With one of the most recognizable voices in all of roots rock, John Mellencamp’s music is woven into America’s cultural fabric. His songs have fittingly soundtracked the good times and even the bad ones, too, across more than four decades.
Now 71 years old, the blue-collar Seymour, Indiana, native bounced around a few college bands — even a glam rock outfit — before breaking through as “Johnny Cougar” in the late 1970s. His humble upbringing and exposure to music and players from all walks of life gave him a wide perspective and informed his songwriting, and that effused across a series of hyper-successful albums released through the 1980s.
As a crucial voice, one that seemed to speak to and encourage the less fortunate, John’s contributed an impressive list of what can only be described as “classics” to the American songbook.
He visited The Lyric Baltimore in the Charm City this past weekend, and for anyone curious about his own inspirations, Mellencamp’s current tour — with a bit of a different approach to the live presentation — provides an intriguing look into the 13-time Grammy nominee’s life and the influences he drew from when writing some of his most celebrated songs.
A large backdrop projection screen was lit up to start the show the night of June 2, and as ticketholders were still filing into the Midtown Baltimore venue, a collection of classic movie footage and spliced interviews with Mellencamp was showcased as part of an apparent branded partnership with Turner Classic Movies.
Listen to John Mellencamp’s 2022 studio album, Strictly A One-Eyed Jack, via Spotify:
While perhaps unexpected for most in attendance, it was indeed a telling and illustrative dive into the songwriting process of a man known not just coast to coast but worldwide for penning some of the most relatable, stirring songs of their kind.
Snippets from some of John’s favorites — Fugitive Kind, The Misfits, Giant, Paper Moon, Grapes of Wrath, Hud, On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire — harkened to decades past when Mellencamp himself was just a kid with dreams.
By way of the prerecorded Q&A with TCM, fans learned how much Mellencamp truly adored the likes of James Dean, Marlon Brando and other famous actors of the past who portrayed characters he identified and with traits he could see in himself even as a youngster.
“Movies of the past just seem to tell stories that need to be told,” John said on the screen. “I learned something about people from those movies.”
Watch John Mellencamp talk about the artistic intersection of movies and songwriting via Turner Classic Movies’ YouTube channel:
He shared that he routinely pulled words from some of these famous motion pictures and incorporated them into some of his most adored songs. Even tracks like “Jack & Diane” were revealed to be directly inspired by movie characters.
“I can’t tell you how many times I took a line from a movie and put it into a song,” Mellecamp said in the moments just before the video ended and the screen lifted, unveiling the star and several of his longtime colleagues who’ve been with him for the long haul.
Attendees were treated to a veritable Mellencamp greatest hits, including a blasting take on “Paper in Fire” from John’s masterful 1987 record The Lonesome Jubilee and richly gratifying version of “Small Town,” one of several unforgettable songs from the consummate 1985 album Scarecrow. While by his own admission cigarettes — about 60 years’ worth of them — are taking a toll of his intonation, his seasoned grit illustrated with a heart wrenching affliction.
Revisit The Lonesome Jubilee, one of several essential John Mellencamp albums from the 1980s, via Spotify:
“Human Wheels,” the underappreciated title track from his 2005 album, highlighted the talented crew John had with him. It included his longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic, fiddler Lisa Germano, Andy York on guitar, Dane Clark on drums, John Gunnell on bass and Troy Kinnett on keys and accordion. Wanchic, who’s been at Mellencamp’s side since 1976, received a special nod from the band leader.
Though Mellencamp didn’t pull from his 2022 studio album Strictly One-Eyed Jack, he did perform a couple from his 2008 record Life, Death, Love and Freedom as part of a healthy sample from his catalogue.
Giving his mates a break, John performed a solo acoustic version of “The Eyes of Portland,” a gritty piece that he accompanied with a disheartening story of homeless suffering he witnessed on a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest.
His solo juncture included the highly anticipated “Jack & Diane,” and within it John expressed his pleasure at the sold-out audience’s ability to sing along in the proper key. He himself stepped aside and Germano and Kinnett played the violin and accordion, respectively, as a recording of Joanne Woodward — the wife of the late Paul Newman — reading the lyrics to “The Real Life” was played over it in a reflective pivot.
Of course, John and the full band would return, and together the group powered through more of his popular numbers, including “Lonely Ol’ Night,” yet another favorite from Scarecrow. The set culminated with some of his very best in the form of “Crumblin’ Down” (taken into and back out of “Gloria” by Van Morrison), “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb” and, the night’s closer, “Hurts So Good.”
A gifted, enduring songwriting, Mellencamp has long proved himself to be an American treasure. By providing a unique window into his creative process and his own motivations, he’s creatively appealing to the many who’ve been listening to him for more than 40 years.
Paper in Fire
Minutes to Memories
Check It Out
The Eyes of Portland (solo acoustic)
Longest Days (solo acoustic)
Jack & Diane (solo acoustic)
The Real Life (lyrics recorded by Paul’s Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, with accordion and violin only)
Rain on the Scarecrow
Lonely Ol’ Night
What If I Came Knocking
Crumblin’ Down>Gloria>Crumblin’ Down
Hurts So Good
Here are images of John Mellencamp performing at The Lyric Baltimore the night of June 2, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.