John Mellencamp Essentials: 12 Tracks That Show Why This Small-Town Troubadour Is A Big-Time Songwriter By David McPherson 

Renaissance man. Curmudgeon. A hard-nosed blue-collar worker who knows how to pen catchy choruses, John Mellencamp can also delve deeper — making social commentary amidst and alongside chart-topping sing-alongs. The GRAMMY-winning, Songwriters Hall of Famer, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, painter, father, and humanitarian, needs no introduction.

Despite worldwide success, this Midwestern boy — forever an advocate for the downtrodden — never abandoned his roots. As the opening stanza from one of his most beloved songs decrees: "I was born in a small town/And I live in a small town/ Probably die in a small town/ Oh, those small communities."

The numbers alone illustrate Mellencamp’s mastery: 67 singles and 22 Top 40 hits, including 11 in the Top 10. In the U.S. alone, the songwriter has sold more than 30 million albums and boasts more than 4.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Mellencamp’s storied career spans more than four and a half decades and shows no signs of slowing. The 71-year-old is hitting the road in February 2023 for a 76-date North American theater tour that kicks off with a pair of home state dates in Bloomington, Indiana. A new record (Orpheus Descending) is also coming next year. In honor of John Mellencamp's storied — and very much continuing — legacy, combed his catalog to highlight 12 essential tracks.

"Jack & Diane" (1982)

Forty years on, this "little ditty" from Mellencamp’s commercial breakthrough, American Fool, still hits. The one that started it all for this restless outsider — and cantankerous kid from Seymour, Indiana — is a wistful ballad. This nostalgic nod pays homage to those carefree days that slip by in the wink of an eye: growing up, and teenage love found and lost.

The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the Recording Industry Association of America later included it on its 365 Songs of the Century list. Try not to sing along to its catchy chorus: "Oh yeah, life goes on/ long after the thrill of living is gone." 

"Pink Houses" (1983)

Taken from the raucous and raw 1983 album Uh-HUH!, many misinterpreted "Pink Houses" as a patriotic anthem that applauded the "home of the free."

In reality, the song speaks of the "winners" and "losers" and the failure of the American dream. The enduring song also reveals Mellencamp’s depth as a songwriter.

Mellencamp’s muse — part fact and part fiction — arrived while driving home one day along Interstate 65 in Indiana. The image of a Black man sitting alone in his front yard staring at the road struck him. The result: an enduring song, which is usually the final encore, that comments on racism and classism via sarcasm with this simple three-word chorus: "Ain’t that America."

"Rain on the Scarecrow" (1985)

As Ronald Reagan began his second term in the White House in the early '80s, the farm crisis lingered. Families lost their homesteads and foreclosures piled up. In America’s heartland, these property auctions often turned violent. For Mellencamp, who had been raised in a farming community, that was more than enough to inspire this politically-charged song.

While not one of the album's hits, Scarecrow’s leadoff track is its  most profound. "Rain on the Scarecrow" opens with deafening drums and electric guitars, setting the tone. Mellencamp’s gravelly and urgent vocals then arrive: "Scarecrow on a wooden cross blackbird in the barn / Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm."

The song naturally became a rallying cry for the plight of family farmers. The same year Scarecrow was released, Mellencamp founded Farm Aid, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. 

"Small Town" (1985)

Another Scarecrow cut, this Mellencamp composition peaked at No.6 on the Billboard charts and remains a fan favorite. Born in Seymour, Indiana (population 21,489), the songwriter has lived most of his adult life not far from the rural community where he was raised. Unlike many stars, the rock ‘n’ roller never sought the bright lights of the big city. This song is an ode to all those small towners, like Mellencamp, who never stray far from their roots or forget where they come from.

"Paper in Fire" (1987)

The album opener from The Lonesome Jubilee is a hard-hitting number that once again sees Mellencamp return to a common theme: the haves and have-nots. The song hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

To illustrate this economic disparity, the accompanying video was shot in the poorest, most underserved Black neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia. Mellencamp invited all of this area’s residents to join in the shoot and revel in the streets of this shantytown in the midst of the rest of the cities’ gentrification. The addition of violin and accordion to the final mix signaled a change in instrumentation for the songwriter that gives the song a rootsier, country-leaning vibe.

