One of the most iconoclastic songwriters and singers in the United States, John Mellencamp crafts a rich musical fabric far from modern entertainment meccas. Although his rebellious songs have frequently attracted nationwide popularity (as a string of acclaimed billboard hits testifies) today he records from his own studio in Nashville, Indiana. The musician recently conducted an interview with David Masciotra, the author of a scholarly work about his music entitled Mellencamp: American Troubadour published by the University of Kentucky Press.
His interviewer touched on the unwillingness of many modern entertainment providers to address tragic aspects of life. John Mellencamp, who has in the past complained about the superficiality of the entertainment industry’s penchant for characterizing aspects of American culture in shallow, cartooned dimensions, suggested the topic of tragedy does not hold mass appeal. He expressed his own admiration for the works of novelist Ernest Hemingway and playwright Tennessee Williams, both writers who frequently chose to explore deeply tragic subject matter.
John Mellencamp acknowledged issues of mortality and loss have inspired some of his own songs. His sorrow at the passing of family members has sometimes contributed to his songwriting. For instance, Scarecrow related to his reaction to the death of his grandfather. The Lonesome Jubilee stemmed from emotional turmoil he experienced while mourning the loss of an uncle. He explained to David Masciotra that many great songwriters in America’s past poignantly addressed tragedies, noting he listened to works by Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Robert Johnson which often dealt with tragic subjects. He feels the willingness of most popular music sources to tackle these areas largely ended during the era of the 1990s.
The songwriter admitted he hopes his own songs will never fall “on the nose” in terms of covering issues. Instead, as a mature songwriter he hopes to inspire people to think more deeply about the subject matter. He believes one of the great weaknesses of country music currently lies in the reluctance of audiences and songwriters to ponder issues raised by lyrics. Instead, he feels a lack of subtlety pervades hits in the genre; audiences embrace some songs precisely because they don’t need to expend much effort thinking about them.
He noted his hit single Crumblin’ Down, which contains some very dark lines about human nature, actually discussed the challenges confronting a young man residing in the Midwest during the Reagan Administration. He surmises his hit Hurts So Good achieved so much commercial success precisely because that song did not require a lot of thought to appreciate. Today he writes music which covers a very broad landscape of emotional content. For instance, his 23rd album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies contains one song about the crisis experienced by a man nearing death and another seemingly celebrating sex drives while also expressing the pain of low expectations in life.
Born in 1951 in Seymour, Indiana, John Mellencamp often performs his own songs. He has also won acclaim as a painter and actor. He first gained fame during the 1980s.
His list of career accomplishments includes 13 Grammy Award nominations, 22 hits in the Top Forty, one Grammy Award and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 2008). He served as one of the founders of Farm Aid in 1985. Over the past 32 years, he has helped that organization raise over $50 million to assist family farms.