John Mellencamp Delivers Warm Roots Music and Cranky Lyrics on New Album

“I’m not for everybody,” John Mellencamp told NPR about his new album Strictly A One-Eyed Jack – a fair observation, and I say this as a longtime fan. I also saw this statement in some of the other reviews I read about the record that was released on Friday, January 21. It’s evident to me the heartland former straight rocker who turned 70 last October has found his sweet spot with roots music. He gradually embraced that style starting with The Lonesome Jubilee from August 1987, which remains one of my favorite Mellencamp records to this day. If you dig his previous records like Plain Spoken (2014) and Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, I think it’s a safe bet you will like his new album – unless perhaps you expect something new.

Strictly A One-Eyed Jack was written and produced by Mellencamp at his own Belmont Mall Studios in Bloomington, Ind., notes his website. His 24th studio album, the first with new original songs since the above-mentioned Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, includes three collaborations with Bruce Springsteen. One of the tunes, Wasted Days, was first released as an upfront single on December 10, 2021. I covered it here at the time. Overall, I can hear some musical and lyrical traces from other artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie, and of course Mellencamp’s familiar style, including a raspy voice shaped by more than 50 years of smoking.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the songs starting with the opener I Always Lie to Strangers. Like most other tunes on the album, it was solely written by Mellencamp. During an interview with Forbes.com, he elaborated on the title: “The average person hears 300 or 400 lies a day and will tell 150 himself and not even know it. ‘Cause you turn the news on, you get lies. You turn advertising on, you get lies. You talk to people, they lie to you. Even as simple as, “How are you doing today?” “I’m doing great.” No, they’re not, but they say it anyway. So it was just that simple of the thought that led to that song.” While I don’t know the source of Mellencamp’s highly inflated-looking stats, I guess his general point is legit.

The title of the bluesy I’m A Man That Worries pretty much says it all. Here’s the first verse for illustration:

I am a man that worries
Worries occupy my brain
I’m worried about tomorrow

I worry about today
I’m worried about the words I’m hearing
I’m worried about all this bad news
I know it’s a curse
That ain’t ever gonna go away

So how about some of these collaborative tunes with Springsteen? I’m skipping Wasted Days since as noted above, I already wrote about it previously. Here’s one of the other two tunes: Did You Say Such A Thing. I love the rock feel Springsteen’s guitar-playing adds. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, he also plays the solo. Hearing the two sing together sounds pretty cool as well. During the Forbes.com interview, Mellencamp characterized the collaboration as “quite by accident.” He said, “For my entire career I was always like the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. And Bruce and I have known each other for years…But we did a rainforest thing for Sting…And all of a sudden he was like my big brother, and he treated me like I was his sibling, and I treated him with respect. And then we became really good friends, and it just kind of happened. He came to Indiana, he stayed at the house. It was great.” If only all accidents would have such great outcomes!

Gone So Soon surprised me a bit with its jazzy feel. I suppose this proves that while John Mellencamp clearly has become a roots-oriented artist, he isn’t a one-trick pony. Based on credits available on Discogs, the great piano part of this tune is played by Troye Kinnett, while Joey Tartell provides the beautiful trumpet solo. I also love the backing vocals by Merritt Lear. It all gets perfectly complemented with Mellencamp’s rough vocals. Check it out – very moody!

Here’s the title track. When asked, ‘Who is the one-eyed Jack to you?’, during the Forbes.com interview, Mellencamp explained, “You can’t write about yourself all the time. But I have grown to be a good observer and good listener, so I hear what other people think and what people say. Then I’m open to suggestions, which means that sometimes I’ll be doing something and a voice in my head will go, “Well, you better write this down.” And I think, “Ah, f**k I’m painting, I don’t want to write this down.” And I’m like, “You need to write this down, John.” And that happened quite a bit with this record.” BTW, that one-eyed Jack portrait of Mellencamp was painted by Speck Mellencamp, his younger son with his ex-wife, the model Elaine Irwin. John Mellencamp is an avid painter as well. His artwork has been exhibited numerous times, including at museums like the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville and the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

The final track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer. A Life Full Of Rain is another collaborative recording with Springsteen. Unlike the two other songs, this tune is on the quieter side. Lyrically, it’s yet another not exactly cheerful song.

