The Mellencamp Year in Review

For many of us, no doubt, 2008 couldn’t end soon enough. But fans of John Mellencamp had plenty to cheer about.

The biggest story, of course, was John’s induction—finally!—into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10. Fellow Hall of Famer Billy Joel did a great job in ushering John into rock’s pantheon, but John had already made it clear that he would not rest long on his new laurels.

Indeed, following the December, 2007 announcement of his induction, he kicked off 2008 bigtime with a Jan. 25 benefit performance at the Housing Works Used Bookstore in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. The intimate show was part of the bookstore’s celebrated concert series in support of its nonprofit AIDS service organization, and was attended by an SRO crowd of 200.

In February he previewed new material during a Canadian tour with Tom Cochrane & Red Rider (which featured the debut of his then 12 year-old son Speck, who played guitar on “Authority Song” during the final show of the tour in Victoria, British Columbia). The new songs surfaced on July 15 with the release of “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” John’s 22nd album was his first to be produced by T-Bone Burnett, and debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart (selling some 56,000 copies in the first week). Released in both analog and Burnett’s new high-definition CODE format, the disc garnered rave reviews and went on to make numerous Top 10 album lists in December—including a No. 5 placement on Rolling Stone’s year-end listing of the best albums of 2008.

John spent a busy late summer and fall promoting “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” Numerous national TV appearances included “Late Night with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show,” “Good Morning America” (for which he performed on two occasions) and the CBS “Early Show.” He also toured the U.S. following the album release, with Lucinda Williams opening.

To further support the album, John produced videos for key tracks “My Sweet Love” and “Troubled Land,” both filmed primarily in Savannah, Ga. But he also produced a stripped-down, website-only video at home for “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” the classic 1960s anthem by his idol Bob Dylan that was the rallying cry for his generation. The video, which featured John solo on acoustic guitar, perfectly fit in with the presidential campaign’s paramount theme of “change” and received intense media attention—as did a similar home-made follow-up video for “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” track “Troubled Land,” which became the first music video to premiere on The Huffington Post.

Meanwhile, John contributed his time and talent to support presidential hopefuls John Edwards and Hillary Clinton—and the eventual president-elect Barack Obama. Besides singing at an Obama campaign rally, he made a radio ad backing him for Indiana listeners just in time for the election. Apolitically, he was also chosen to provide the after-dinner performance for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center's First Annual Notes of Hope Benefit Dinner on Sept. 9 at Lower Manhattan's Cipriani Wall Street restaurant--only blocks away from Ground Zero.

On Sept. 15 John came to the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem to tape an episode of “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with….” Part of Costello’s novel music/talk show series for the Sundance Channel, the program departed from the norm by teaming John with Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones in swapping songs and stories with the esteemed host.

John’s performance at Farm Aid 2008, held Sept. 20 in Mansfield, Mass., was said by many to be his best Farm Aid showing in years. Three days later he returned to the 700-seat Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana, for a special concert to be included in a documentary entitled “Homeward Bound: John Mellencamp.” The program, which involved interviews with John, former and current band members, boyhood friends and school classmates, focused on his early career years and aired on the Bio Channel in December (the channel had shown an earlier documentary, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," which chronicled the making of the album, in July); Mayor Fred Armstrong proclaimed Sept. 23 as John Mellencamp Day, and noted that the first—and last—time John Mellencamp played the 700-seat Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana was on Oct. 4, 1976, when the then John Cougar was supporting his debut album “Chestnut Street Incident.”

Following the Crump show, John stopped in Washington to play a YouthAIDS benefit and then headed on to the U.K. for his first promotional efforts there since 1992 and “Whenever We Wanted.” On Oct. 6, he received Q Magazine’s prestigious “Classic Songwriter” title at a star-studded awards show at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel—the award being presented personally by Q editor Paul Rees. Other London activities included an appearance with Coldplay and Glen Campbell on the popular “Later…with Jules Holland” BBC-TV program tomorrow (on his 57th birthday!) and a performance at the famed Borderline club.

It was announced in late October that John had been nominated for the first time for induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in New York, in the Performer/Songwriters category. Then on Nov. 5 he joined millions of Americans in expressing a mixture of disbelief and joy at Obama’s historic election to the presidency. “This for me is something I never thought I would see in my life,” he said in remarks that were widely publicized.

On Nov. 15 John commenced a whirlwind month-long tour of Australia and New Zealand with Sheryl Crow opening, closing out the year by playing to as many as 10,000-plus fans each night during his first concert appearances Down Under in over 15 years.

And what’s in store for 2009? In an end-of-the-year conversation, John indicated that plans are underway for a long-awaited boxed set. A video for “A Ride Back Home” is also in the works, as is a live album culled from his 2008 concerts at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, in Sydney, Australia, or both. And work continues on John's much-anticipated musical collaboration with Stephen King, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," with T Bone Burnett now on board as musical director.