Music City News by Rich and Laura Lynch
Musician John Mellencamp concluded a successful three night stand at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. The set-up at the Mother Church of Country was a bit shadowy enhanced by the presence of a number of spooky manikins. It could have been a reflection of John's current world views. The last time Mellencamp was here he wore a working man's uniform and he was similarly attired in a white T-shirt and black jumpsuit at this show - again perhaps making a subtle statement.
A less subtle statement was the announcement to the audience that for the first time in his long and storied career Mellencamp was receiving sponsorship money to underwrite this outing. Turner Classic Movies was the backer and that explained why the concert opened with a 30-minute film showing movie clips along with comments from John on how these productions and their stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean influenced his artistry and informed his own character development. Mellencamp explained how he sees songs as stories and sometimes will take a line (or two) from a flick to craft lyrics.
The addition of this vintage, black and white footage initially provided a bit of an ominous feel to the proceedings. When Brando spoke these words from "The Fugitive Kind" (1960)", saying "Oh, I'm never coming here again... and you know, all that old people who know me or thought they'd known me never gonna see me again" - it provided the impression that maybe this was his creative way of saying goodbye to his fans. One thing is for certain, the idea of mortality permeated the nearly two-hour concert in Music City.
John admitted that he started smoking at the ripe old age of ten and kept the habit going because he believed the propaganda put out by Big Tobacco when they testified on Capitol Hill. He talked about his father and Grandma's longevity adding that he might not last as long as they did. When talking about his grandmother he told a story about a conversation he had with her when she said she would get to heaven and then figure out a way for John to get in, too. The punchline to the man she called "Buddy" was to remind him that is not how that really works. This led into an acoustic number dedicated to her called "Longest Days" that explored the concept of getting older. It was followed by a stripped down version of "Jack & Diane" that the audience sang along with. "The Real Life" included a recorded spoken word reading of Mellencamp's lyrics by the actress Joanne Woodward that served as another reminder that life is short.
During his lengthy career, John has penned plenty of pop-hits, yet he has also sufficiently tackled serious topics such as a farmer losing his farm ("Rain on the Scarecrow"). Both type of tracks were well represented at his show in Nashville which was part of a spring tour supporting his forthcoming project that gets its title from a mythological Greek figure, musician, poet and seer who is preparing for a trip down to Hades.
John's twenty fifth album Orpheus Descending coming out June of 2023 is being described as one of his most personal records to date, with standout singles "Hey God" and "The Eyes of Portland" - both played in Music City - that focus on social issues that Mellencamp continues to passionately advocate for. John is also well-known as a founding member of Farm Aid. It started in 1985 with a concert to raise awareness about the challenges farm families face paired with procuring funds to keep these folks on their land. The organization has raised over $60 million since its inception, thus saving a lot of local businesses nationwide.
As an introduction to one of the new songs, John shared a story about meeting a destitute young woman in Oregon. The musician gave her some money and she stated that she was relieved (that in this case) she did not have to have sex to get dinner. As you can imagine the tune expressed Mellencamp's anger at the growing homeless situation here in the States and continuing frustration with a country where "nothing ever gets done".
At the Ryman, John with his talented team presented a career spanning set that he advised would include "songs you know and some you don't." Mellencamp was in good form even if his voice was a bit gruff. At times, John Mellencamp sounded more like John Prine and that rough edge could have been due to the singer's continuing commitment to cigarettes or the fact that this was the third night in a row performing at this mini-Nashville residency.
More fan favorites followed including crowd pleasers such as "Scarecrow", "Lonely Ol' Night" and a bit later "Crumblin' Down " flowing into a racy "Gloria". "Pink Houses" another classic touched by serious commentary showed that John has been singing about hardships for a long time. Their encore included "Cherry Bomb" and "Hurts So Good" to end the night on a high note. Despite a stage dominated by darker shades and John's ongoing personal and political concerns - the concert at the Ryman had plenty of happy moments.