Following is how Mellencamp summed up the album to Forbes.com: “I’m not for everyone anymore. I was someplace the other night and some guy came up to me and he said, “You know, music is just not the same.”And he said, “It’s just not the same. And there’s not any good songwriters anymore.” And I went, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” I go, “Wait a minute. Have you heard my last record?” [Mellencamp clearly doesn’t lack self-confidence, though I agree with him – CMM] He goes, “No.” I go, “Have you heard Bruce’s last record?” He goes, “No”. I go, “Have you heard Dylan’s last record?” He went, “No.” I go, “Have you heard Woody Guthrie’s last record?” He said, “No.” I said, “Maybe there’s still music out there. You’re just not listening. There’s the problem. You’re not listening. It’s still being made. It’s still out there, but you’re just not listening. You grew up. Too bad for you.”

I don’t want to wrap up this review without acknowledging the other musicians on the album, who do a beautiful job: Music director Andy York (acoustic and electric guitar, autoharp, banjo, bass, backing vocals), Mike Wanchic (electric guitar, backing vocals), Miriam Sturm (violin), Jon Gunnell (bass) and Dane Clark (drums, percussion) – the same musicians who backed up Mellencamp on his two previous albums. In fact, Sturm has played on all of his records since Mr. Happy Go Lucky from September 1996. York and especially Wanchic go back with Mellencamp even further. For York, it’s until Dance Naked, Mellencamp’s 13th studio album that appeared in June 1994. And for Wanchic the oldest Mellencamp album I could verify is Uh-huh from October 1983. These are remarkable long-term relationships in an ego-driven industry that’s notorious for volatility.

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mellencamp website; NPR; Forbes.com; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Welcome to another Best of What’s New where I typically highlight four new songs. Since I only started paying closer attention to contemporary music on a regular basis when launching this weekly recurring feature close to two years ago, most of the artists included in these posts are new to me. In this installment, that’s the case for my first three picks. The last is one of my longtime favorite artists.

Johnny Marr/Lightning People

I’d like to start with new music by English guitarist and singer-songwriter Johnny Marr, who first gained prominence in the ’80s as a co-founder of English indie rock band The Smiths. Following the group’s break-up, Marr played in various other bands, including Pretenders, The The, Electronic, Modest Mouse and The Cribs. In February 2013, Marr released his solo debut album The Messenger, which climbed to no. 10 in the UK on the Official Albums Chart. Two additional albums have since come out and another one, Fever Dreams Pts. 1-4, is scheduled for February 25, 2022. Marr has started to release songs from the forthcoming record as EPs. Here’s Lightning People, a track from Fever Dreams Pt. 2 that came out yesterday (December 17). Like the other three songs on the EP, it was co-written by him and James Doviak, co-producer and guitarist in Marr’s band. Sounds pretty good to me!

Arlie/Crashing Down

Arlie are an indie rock band from Nashville. Essentially, that’s all I know, based on this short review in Melodic Magazine. Apple Music lists an EP, Wait, from September 2018, and six singles including the latest titled Crashing Down that appeared on December 14. The tune was co-written by Hayes Helsper and Nathaniel Banks. “”Crashing down” is about this feeling of “everything I’ve built my sense of security upon might suddenly crumble” and how that can really make you re-evaluate your priorities,” Banks who is the band’s lead vocalist told Melodic Magazine. “It’s about how a dream scared me enough to snap me out of taking a lot of things for granted, and enough to make me realize how much I care about being in the physical presence of the people I love most.” When listening to the tune’s upbeat music without paying attention to the lyrics, you’d never guess the song’s topic.

Jack Kays & Travis Barker/Sideways

In connection with his debut album Mixed Emotions from January this year, Apple Music describes Jack Kays as a multi-talented artist who creates a blend of emo rap, pop-punk, and folk music that boldly grapples with questions of insecurity and addiction. This description also is a good fit for Sideways, a track from My Favorite Nightmares, a collaborative EP released December 10. Kays recorded it with Travis Barker, drummer of American pop rock band Blink-182. According to this press release, the 4-track project continues Jack’s exploration of themes surrounding mental health. The release also quotes Kays: “I feel like society loves to romanticize the successful recovery from mental illness but doesn’t like to address people during the process as they’re trying to combat and overcome it. When people listen to this project, I want those who are experiencing that to feel heard and feel accepted.” Here’s the official video.

