On a breezy Sunday afternoon in May — a day off from his Live and in Person tour — John Mellencamp descended the golf cart he uses to navigate his expansive, sylvan estate in Bloomington, Ind. In a black zip-up sweater, black track pants and a graying, tousled pompadour, he climbed to the top floor of his barn-like art studio, constructed by Amish builders two decades ago, and cracked a 7.5-ounce can of Coca-Cola.
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
Said by anyone else, this nicety is unremarkable. But coming from Mellencamp, an intractable firebrand and unrepentant nicotine addict who once declared, “I’m still smoking. I’m a f— ass—,” to Details magazine shortly after he had a heart attack in the ’90s, the conscientious remark was unexpected. Historically, he hasn’t seemed to care what anyone thinks about him or his smoking.
Since achieving fame in the early ’80s, the “Jack & Diane” singer has been many things — working-class hero, Farm Aid activist, tabloid fodder — but polite isn’t one of them. Throughout the years, Mellencamp has been a human battering ram against Republicans who’ve attempted to twist his progressive populist anthems into 10 cent expressions of patriotism. Last year, during his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for his entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman, he decried antisemitism in the wake of Kanye West’s public meltdown (“F— antisemitism, and f— anybody who says anything in that manner,” Mellencamp declared). “Keep slugging,” he told farmers gathered at a climate action protest in March in Washington, D.C.
Seated at a long table, a glass ashtray and blue pack of American Spirit cigarettes within reach, Mellencamp, 71, spoke with a geniality that belied his outspoken reputation. Perhaps it was the setting. His “art barn,” filled with the songs of neighboring birds, chic Turkish rugs, expensive candles and masculine touches — dark woods, Mellencamp’s own moody artwork, an oversize framed poster of James Dean — is the musician’s “favorite place to be.”
On June 16, Mellencamp will release his 25th studio album, “Orpheus Descending,” which continues the sobering lyrical themes and Delta blues-centric sound of last year’s “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack.” Recorded with his longtime Indiana band in his studio near Bloomington, it’s laced with social and political commentary and moments of evident heartache. The album’s indictments of America’s failures are no different from his songs like “Pink Houses,” but their messages are barer and nearly impossible to misinterpret. The singer summarizes its core message, drawn from the Greek myth, succinctly. “Don’t look back,” he said. “There’s nothing back there worth keeping.”
However, in our almost two-hour exchange, he freely recalled the past, like growing up in the idyllic postage stamp that is Seymour, Ind. More recent matters surfaced too, such as the start of a new-ish relationship with a 57-year-old woman who lives in New York City, whom he declined to name.
“I’m a terrible boyfriend,” he admitted. He said he’s been dating around since his third marriage, to model Elaine Irwin, ended in 2011 — among his famous flames, actor Meg Ryan and model Christie Brinkley — making up for lost time as he sees it, as he was married for most of the years between ages 18 and 60. “You have an awfully pretty face,” he blurted out to me at one point, before adding, “I shouldn’t say that, I guess.” About his romantic life, he said, “I’m doing what you probably did in college, which I didn’t do [at that age].”
“Well,” he quickly noted. “I cheated.”
Mellencamp is an animate vessel of contradictions that sets him in relief from the everyday people and issues he sings about. (One of his five children is Teddi Mellencamp Arroyave, an influencer who appeared on three seasons of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”)
Since releasing the song “I Always Lie to Strangers” last year, he’s been preoccupied with dishonesty and how it plays out in public and private forums. “We’ve been lied to by schools, by the government, by the f— laws we live under, by men, by women, our churches and families,” he said. “We are all in solitary confinement inside our own bodies.”
However, the blue-collar champion also confessed that decades of wealth and privilege have made him dependent on his staff. When he’s on tour, a personal assistant helps with everything from his wellness rituals, including stretching, meditation and diet, to the way he prefers his hotel rooms to be styled. “You know, I’ve never written a check,” he said. When he decided to try to renew his driver’s license on his own a few years ago, he didn’t know that he had to bring money; the people at the Bloomington DMV that day found their local celebrity panhandling for dollars.
Is Mellencamp a salt-of-the-earth guy who remained in Indiana and found success against all odds? Or is he a private-jet playboy flitting about with models and influencers? Can one be both?
“He knows where he came from, he never forgot that,” his friend Billy Joel said in a phone interview. “He’s always rooting for the underdog, and when people have a tough time, he can relate to it.”
A man playing acoustic guitar in a trailer.
“He knows where he came from, he never forgot that,” says Billy Joel of his friend John
Along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp co-founded Farm Aid in 1985 with the goal of helping family farmers amid widespread foreclosures under Ronald Reagan’s economic policies. Today, his commitment to the cause has lasted longer than any of his marriages. And Mellencamp views his own life as totally improbable, beyond its rags-to-riches bona fides.
