Indianapolis Star Names John Top Hoosier Musician #5

By David Lindquist - Indianapolis Star

In the Indianapolis Star's 21st installment of a series that looks at the top musicians, ranked in order, in Indiana history. The list includes representatives of blues, pop, country, hip-hop, R&B, rock, classical, jazz, Broadway and punk rock styles.Among Indiana’s musicians, none has maintained a closer bond with the state than John Mellencamp.

5. John Mellencamp
Among Indiana’s musicians, none has maintained a closer bond with the state than John Mellencamp.

The no-nonsense yet good-timing rock star outlasted comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger to establish a respected career from his home base near Bloomington.

Mellencamp, a 2008 inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, co-founded Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985. The Seymour, Ind., native is a Grammy Award winner (1983 for “Hurts So Good”) and the recipient of the Billboard Century Award (2001), Huntington's Disease Society of America's Woody Guthrie Award (2003), Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting (2010) and John Steinbeck Award (2012).

Born in 1951 and initially saddled with a stage name of “Johnny Cougar” that he didn’t want, Mellencamp became a fixture of MTV programming during the 1980s. Videos for “Hurts So Good,” “Jack & Diane,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Authority Song,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Paper in Fire” and “Check It Out” aired in heavy rotation.

The album "American Fool" (1982) sold 5 million copies. "Uh-Huh" (1983) followed with 3 million. "Scarecrow" (1985) hit 5 million, and "The Lonesome Jubilee" (1987) reached 3 million.

"Our impact era, I don't think is questionable," long-running Mellencamp guitarist Mike Wanchic told The Indianapolis Star in 1999. "It's the ‘Scarecrow’-‘Lonesome Jubilee’ era. That's when we made our real mark. John was peaking as a writer."

Confidence levels soared when Mellencamp embarked on lengthy, lucrative tours. "Our band was unstoppable," said former bass player Toby Myers, who recalled an encore in Philadelphia where he estimates he saw 14,000 lighters raised in an audience of 16,000. "We were bad, man."

"People were saying we were the greatest rock 'n' roll band of that time," former drummer Kenny Aronoff said. "It sure felt like it. The songs were great. The shows were great. The energy was great. It felt like we were the Yankees."

Mellencamp built a recording studio in Brown County and served notice that his home state would remain headquarters for his family and work. Chasing hit records, however, proved unfulfilling by the end of the 1980s.
"You just become a monkey on a string," Mellencamp told The Indianapolis Star in 2010. "But I couldn't quit. I had only learned to do stuff one way."

Across the next two decades, Mellencamp managed to buck pop-star convention in notable if not radical ways. He became a painter of portraits, landscapes and social commentary. He directed and starred in 1992 film "Falling from Grace." He dabbled with dance-club rhythms on 1996 album "Mr. Happy Go Lucky." He played a series of free, unadvertised shows in public parks and civic spaces in 2000. He recorded an album of blues covers, "Trouble No More," in 2003. He worked with Stephen King on a long-gestating musical play, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," that premiered in 2012.

Mellencamp collaborated with producer T-Bone Burnett (known for overseeing the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album "Raising Sand") on 2008 album “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” and 2010’s “No Better Than This.” In contrast to pop and/or rock, the albums feature folk, blues and rockabilly tunes. Mellencamp credits Burnett for being the singer’s artistic conscience” In contrast to pop and/or rock, the albums feature folk, blues and rockabilly tunes. Mellencamp credits Burnett for being the singer’s artistic conscience."(Burnett) said to me, 'John, you had the misfortune of becoming a big rock star in the '80s. Now how are you going to finish your career with some dignity?' We're trying to figure out how to make that work," Mellencamp said when collecting the Americana Music Association lifetime achievement award in 2010.

For 2003’s “Trouble No More” covers project, he recorded a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole.” The exercise inspired Mellencamp to look into the life story of a fellow Hoosier icon.
"He considered himself the poor man's Johnny Mercer," Mellencamp said of Carmichael during an Indianapolis Star interview in 2003. "I related to that. He saw himself as the underdog, as the unappreciated."

Essential songs: “Paper in Fire,” “Minutes to Memories,” “Pink Houses” .

He said it: "Life is exhausting. To make it not exhausting, you have to continue to challenge yourself and try to do something that you never thought you could do. So many people think about me as 'Pink Houses' and 'Jack & Diane.' That's great. I'm very fortunate to have those songs. But I've written thousands of songs that aren't like that," Mellencamp told The Indianapolis Star in 2010.