5 Ways John Mellencamp Has Maintained His Authenticity

By John Serba -

In his recent performance for David Letterman, John Mellencamp's voice resembled Tom Waits: more eccentric than we remember, and more a mouthful of gravel than honey.

At 63, Mellencamp is far removed from the youthful roar that identified his youth – precisely why he dropped the "Cougar" from between "John" and "Mellencamp." He's touring theaters instead of arenas, writing contemplative records instead of slick, catchy ones. He claims he was never comfortable with fame. His songs have never been more sincere (although they've never been phony, even the massive, evergreen hits).

If you think this is an elaborate way of calling the guy old, well, you're wrong. He's more credible and authentic than ever – and here are five reasons why:

1. He sounds like a wise man now. In his aforementioned Letterman appearance, Mellencamp dispensed his grandmother's earnest philosophy to the retiring talk-show host: "Life is short, even in its longest days," he said, which inspired his song "Longest Days."

2. He's still prolific. Although the era of the download derailed many a musician's ambition to release albums, he never stopped writing. Although his modern discography isn't as crazed as Neil Young's, Mellencamp is way more productive than many "legacy" artists of his era. He has released six albums in the 21st century, the latest being 2014's "Plain Spoken," as well as songs for the stage production "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County." (Those who purchase tickets online for his current tour dates get a free download of the new album.)

3. His shows are more than just nostalgia. Sure, he plays the hits – he'd get lynched if he skipped "Jack and Diane." But peruse his recent set lists, and you'll see he isn't afraid to mix in recent work and the traditional songs that inspire him.

4. He picked Carlene Carter as his current opening act. Of course Mellencamp wants to tour with someone who has deep roots in American music - the daughter of June Carter Cash (and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash). Her set should feature some Carter Family hits along with her own compositions.

5. He "acts his age." Those are essentially his own words. The new songs have been described as "thoughtful" and "quieter" than what many may expect from the rocker, who they know for his big 1980s anthems ("R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.", etc.). That makes him more of a critical success than a commercial one, drawing comparisons to Bob Dylan. And he's happy with the way his voice has aged: "Two million cigarettes later and I finally sound like a black guy," he told Billboard magazine in 2014. "Thank God. The cigarettes finally paid off. They're going to give me cancer and they're going to kill me, but for a short amount of time, they're going to make my voice sound like it should sound."