likes to tell me, ‘John, your heritage has to be from a small town in Germany called Anger, Germany,’” he told Architectural Digest in 2019.
Backed by his longtime Indiana band—musical director and multi-instrumentalist Andy York is the only member who doesn’t hail from or live in the Hoosier State—its intimate and aleatoric quality conveys an evident familial bond, as if they can read Mellencamp’s mind. “Musically, sometimes, yes,” York says. “I know what to do, and so does everybody else in the band. We’ve been playing together so long we can finish each other’s musical sentences.”
“We can arrange songs in shorthand,” Mellencamp says. “When I was a kid, everything was brand new and it was hard to explain what I was going for. But now, I think the newest member has been with me for 18 years, and all I gotta do is give a look.”
While it would be easy for the group and its leader to rest on their laurels, booking greatest-hits tours at casinos, edging ever nearer toward an open grave, Wanchic says there’s nothing that invigorates them more than the possibility that comes with making a new song. “There’s a thrill when he comes in and just plays for us. I sit down in the control room, he grabs an acoustic guitar, and we start developing. That’s the exciting part of a Mellencamp session.”
He works as if his life depends on it. The night before this interview, Mellencamp was up until 2:30, writing a song in his kitchen for his next album. “What am I going to retire to but dying?” he says. “I hear people talk about retiring and I think to myself, ‘Great, I’ll come to your funeral.’” On a typical day, he also paints in his Bloomington studio for up to seven hours. His visual art, a practice he’s honed since the late ’80s, has been shown in galleries across the country. A solo exhibition of his paintings and assemblages, reminiscent of the moody distortions and color palettes of German expressionism, runs through March 27 at the Museum of Art—Deland in Florida.
“Strictly A One-Eyed Jack” also includes a highly anticipated collaboration. Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen have been long-heralded under a shared banner of heartland rock, a form that sprung up in the late ’70s, which fuses folk tradition with walloping rock ‘n’ roll, and lyrics centered on working-class concerns. Though Mellencamp rejects the likening (“Lazy journalists have always compared us to each other, even though our songs aren’t very much alike,” he says), objectively, each artist is a demonstrated voice for the beauty of the proletariat and the ugliness of the systems that oppress them. Each man has reframed rock music for his particular regional niche, and broadcast his messages from maligned American corners—Springsteen in New Jersey and Mellencamp in Indiana.
The pair duet on “Wasted Days,” an anthemic acoustic number that contemplates one’s last days and how to move forward rather than becoming paralyzed by the past, a fitting theme for the two busy septuagenarians. Springsteen also contributes guitar and vocals on “Did You Say Such a Thing,” a self-flagellating rumination that reads as a scorched-earth rebuttal, and “A Life Full of Rain,” a melancholic piano ballad that concludes the 12-song album.
Over the years, Mellencamp has received an abundance of peer recognition. “It’s one of the better songs of the last few years,” Bob Dylan said of Mellencamp’s “Longest Days” while accepting the MusiCares Person of the Year award in 2015. He’s shared stages and dwellings with America’s most storied troubadours. “I loved John [Prine] and he would stay at my house for weeks,” Mellencamp said. “He and I were supposedly going to write songs together numerous times.”
But today, there is a sense that Mellencamp doesn’t receive the recognition of his peers. Unlike Springsteen, there are no Mellencamp concert residencies on Broadway. Instead, his “Small Town The Musical,” which features selections from Mellencamp’s catalogue, will premiere later this year in Louisville. In recent years, Petty’s estate has orchestrated illustrious box sets and fashion capsules with hip young designers like Rodarte, while Prine saw an entire career resurgence after befriending and collaborating with younger generations in Nashville.
In 1985, with “Scarecrow,” Mellencamp began sketching an entire blueprint for the Americana sound to come, adding traditional instruments like fiddle, banjo, mandolin and accordion to his rock ‘n’ roll live show. He continued to build upon and refine the framework with “The Lonesome Jubilee” (1987) and “Big Daddy” (1989), but remains largely uncredited for the innovation.
For his part, Mellencamp holds a surprisingly Zen position. “I have no interest in singing with somebody younger than me, or participating in anything to placate anybody, or to ride on anybody’s coattails or to try to develop a younger audience,” he says. “I do what I do, and if you like it, great, and if you don’t, that’s OK with me.”
Last year, British music journalist Paul Rees published a semi-authorized biography of the singer. According to Mellencamp, his management connected Rees with sources, but he didn’t participate in it because, “I didn’t think I could be that interesting in the book.” He says he hasn’t read it.
These days, Mellencamp prefers to live in a world of his making, residing alone (he’s three times divorced) in his palatial 86-acre estate on the banks of Lake Monroe in Bloomington, and visiting his kids and grandkids who are spread across the country. He has a rare lifetime recording contract with Republic Records, and he says he’ll work in his Indiana art and recording studios until his final hours, capping a lifetime of hard-won success on his own terms, even if his record sales are a fraction of what they once were.
“I try to keep it the way Pete Seeger told me,” he says. “Keep it small, and keep it going.”