Heartland rocker's raucous Ryman Auditorium concert reveals his influence on today's country music
While Jack White was raging across the street at the Bridgestone Arena and duetting with Loretta Lynn, John Mellencamp performed the second of a two-night stand at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, and the through-line between the aging — but still cigarette-puffing — heartland artist's catalog and the country music of today couldn't have been more apparent.
Long before Jason Aldean was singing about taking the tractor for another ride under the "Amarillo Sky" or Justin Moore was celebrating the tiny dots on the map in "Small Town U.S.A.," Mellencamp was writing world-wearied country rockers about a fading farming culture, the small-town lifestyle and, that tent pole of contemporary country, nostalgia. The increasingly Americana-leaning singer touched all of those bases during his sets at the Ryman. Here are the eight songs that best connected the dots.
If this song was released today (instead of 1985), it'd fit squarely on every country station's playlist. At the Ryman, its straightforward lyrics — Mellencamp's theater run is dubbed the Plain Spoken Tour, after his latest album — resonated particularly loudly, as the singer delivered lines about being born, educated and, likely, dying in a small town to an audience who is doing just that. In 2007, Miranda Lambert would also echo that sentiment, singing "everybody dies famous in a small town."
"Jack & Diane"
With only an acoustic guitar, Mellencamp delivered a stripped-down but no less rapturous take on his signature song, one so full of instant nostalgia that Kenny Chesney (who performed the song with Mellencamp during their 2003 CMT Crossroads) referenced it in the very first line of his own celebration of the past, "I Go Back." At the Ryman, the crowd sang the lyric "from the heartland" with sustained emphasis on that last word, letting it ring while Mellencamp grinned in appreciation — until he playfully admonished them for coming in too early on the "oh yeah, life goes on" chorus.
"Paper in Fire"
Of all the albums in his canon, Mellencamp's 1987 The Lonesome Jubilee best illustrates his own distinct marriage of rock with country. Having had hits with guitar-based fare like "Hurts So Good" and "Authority Song," it was a groundbreaking move. Here was a rock & roll band incorporating roots music's most essential instruments: mandolin, banjo, accordion, dobro and the fiddle, furiously played by Lisa Germano. Now, Miriam Sturm provides the onstage violin magic, especially on Jubilee's "Paper in Fire." Although prefaced at the Ryman with a slow build — or burn — intro, "Paper in Fire" ignites the same way it did during that storied late Eighties run.
On the surface, there is no more country-radio-ready Mellencamp song than "Pink Houses." Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan have covered the 1983 hit in concert, and Chesney alludes to it in his own "American Kids." Brimming with patriotic pride and a sing-along chorus, Mellencamp's anthem seems tailor-made for today's "love it or leave it" mindset. But look closer and it's full of the Indiana native's gritty cynicism. Those pink houses may sure seem pretty on the outside, but not everyone in them is getting a piece of the pie — or even has a home of their own. Still, the song raises voices and spirits when the showman calls upon it on the Plain Spoken Tour, as the final piece in a trio of classics that include "Crumblin' Down" and "Authority Song."
"Stones in My Passway"
Mellencamp recorded this Robert Johnson lament for his album Trouble No More, and while a blues performance, it evokes the Southern gothic vibe that has been working its way into country music thanks to producers like T Bone Burnett (who collaborated with Mellencamp on 2008's Life, Death, Love and Freedom and 2010's No Better Than This) and even the moody songs of ABC's Nashville. Mellencamp was ahead of the curve when he cut "Stones" in 2003, and he seemed to relish that musical prescience with his most passionate vocal of Night One at the Ryman, singing in a tortured yet unrepentant wail.
"Away From This World" and "Tear This Cabin Down"
In her gypsy shawl and leather pants, Carlene Carter, the tour's opening act, looked more like a rock goddess than the bona fide country girl she is. Performing on the stage where, she said, "my parents June Carter and Carl Smith met," the Carter Family progeny sang songs from her terrific 2014 album Carter Girl, lending Mellencamp an extra dose of country cred. It wasn't a random pairing, however: The headliner enlisted Carter for his 2012 touring musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which he co-wrote with author Stephen King. Carter would return later in the show to sing two haunting selections from the musical: "Tear This Cabin Down" and "Away From This World," the latter of which Sheryl Crow recorded for the soundtrack.
"Rain on the Scarecrow"
Mellencamp's biting narrative of the battle between family farmers and the banks breathing down their necks remains one of the most anticipated performances of his concerts. But "Rain on the Scarecrow" is most remarkable for the fact that it was a single: a story song about an actual farm (not the metaphorical one of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm") was released to radio. And it fared pretty well at that, coming just shy of cracking Billboard's Hot 100. While we won't go so far as to suggest it plowed the field for fluffier fare like Jason Aldean's "Big Green Tractor," Tim McGraw's "Down on the Farm" or Luke Bryan's "Rain Is a Good Thing," the song did further link Mellencamp with the country culture. In 1985, the same year that Scarecrow was released, Mellencamp joined Willie Nelson and Neil Young in organizing the Farm Aid charity concert, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Much like "Jack & Diane," this Lonesome Jubilee cut is borne of nostalgia and nails all the buzz words so common on country radio: "weekends," "the sticks," "little country town" and even a random "girl." By the time Mellencamp wrapped up his first night at the Ryman with "Cherry Bomb," the crowd was champing at the bit to let loose with that "yeah, yeah, yeah" refrain, an affirmation that the arrogant rocker once known as Johnny Cougar (and Little Bastard on his LP producer credits) is right at home in country music's mother church.