He was born with spina bifida and had experimental surgery at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, along with four other infants. “Three of them died on the operating table,” he said. “Another girl lived to be about 16, and I made it. So you’re looking at the luckiest guy in the world. In 1951, they operated on people with pinking shears and screwdrivers.”
A man reclines in a convertible.
The artist formerly known as John Cougar Mellencamp.(Bob Sacha / Corbis via Getty Images)
Since climbing to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with “American Fool” in 1982, Mellencamp (then known as John Cougar, née Johnny Cougar, and later John Cougar Mellencamp) has been the underdog of his heartland rock cohort, someone who’s navigated a singular river from pop star to Americana pioneer and cantankerous folk singer. He famously ejected a skeptical record executive from the “American Fool” sessions and has denied any label input since, but he has never started his own artist-run label, à la his late friend John Prine, because he doesn’t want to be involved in “the business of selling.”
“I don’t like businessmen, and I don’t like cops. They’re dangerous people.”
He may be less celebrated than Bruce Springsteen — the duo recorded “Did You Say Such a Thing” and “Wasted Days” for last year’s “Strictly a One-Eyed Jack” — but he prefers his underdog status. “I’ve always been an outsider; I’m going to stay an outsider,” he said.
“He is just so true to his path, for better or worse,” country star Keith Urban tells The Times.
In 1988, when Urban was playing in a bar band in Australia, he watched Mellencamp on the Lonesome Jubilee tour from the nosebleeds. At the time, Urban said he wasn’t sure what direction he should take in his life and career. “John walks out onstage with the best band I’ve ever seen; it was the defining Mellencamp band with Kenny Aronoff on drums, Toby Myers on bass, Larry Crane, Mike Wanchic, Lisa Germano on fiddle, John Cascella on accordion,” he recalled. “I looked onstage and thought, ‘Oh, I get it. You take your influences, put them all together and make your own sound and do your own thing. That’s what you gotta do, Keith.’ And it was profound. It was literally like the clouds parted.”
Mellencamp’s 2023 tour, which has a conceptual element that involves scenes from such favorite classic movies as “Hud” and “The Grapes of Wrath” and an elaborate set filled with antique-style lights and mannequins of film characters, is a chance for fans to “walk into John Mellencamp’s world.” “The goal was, ‘OK, you’re not walking into a concert. It’s more of a performance, like theater,’” he said. “But as we go along, it’s turning into more of a concert, because it’s just too hard to try to challenge the audience.”
At concerts in Los Angeles and Evansville, Ind, his most enthusiastic, on-their-feet responses from crowds were for hits like “Small Town” and “Hurts So Good,” though his efforts to subvert that pattern were obvious. He transformed his barn-burner “Jack & Diane” into a minimalist guy-with-a-guitar folk song. A compassionate anecdote about a homeless woman he met in Oregon preceded “The Eyes of Portland,” a well-intentioned if lyrically ham-fisted protest song from “Orpheus Descending.” However, “They don’t really want to hear new songs,” he conceded. “They want to hear the songs they know.”
That hasn’t stopped him from speaking his mind. “It’s a woman’s body and she should be able to do what she wants,” he said of the recent wave of anti-abortion legislation. “How in the f— can you say, ‘Oh, you can’t kill babies,’ but then you want guns for everybody?” And politicians who offer thoughts and prayers in the wake of mass shootings? “That, to me, just says you don’t care.”
After a diatribe about how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should’ve resigned (“her ego wouldn’t let her stop”), he proclaimed of the Supreme Court: “Get rid of it. It’s just another branch of the government that doesn’t work.
“Just mind your own business, leave other people alone and help your neighbor if you can,” he added of his general outlook.
On an average day, when he’s not making a record or on tour, Mellencamp works in his art studio from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., then exercises, eats dinner and unwinds. This evening, he’ll have some soup and watch “the old people news” (“60 Minutes”).
In recent performances, Mellencamp shared an anecdote about the lifespan of his relatives. His grandmother lived to be 100. On this day, he said that his dad was 93 and had “two or three girlfriends.”
“I don’t know that they’re girlfriends in the traditional sense, but they take care of him. They go out to dinner with him and drive him places.”
Mellencamp said that he’s been smoking since he was 10 and that he won’t quit. However, he’s “proud to say that I just had my lungs MRI’ed and they look like kids’ lungs,” he said while puffing on a cigarette. “The doctors don’t understand it.”
Will he be the statistical anomaly who evades the deadly effects of smoking? “They’ll get me somewhere else,” he said. “Cigarettes have a way of working their way around.”