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Scrappy John Mellencamp Is Everywhere in Country Music: 'There's a Part of Us That All Want to Be Like Him'
"In my mind, John Mellencamp is a rocking version of Merle Haggard," says Jake Owen. "He's able to say things simply about America in a way where everyone understood it."
Baked into the foundation of any art form is the knowledge that everything new is built on some adaptation of what came before it.
Rarely has that been so blatant -- or so timely -- as Jake Owen's "I Was Jack (And You Were Diane)," which is No. 12 on the Country Airplay chart dated May 12. It pays nostalgic homage to "Jack & Diane," a title from 1982 that is steeped in small-town, teenage romance with the full knowledge that that era's days were numbered. And it comes at a time when John Mellencamp, the rebellious Indiana rocker who wrote and recorded "Jack & Diane," is ironically at the heart of modern country music.
Owen's paean is hardly unique in the current format. In 2015, Keith Urban rose to No. 2 on both Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs with "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16," its title using the stage name that was thrust upon Mellencamp when he first rose to national prominence. "Jack & Diane" was referenced in the opening lines of Old Dominion's 2017 single "No Such Thing As a Broken Heart" and Kenny Chesney's 2004 release "I Go Back." "Hurts So Good," a single from the same American Fool album that yielded "Jack," has been covered by Miranda Lambert on the USA Network's Nashville Star, by Charles Kelley and Bucky Covington in concert and by Chesney and Jason Aldean during their 2015 co-headlining tour. Aldean got plenty of attention for his April 29 cover of Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" in Chicago. That song has likewise been covered by Darius Rucker and 14-year-old Warner Music Nashville artist Tegan Marie.
It's amusing, to say the least, that a hard-nosed fighter who nicknamed himself "Little Bastard" has become one of the shoulders upon which family-friendly contemporary country stands.
"About 99 percent of modern country music, I think, is about small-town life and about growing up in the heartland," reasons Owen. "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."
The visual images in that statement are what Mellencamp represented when he broke out in the midst of the synthetic glam and bright artifice of the New Wave era in the early and mid-1980s. The motorcycle in the background on Mellencamp's American Fool album cover, the barbed wire and tractor on Scarecrow and even the wife-beater on Nothing Matters and What If It Did are images that resonate in country. The cover of Uh-Huh, where he's depicted in a T-shirt and jeans, has its own nostalgia for the era of James Dean, who died when he wrecked his Porsche that sported the inscription "Little Bastard."
"He's so like sexy-looking and young," says "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" songwriter Shane McAnally of that cover. "It's the epitome of where the '50s and the '80s met."
Mellencamp was a rebel with a cause when he found his platform in the 1980s. "Pink Houses," with its "Ain't that America" chorus, has -- much like fellow rocker Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." -- been misinterpreted at times as jingoistic patriotism. In actuality, "Pink Houses" is a savvy condemnation of cultural control by the 1 percent at the top of the economic food chain. "Rain on the Scarecrow," the title track from the Scarecrow album, likewise railed against big business, assailing bankers who assisted in the demolition of the family farm through foreclosure.
Mellencamp's music "is about the working class and the Midwest and social conscience," observes Marie. "It's about everything in between New York and L.A., that big chunk of land. He just gets so in depth with that."
Appropriately, Mellencamp joined Willie Nelson and Neil Young in founding Farm Aid in 1985, and that association brought him into greater contact with the country and Americana communities, which have typically provided a big chunk of the talent for the annual benefit. Mellencamp represents the anti-establishment ideal that's part of the mind-set in farmers and cowboys, two iconic American symbols with obvious ties to country.
"Rock and country are born out of the same thing," says producer Frank Liddell, whose production of Lambert's current "Keeper of the Flame" has Mellencamp-like heartland-rock shadings. Liddell says that big swaths of listeners understand Mellencamp's view whether they've ever driven a tractor or not.
"They're not hearing about growing corn. They're hearing about people that are out there fighting," reasons Liddell. "It's not the literal element of it. It's the emotions and the toil and the overcoming element that they identify with, not the specifics."
Mellencamp has found plenty within the industry who relate. Trisha Yearwood sang "Pink Houses" with him in Colorado after opening a 2001 show. Little Big Town backed him on eight tracks on his 2007 album Freedom Road. Johnny Cash's family had him perform during the Man in Black's 2003 funeral. And Darius Rucker enlisted Mellencamp for a CMT Crossroads installment, highly appropriate since Don Gehman -- Mellencamp's co-producer during much of the '80s -- also produced Hootie + The Blowfish's multiplatinum Cracked Rear View, with Rucker singing lead. Heck, Mellencamp even nabbed a Country Music Association Award nomination in 1992 as a member of Buzzin' Cousins -- a collaboration with Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Joe Ely and James McMurtry that appeared on the soundtrack of Falling From Grace.
Those kinds of partnerships fit in with Mellencamp's influence on modern country.
"His lyrics and his music [were] always country with a rock'n'roll flair," says Owen. "In my mind, John Mellencamp is a rocking version of Merle Haggard. He's able to say things simply about America in a way where everyone understood it."
Even Urban, influenced from afar during his youth in Australia, understood how Mellencamp represented blue-collar America. He heard the same struggle between good and evil in Mellencamp that's inherent in country music.
"It's that spirit that goes out and just gets all crazy hell on Saturday night and then we're down at the church Sunday morning repenting," says Urban. "It's those two juxtapositions that I've always loved about Mellencamp. His voice to me was that theme -- it had that realism and struggle and empathy. I could go on forever about John's voice."
That juxtaposition is at work in "I Was Jack (You Were Diane)," a song that reflects on the split between youth and maturity. It's the easiest canyon in Mellencamp's canon to navigate, but it's not all that dissimilar from his exploration of rural life in an urbanized world, of a middle-class warrior angered by The Man. What's not so divergent, however, is his brand of rock and the current brand of country, where "Pink Houses" and "Jack & Diane" are right at home in set lists with "Fly Over States" and "Wagon Wheel."
Mellencamp "has always been country," says Chris Janson, who is set to tour with Owen beginning May 18. "He wears cowboy boots, jeans and T-shirts. He looks like a guy that you went to high school with, went to college with, went to Tootsie's with and went to the arena with. He looks like an everyday guys' guy, and he sings songs about how we all live in modern-day country music and have been living for years. It's a natural fit."