Although the singer-songwriter is most famous for overplayed radio hits like “Jack and Diane” and “Pink Houses,” John Mellencamp (formerly John Cougar Mellencamp [formerly Johnny Cougar]) also has quite a few other impressive accomplishments under his music belt (which is also equally impressive, including 13 Grammy nominations, 22 Top 40 hits, and over 40 million albums sold). Watch out James Franco, here comes another modern-day Renaissance man!
1.) Farm Aid – As a founding member of Farm Aid®, an organization that started as a benefit concert in 1985 in Champaign, Illinois, Mellencamp helps raise money for American family farmers every year. Inspired by Bob Dylan and in conjunction with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp organized the first concert at University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium on September 22nd and raised more than $9 million. Bringing family farmers before Congress to testify about the poor family farming conditions in America, Mellencamp and Nelson ensured political change. Congress recognized the famers’ concerns and passed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure. Farm Aid® continues to put on annual concerts with artists like Dave Matthews Band, Jack White, and Wilco to maintain awareness and continue to raise funds for farmers in need.
2.) Visual Artist – Mellencamp is a serious painter. He studied with portrait painter David Leffel and Jan Royce of the Herron School of Art and Design, developing his own style that has been characterized as solemn, dark, and shadowy. His work has been featured in many exhibitions, the first being Nothing Like I Planned at Nashville’s Tennessee State Museum in 2012. Another exhibition called The Paintings of John Mellencamp premiered at Ohio’s Butler Institute of American Art in late 2013 marked an important milestone in Mellencamp’s visual art career as it garnered positive critical reviews from writers of The New York Times and Studio International. The exhibition will travel to more museums later this year and well into 2015.
3.) Musical Collaborator – Teaming up with horror writer Stephen King in 2000, Mellencamp wrote the score for their musical titled Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a Southern Gothic about two feuding brothers who are stuck together in a haunted cabin. The production opened in 2012 in Atlanta to mixed reviews, but a touring production began in 2013. Mellencamp’s music and lyrics have been praised by many as a merging of blues, rock, and country. The soundtrack features many prominent artists including Elvis Costello (who co-wrote the first track “That’s Me”), Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and more. The tour runs through the end of 2014.
4.) Political Activist – As most musicians are, Mellencamp has always been wary of the powers that be. Dating back to the Reagan era, Mellencamp was very critical of good old Ronald’s politics and made his views apparent in songs like “Country Gentleman” where he aptly pointed out that Reagan was only interested in serving the rich. His political songs continued into the 2000 Presidential elections when he released “To Washington,” in which he spoke out against the war in Iraq. Mellencamp even wrote an “Open Letter to America” on his website condemning George W. Bush for his ridiculous political moves. Mellencamp’s hidden track titled “Rodeo Clown” on his album Freedom’s Road is a jab at Bush as well. Mellencamp performed at rallies for President Obama and Hillary Clinton to support the Democratic Party, even though they are not as liberal as he would like them to be, he understands that in today’s political climate it’s unfortunately a choice between the lesser of two evils.
5.) John Steinbeck-Approved – Mellencamp received the John Steinbeck Award on July 30, 2012 in San Jose, California. This award is given annually to a person who contributes to society in the Steinbeck essence: “the spirit of Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man.” Mellencamp is an artist who seeks to give voice to the underrepresented. Like his predecessors (Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan), he seeks to portray the American struggle in all of its chaos. As Mellencamp stated:
“John Steinbeck’s remarkable ability to give voice to the common man and to people on society’s margins, to describe their plight and aspirations, continues to inspire us more than a century after his birth. I’m very honored to be the recipient of an award given in his name.” (CBS)
Mellencamp joined such legends as Joan Baez, Jackson Browne, Garrison Keillor, Rachel Maddow, Arthur Miller, Michael Moore, Sean Penn, and Bruce Springsteen on the John Steinbeck Award recipient list, and continues to enhance American culture in myriad ways. Check out his 2015 tour dates!
©John Mellencamp, Island Def Jam Music Group (1985) via YouTube