"Pop Singer" (1989)

Like many artists before — and since — Mellencamp never liked the fame, fortune and fake hero worship that often comes with artistic success. The song from Big Daddy is a satirical look at the music industry’s fabricated stars — those one-hit wonders and fame-at-all-cost seekers whose looks and image are more important than talent. The song’s video shows Mellencamp wearing clown-like make-up, adding to the underlying message of what record company executives feel matters most in the pop-star economy — looks — and the perils of idolatry.

"Love & Happiness" (1991)

Despite reaching the Top 20 and going Platinum, Whenever We Wanted got lost in the zeitgeist — i.e. the rise of grunge with Pearl Jam’s debut Ten and Nirvana’s sophomore smash Nevermind, both released that same year. Yet Whenever's lead track, "Love & Happiness," is a Mellencamp masterpiece.

Penned in the wake of George H. W. Bush launching Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the song opens with a 30-second instrumental marked by Kenny Aronoff’s drum assault. The lyrics waste no time picking up this melodic mood — letting the listener know this is no love song. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek sermon that unleashes Mellencamp’s ire at the rhetoric coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: "Well we’re dropping our bombs/ In the southern hemisphere/ And people are starving/ That live right here." 

"Human Wheels" (1993)

While not the No. 1 single from Mellencamp’s 12th record (that was "What if I Came Knocking,") Human Wheels’ title track is the one that lingers the longest. The album and song features the production of GRAMMY-winner Malcolm Burn, while the lyrics are a reworking of a eulogy Mellencamp’s good friend and songwriter George Green delivered at his grandfather’s funeral. With its haunting rhythms and poetic lines like "this land, today, my tears shall taste/And take into its dark embrace," the song also acts as a tribute to John Cascella, the band’s long-time keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist, who died suddenly of a heart attack during a break in the Human Wheels’ sessions.

"I’m Not Running Anymore" (1998)

In 1998 Mellencamp took a long look in the mirror and wondered where that good-looking young kid went. "I'm Not Running Anymore," with its bouncy rhythms and dance beat, reflects the songwriter’s state of mind at the end of the 1990s. Dane Clark delivers explosive percussion on this track, filling in for long-time Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff.

This song — and the self-titled album it is from — marks new beginnings. John Mellencamp was the first album released on Columbia Records after 22 years with Phonogram.

"Our Country" (2007)

Critics called Mellencamp a sell-out upon this song’s release. The reason: the songwriter gave this patriotic composition to Chevrolet to help them launch its newest pickup truck, the Silverado.

While the songwriter knew how to play the game, (much like Bob Seeger, whose "Like a Rock" was also used in a Chevrolet ad back in 1991), Mellencamp was not immune to the inherent hypocrisies that existed in having one of his compositions help sell a product. Yet the song helped Freedom’s Road have his  highest Billboard debut (No.5). 

This song is more country leaning than the artist's previous output, but still rocks. This fact is not surprising since Little Big Town provides backing vocals on eight of the album’s 10 tracks. With honest lyricism, this song reflected Mellencamp’s spirit and newfound hope that there is room for everyone in the U.S. of A. singing in a smoky, road weary voice: "from the East Coast to the West Coast and the Dixie Highway back home … this is our country." 

"Longest Days" (2008)

A lovely folk-rock lullaby from the T-Bone Burnett produced Life, Death, Love and Freedom, "Longest Days" ruminates on life and death and time’s non-stop ticking. A troubled troubadour, approaching 60, Mellencamp peers in the rearview, sees the lines on his face deeper than the white lines on the Interstate and ponders existentially on what it all means. 

This soulful, stripped down acoustic number with poetic lines like these in the chorus, "Sometimes you get sick and you don't get better / That's when life is short even in its longest days," shows a singer-songwriter, who long after he is gone, deserves to stand alongside the greats of the American songbook: Guthrie, Dylan, Prine and Springsteen.

"Wasted Days" (2022)

The first single teased in the fall of 2021 from Mellencamp’s critically-acclaimed 2022 release Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, "Wasted Days" is an unadorned duet with Bruce Springsteen that packs a punch. The song finds two masters of their craft, singing together for the first time.

The message is direct and not deep: the years are short and the days are long, so spend your time with people who fulfill you and follow your passions. The video features the aging rockers, sitting at a kitchen table, playing their acoustic guitars. Just a pair of weathered journeymen and chroniclers of the days of our lives taking stock of their mortality and asking simple questions like "who on earth is worth our time?"