Johnny Cash called him one of the best songwriters of all time. Bob Dylan counts his output among the best around. Today’s country stars worship his brand of heartland rock.
John Mellencamp is adored by some of the music industry’s best and by fans who still pay to put “Jack & Diane” on the jukebox or crank up “Play Guitar” whenever it comes on the radio.
Mellencamp, who plays Omaha’s Orpheum Theater on Monday, is the progenitor of Americana rock, distilling folk and rock ’n’ roll and blues and country into something distinctly Midwestern. His 1985 album, “Scarecrow,” not only left us with memorable hits — “Small Town” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” among them — it also made Mellencamp popular with rock stars and regular Midwesterners alike, cementing him as a once-in-a-generation voice who, in turn, gave voice to us here in the heartland.
Hall of Famers like Mellencamp routinely perform around here — Phil Collins, Diana Ross and Ringo Starr are all on the way soon — but few of them, if any, are as inherently middle-of-the-country as Mellencamp. He’s like us.
We were born in small towns. We live in small towns. We’ll probably die in small towns.
Ditto for Mellencamp.
“I’m not leaving Indiana. I’m going to die here,” he told Rolling Stone, echoing his own lyrics.
And Mellencamp has walked the walk in other ways. He helped create Farm Aid to help family farmers during the farm crisis of the 1980s. He physically joined farmers in grassroots protests, and showed for hearings on Capitol Hill.
Along the way, he surged past the everyman rock of Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty to become the heartland rocker.
Mellencamp remained in Indiana because it was important to stay true to his roots, said Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp’s collaborator and guitarist of more than 40 years.
“You weren’t being influenced by the people at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go or the Rainbow Room. You’re not faced by those trends,” Wanchic told The World-Herald earlier this month. “That’s one of the things that has allowed us to maintain a long career and maintain autonomy. ... Living in isolation was an important part of it.”
Mellencamp has always been an outsider, and that, he says, helped him create alt-country and Americana.
“I had to create my own job and create my own genre and, consequently, do what I think they now call Americana,” Mellencamp told CBS.
But it’s not like he woke up one day and decided to create a genre of music. He was just doing what he knew.
During his speech at his 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Mellencamp said he found his voice with “Scarecrow,” an album that painted a bleak picture of the Midwest. It was his fifth album, and he knew what he wanted it to sound like — classic American writers such as Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner.
“I think people, particularly in the Midwest, really identified with these characters. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘I’m Jack and I’m Diane. You wrote about my life.’ To me, that’s a successful song,” he told Rolling Stone.
And Mellencamp’s songs resonated with other artists, too, particularly those in country.
“About 99 percent of modern country music, I think, is about small-town life and about growing up in the heartland,” country star Jake Owen told Billboard. “There’s a part of us that all want to be kind of like him. We want to be that all-American, white-T-shirt-wearin’, roll-your-sleeves-up center and grit of America.”
Mellencamp decided to pursue music after graduating from Vincennes University, a junior college in Indiana.
He met Wanchic when both were just out of school. Wanchic was an intern at a recording studio in Indiana. Mellencamp came to record some demos. They’ve been making music together ever since.
Not all of their songs were hits. Not at first. And the responses Mellencamp and Wanchic got from producers, record executives and others were just another thing that kept them in Indiana.
“We had been making dud after dud record,” Wanchic said. “Then, all of the sudden, it happened. ‘Why don’t you move to L.A.?’ Well, we’re not moving to L.A. We remember every one of you people who thought we were absolutely horrible.”
His allegiance to small towns and regular folks is the reason Mellencamp co-founded Farm Aid alongside Willie Nelson and Neil Young. The concert series has been held every year since the first show in Champaign, Illinois, in 1985.
Two years later, Farm Aid III came to Lincoln.
The original idea was that they’d put on one massive concert to benefit family farmers and raise awareness for their plight. If they did that, the federal government would have to take notice and do something.
“Why are all these small towns going out of business? Because everybody went to live in the city? No. It was because corporate farming had moved in and run the small family farmer out of business. Which is why we started Farm Aid,” Mellencamp told CBS.
“Every time I fly on an airplane,” Wanchic said, “you look out of that window, and what do you see? You see rural America. That is really the backbone and fabric of what America really is. We want to make sure that tradition carries on for many generations.”
Farm Aid concerts continue each September. The shows have raised more than $53 million to date.
About 70,000 people attended the 1987 show in Lincoln, which featured Mellencamp, Nelson and Young as well as Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Steppenwolf, Lyle Lovett, John Denver, Lou Reed, Joe Walsh and others.
Broadcast live around the country, it was the biggest concert ever held in Nebraska, netting $1.9 million to help farmers.
Nelson kicked things off. Mellencamp played “Small Town.” Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge did a duet. John Denver did “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Nelson and others gathered to close the show, singing “This Land Is Your Land” while fireworks exploded in the background.
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“We were kind of the host band,” Wanchic said. “We’d play five or six times a day. I can’t remember who all we played with that day. But I do remember Lou Reed. It seemed like such a juxtaposition. There I am onstage, playing some of the most incredibly oddball songs to play in Lincoln. It was a remarkable event.”
A year earlier, Mellencamp had played a three-song set and joined 10,000 farmers for a protest in Chillicothe, Missouri. The next year, just three months before the Lincoln show, he testified in front of the Senate’s agriculture committee, calling attention to farmers who were losing their land.
“This isn’t new for me to be worried about farmers,” Mellencamp said at the time. “I grew up in a farm community of 15,000. My friends are all farmers.”
Despite the risk of alienating some fans, Mellencamp, Nelson and Young continue to rally around their favorite causes, especially Farm Aid.
In a 2014 interview, Nelson told The World-Herald he believes calling attention to a problem is the best way to get people in power to act.
“People with a voice should use it,” Nelson said. “Everyone has a voice of one kind or another. ... If we keep telling them about it over and over again, maybe they will (take notice).”
Mellencamp has certainly never stopped trying. That’s likely one reason he’ll be playing the Orpheum — a more intimate setting — instead of one of Nebraska’s two large arenas.
But Mellencamp wouldn’t be Mellencamp if he did it any other way.
“Oh, I’ve been booed,” he told CBS. “And I remember Neil Young walked up to me after it was over, and he goes, ‘Whatever you said, keep saying it.’ ”