American Songwriter: John Mellencamp Brings Stirring Rock Hits to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium

American Songwriter By Cillea Houghton 

John Mellencamp did something interesting at the opening of his show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Monday (May 8). In place of an opening act, Mellencamp had a giant projector screen covering the stage, broadcasting clips of vintage movies from his childhood, from Paul Newman westerns like Hud to Paper Moon and The Grapes of Wrath. Mellencamp shared via a booming voiceover how old films had a special way of telling stories.

“I identified with these characters,” he said. “They shaped who John Mellencamp was.” 

It was an intriguing setup to his own character-driven storytelling that he demonstrated the moment he stepped onto the Ryman stage, lighting up a cigarette before taking to the mic with his gravelly voice on the smoldering opening number “John Cockers” about a man who feels most at home when he’s alone. Backed by a stage set up like the set of an old western movie, complete with mannequins of classic movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, Mellencamp brought his signature heartland rock sound to the Ryman for the first of a three-night stay at the historic venue.

He got the crowd riled up and on its feet with “Small Town,” alluding to the song in his introductory video when he noted that his hometown of Seymour, Indiana, was the “perfect place” to grow up. Giving a voice to middle America, Mellencamp had the pews shaking from his hard rock sound mixed with all the people standing and dancing along to the autobiographical lyrics like Educated in a small town / Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town / Used to daydream in that small town

About 20 minutes into his set, Mellencamp addressed the packed room promising songs familiar and new, songs that will make you dance, and, “Some songs that help you think,” he said. “Hopefully by the end of the evening, we’ll all be a community together having a good time,” a sentiment met with cheers of approval.

He wasn’t lying when he said he’d play songs that prompted the audience to think, as he led into “Human Wheels,” which features such thought-provoking lyrics as, This land today, shall draw its last breath / And take into its ancient depths / This frail reminder of its giant, dreaming self. He stayed on that theme with, “Hey God” which opens with the blistering proposition, Weapons and guns / Are they really my rights?

In between running through a series of fan favorites and hits like “Minutes to Memories” and “Jackie Brown,” the rock legend brought the night to a sobering halt as his band exited the stage, leaving him alone with his guitar. He shared the story of how he was in Portland, Oregon, looking out the window of the fancy restaurant he was eating at to see a disoriented 25-year-old woman with matted hair and dirty feet, her “manic” demeanor compelling the singer to go outside and talk to her. When he asked her what was wrong, she said, “I want to go home,” revealing that she lived 500 miles away. When Mellencamp offered to buy her a bus ticket, she tearfully replied, “They don’t want me there, they don’t want me to come home.” 

“I can still see her dirty little feet with no shoes running down the streets of Portland,” Mellencamp recalled of when she took the dollars from his hands and disappeared, still thinking about her to this day. “The only thing I can do is write a song for her.” 

With just his guitar and voice, Mellencamp serenaded the Mother Church of Country Music in one of the few acoustic moments of the night with “The Eyes of Portland.” All of these homeless / Where do they come from / In this land of plenty / Where nothing gets done,” he growled with a single spotlight shining upon him as he put particular emphasis on the latter line in one of the most poignant moments of the night. 

He continued to offer his compassionate take on life with “Longest Days.” Inspired by a quote from his 100-year-old grandmother who years ago told him, “Buddy, you’re soon going to find out life is short even in its longest days,” Mellencamp took those words to heart and turned them into a song that strikes the balance between sad and beautiful as he sings, Sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better / That’s when life is short / Even in its longest days.

He rounded out the dynamic evening with such hits as “Jack & Diane,” which had the Ryman acting as his choir echoing every word and ending with a roaring standing ovation, to the fiery “Crumblin’ Down” and a cover of Them’s swanky Van Morrison-penned hit, “Gloria,” the latter of which showed off his erotic storytelling abilities. 

The opening notes of his career-defining hit, “Pink Houses,” were enough to get the crowd on its feet from start to finish. As he brought the show to a close with a collection of songs “about old times,” including one of his signature hits “Hurts So Good,” Mellencamp proved why he’s been a quintessential songwriter in rock music for decades, accomplishing the goal he set out for at the start of the show in building a sense of community among people with his songs that resonate through time.