Elysa Gardner - USA TODAY
"I never expected to win awards," says John Mellencamp, who has nonetheless accumulated a bunch of them. "I'm just always trying to be a better songwriter."
On April 27, at the 33rd annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards in Los Angeles, the Grammy winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and recipient of the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award will add another prize to his collection: the Founders Award, the top honor assigned by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
"All I can figure is that they've run out of people to give it to," quips Mellencamp, whose predecessors include Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
At 64, Mellencamp seems entirely comfortable in the ranks of pop music's productive elder statesmen — still eager to write and perform, but hardly intent on getting his face back on magazine covers, or his name prominent in social media, for that matter.
"The business has changed so dramatically that I don't even pay attention to it anymore," he muses. "I've had a lot of hit records, but I found that when you get to the top there's nothing else there. I've got to keep reinventing myself in a way that I can be happy doing what I do. All the people I admire have done that."
For Mellencamp, that has required some creative multi-tasking. He and author Stephen King spent 15 years developing the Southern Gothic musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which premiered at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in 2012 and toured as a concert performance two years later. The show is being further developed in London, with a table reading expected this year, though King and Mellencamp are no longer as actively involved: "Steve and I are taking a step back ... but if they called and said they needed a song I would write one."
The 2014 touring company — which, like the original staging, didn't feature composer/lyricist Mellencamp— included another noted singer/songwriter, Carlene Carter, who then joined Mellencamp as a guest on his own trek promoting Plain Spoken, his most recent album, also released that year.
"Every night she's been my singing buddy," says Mellencamp, who's wrapping up his current leg of the tour this Saturday, with one more scheduled for October. "If there is a spitting image of June" — that is, Carter's mother, the late country music legend June Carter Cash — "it's Carlene. She talks like her mom, has the same opinions as her mom. We got along immediately."
So much so, in fact, that Mellencamp and Carter have recorded an album together, titled Sad Clowns and Hillbillies. Though no release date has been announced yet, Mellencamp says, "We wrote a couple of songs together, and she wrote some and I wrote some." For one song, Mellencamp also wrote music for words penned by one of his heroes, Woody Guthrie. "If Woody Guthrie were starting out now, no one would give him the time of day," Mellencamp quips.
"But I've been very fortunate," he adds. "I played last night to a soldout house. So I can't complain. But I do."