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Tulsa World: John Mellencamp receives Woody Guthrie Prize At Tulsa Ceremony
08.31.2018 - View the photo gallery from the event HERE and watch a clip from the evening HERE

The Woody Guthrie Prize was awarded to everyman artist John Mellencamp during a program at the FlyLoft in the Tulsa Arts District on Thursday.

Mellencamp was introduced as “Woody’s child” by Woody Guthrie Center Executive Director Deana McCloud. Wearing bib overalls and a white T-shirt as he walked on stage, he was greeted by a standing ovation and cheers from the sold-out audience.

When presented with the Woody Guthrie Prize, Mellencamp said: “I’m very honored. I don’t think I’m deserving.” He said he wasn’t being modest. He said he was embarrassed. “So I’m just going to play some songs.”

Mellencamp took a seat for a program moderated by handpicked music journalist Bill Flanagan. The crowd was treated not only to candid responses but to songs in an intimate setting.

Mellencamp was asked how he discovered Guthrie. He told a story about how his parents were 19 or 20 years older than he and that he heard Woody Guthrie before he heard Bob Dylan because of his parents’ record stash — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Guthrie.

Mellencamp said his dad “thought he was cool” and used to have bongo parties. He recalled hearing the party noise when he was going to bed on Friday nights, and “what I remember most is the laughter. I think I was kind of hooked at this point. ‘Can music be this much fun?’ ”

He said his old man seemed to be having fun, “so that’s how I discovered Woody Guthrie.”

Also during the program, Mellencamp said this: “I don’t know why Woody hasn’t been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.”

The Woody Guthrie Prize is given annually to an artist who best exemplifies the spirit and life work of Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate through music, film, literature, dance or other art forms and serving as a positive force for social change in America. Past recipients include Norman Lear (2017), Kris Kristofferson (2016), Mavis Staples (2015) and Pete Seeger (2014).

Mellencamp’s qualifications were spelled out in the event program: “With decades of hit songs that have made a mark on American pop culture, Mellencamp has used his passion, intelligence and wit to champion the everyday man and woman, the less fortunate and the forgotten. Like Woody, Mellencamp has used his artistic gifts to spread a positive message of hope, equality and freedom.”

Mellencamp has championed the American farmer through his work with Farm Aid. Mellencamp said Farm Aid has helped a lot of people (but not all of them) who lost family farms and thought about killing themselves.

He told a story about when he and Willie Nelson visited a Senate subcommittee about a farm bill that needed to be “talked up.” He said the first question they got was “Where are your guitars?” Mellencamp suggested to Nelson that they get the heck out of there. Instead, they did what they came to do, and so many lawmakers left that there were “maybe six guys” there at the end.

Said Mellencamp: “I guess they thought we were going to come in and entertain them.”

The program was timed to coincide with the Friday opening of “Mellencamp,” an exhibit at the Woody Guthrie Center that was curated by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Among those present at the program was Greg Harris, president and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The Q&A session touched many bases, including politics and music. Mellencamp said he didn’t find out about his industry-prodded name change to John Cougar until he saw the name on an album.

He also told a story about how he was determined to get out of a record deal after he heard an industry executive use a racial slur.

Mellencamp drew laughter when he said this: “I’m just clarifying right now: Anything I say could be a lie. I lie all the time. It’s fun, and it has gotten me out of a lot of trouble.”
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