Indianapolis Star: Respected Yet Restless, Mellencamp Forges Folky Path

>By David Lindquist - Indianapolis Star

Hoosier rock star will wrap up 80-date tour at Bankers Life Fieldhouse

With friends in high places, it’s not easy for John Mellencamp to keep a low profile.

The Rolling Stones, Mellencamp said, wanted him to be the supporting act for the band’s July 4 show at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Mellencamp declined the offer. “I don’t want to be a hit jukebox for a bunch of drunk people,” he said during a July 7 interview, sharing his idea of the Independence Day scene at the track.

Candid talk is a defining Mellencamp trait, and “Plain Spoken” is the name of the album he released last September. An 80-date tour to promote the album wraps up on Aug. 4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Seymour, Ind., native is performing a wealth of folk and country-blues tunes in a show the 63-year-old characterizes as being “age appropriate.”

A stripped-down and reflective style dominates “Plain Spoken” as well as previous albums “No Better Than This” and “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” So Mellencamp has a point when saying he no longer meshes with the still-raging Rolling Stones.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer did open for the Stones once. The occasion was a private 60th birthday party for billionaire David Bonderman in Las Vegas in 2002. Robin Williams served as the evening’s MC.

These days, Mellencamp said Bob Dylan is the only act he would agree to play before.

Dylan is fond of Mellencamp, too. In February, Dylan singled out Mellencamp when delivering a 30-minute acceptance speech for the MusiCares Person of the Year award.

Speaking to a Grammys weekend crowd in Los Angeles, Dylan spoke highly of Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone before pausing near the speech’s conclusion to call Mellencamp tune “Longest Days” one of the better songs of the past few years. For emphasis, Dylan said, “I ain’t lying.”

Mellencamp didn’t anticipate a shout-out for the 2008 song. “We were all shocked,” he said. “I was sitting there like, ‘What?’ ”

With mainstream attention mostly a thing of his past, Mellencamp is happier to be known as a gifted songwriter than as an industry darling.

Dylan’s endorsement was worth more than 10 Grammys, said Mellencamp (the owner of one Grammy trophy for 1982’s “Hurts So Good”).

“I would rather have Bob say something in front of the entire music business like he did,” Mellencamp said. “Bob doesn’t say anything that doesn’t come from an intellectual place or from his heart.”

Another musician keeping Mellencamp’s name in the news is Keith Urban, who is climbing the country charts this summer with a single titled “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”

Evoking the era of Mellencamp’s “John Cougar” stage name and 1980s hits such as “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses,” the song features a chorus of, “I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”

Mellencamp said he’s OK with the song written by Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne.

“I thought it was kind of cute,” he said. “That was it.”

Urban, meanwhile, has credited Mellencamp as a musical influence throughout his career. In May, Urban sang “Pink Houses” with Mellencamp and his band during a “Red Nose Day” telecast on NBC to raise funds for children and young people living in poverty.

Mellencamp made a big impression on Urban in 1988, when the former’s “Lonesome Jubilee” tour visited Australia. During a 2005 interview with The Star, Urban described the show as a “life-changing moment.”

Looking back at that tour evokes mixed emotions for Mellencamp.

“We were the best band in the world,” he said. “There’s no question about it. We were doing something that nobody had ever done before with accordions and violins. The hits were hits all over the world. I knew that we were great, and I was miserable.”

After landing 12 singles in Billboard magazine’s Top 20 between 1981 and 1988, Mellencamp said he felt like a “monkey on a string.”

He spelled out his frustration in the lyrics of “Pop Singer,” the lead single from 1989 album “Big Daddy”: “Never wanted to be no pop singer. Never wanted to write no pop songs. Never had no weird hair to get my songs over. Never wanted to hang out after the show.”

No tour accompanied the release of “Big Daddy.” Mellencamp put music to the side to pursue painting and make the film “Falling from Grace,” the story of a fictional music star grappling with family drama in his Indiana hometown.

In the 21st century, music is front and center for Mellencamp. But he has had his fill of self-marketing.

“At this point in my life, anything I do is strictly for myself,” he said. “If I’m enjoying it, I’ll do it. If I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it, I won’t do it.”

Despite a round of media interaction when “Plain Spoken” arrived in stores, Mellencamp admits to being an unreliable narrator when talking about his work. “I might say anything,” he said, distancing himself from quotes in which he summarized “Plain Spoken” as album based on the male perspective.

According to Mellencamp, you are reading the only interview he has given during the tour that began on Jan. 21 in South Bend.

No need to make a fuss, said Mellencamp, who strives to follow advice given by late folk-music icon Pete Seeger: “Keep it small and keep it going. Turn yourself into a three-ring circus, and you’ll be forgotten immediately.”

Theaters have served as venues throughout the tour, making NBA arena Bankers Life Fieldhouse a jumbo-sized exception. (The Rolling Stones could not be reached for comment regarding who they wanted to open the July 4 show at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.)

All dates have featured Carlene Carter as supporting act. After the Aug. 4 show, Mellencamp plans to make a duets album with Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash.

Then it’s off to Australia for more than a dozen shows.

With his youngest children, Hud and Speck, in college and his on-again, off-again relationship with Meg Ryan seemingly off (“I have no woman,” Mellencamp said), he is settling into the never-ending tour format of one of his heroes.

“I’m in the Bob Dylan way of life,” he said. “Let’s just keep slugging.”

Call Star reporter David Lindquist at (317) 444-6404. Follow him on Twitter:@317Lindquist.

John Mellencamp

• WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4.

• WHERE: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 125 S. Pennsylvania St.

• TICKETS: $39.50 to $129.50.

•, or call (800) 745-3000.

John Mellencamp’s “Plain Spoken” tour presents two hours of songs focused on the topics of life and death. He sings three songs from the current album and two from 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” The musical Mellencamp wrote with Stephen King, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” supplies the songs “Away from this World” and “Tear this Cabin Down.”

Mellencamp hits “Paper in Fire,” “Human Wheels” and “Small Town” fit the show’s thematic thread, while “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First),” “Wild Night” and “I Need a Lover” do not.

“I stayed very close to the vest on what I sang about,” he said of planning the tour.