John Mellencamp/Chasing Rainbows

Rounding out this post is John Mellencamp whose music I’ve enjoyed for more than 30 years. I trust the heartland straight-turned-roots rocker doesn’t need an introduction. Arguably, Seymour, Ind.’s most famous son who turned 70 on October 7, Mellencamp has been active for 45 years. Chasing Rainbows, released December 10, is the second upfront track from his upcoming 24th studio album Strictly A One-Eyed Jack, scheduled for January 21, 2022. Co-written by Mellencamp and John Young, the tune follows Wasted Days, which appeared on September 29 and features Bruce Springsteen. Previously, I wrote about it here. Chasing Rainbows is another reason I look forward to the new album.

Sources: Wikipedia; Melodic Magazine; Apple Music; Columbia Records press release; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Are we really already in October? Hard to believe that’s the case! September, one of my favorite months here in New Jersey, flew by way too fast. ‘Nuff with the whining and on to the business at hand, which is newly released music. My latest picks include some Americana, indie rock, roots rock and acoustic blues. Unless noted otherwise, the tracks are on studio releases that came out yesterday (October 1).

Strand of Oaks/Easter

I’d like to kick off this revue with music by Strand of Oaks, a project by Austin, Texas-based songwriter and producer Timothy Showalter I first introduced in a Best of What’s New post a few weeks ago. You’d think that after 79 installments of the weekly series, including previously featured artists would happen fairly frequently, but at least so far, that’s not been the case. According to Showalter’s Apple Music profilehe specializes in bold and anthemic indie Americana that draws from classic rock and folk. Skillfully blending traditional singer/songwriter introspection with stadium-ready melodies in the vein of artists like War on Drugs and My Morning Jacket, Showalter emerged in 2009 with Leave Ruin. Six additional studio albums, one EP and various singles have since appeared under the Strand of Oaks moniker. Here’s Easter, another tune I like from his new album In Haven.

Arms Akimbo/Now I Know

Atwood Magazine has called Arms Akimbo “one of the West Coast’s hidden treasures.” They also could have characterized them as “mystery”, since neither their website, Facebook page or Soundcloud includes any information on the Los Angeles-based trio. It surprises me time and again when artists don’t post bios or some other background on their website and social media properties, especially when they’re less known! Based on Atwood Magazine, the alternative and indie rock band has been around for five years. Their members are Peter Schrupp (guitar, lead vocals), Colin Boppell (bass), and Matt Sutton (drums). Apparently, they used to be a four piece until the recent departure of their founding member Christopher Kalil (guitar, vocals). Now I Know (that’s the song title, not exactly my state of knowledge about the group) is a track from Arms Akimbo’s new EP Just Basics.

John Mellencamp/Wasted Days (featuring Bruce Springsteen)

I was quite excited to learn that two of my favorite artists, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen, came together to cut a single – the first time they have done this, according to an announcement on Mellencamp’s website. Wasted Days was released on September 29, along with the below official video filmed in New Jersey last month. The video was directed and produced by Thom Zimny, a filmmaker who frequently collaborates with Springsteen. The tune is the lead single of a new album by Mellencamp that’s slated for 2022. I also came across this intriguing quote by Springsteen on AZLyrics.com from an interview on Sirius XM’s E Street Radio in June: “I worked on three songs on John’s album and I spent some time in Indiana with him. I love John a lot. He’s a great songwriter and I have become very close and had a lot of fun with him. I sang a little bit on his record.” While the lyrics aren’t exactly on the cheerful side, I love Wasted Days, which sounds like classic Mellencamp – a tune you could imagine on 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee, one of my favorite Mellencamp albums. The Boss adds a nice vocal flavor to it – and based on the above, we can look forward to more of the two together!

Buffalo Nichols/How to Love

Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with some great acoustic blues by guitarist Buffalo Nichols. From his website: Since his earliest infatuations with guitar, Buffalo Nichols has asked himself the same question: How can I bring the blues of the past into the future? After cutting his teeth between a Baptist church and bars in Milwaukee, it was a globetrotting trip through West Africa and Europe during a creative down period that began to reveal the answer...Born in Houston and raised in Milwaukee’s predominantly Black North end, the guitar was Nichols’ saving grace as a young man. The instrument captured his fascination, and provided him with an outlet for self-expression and discovery in isolation. While other children chased stardom on the field, court, or classroom, Nichols took to his mother and siblings’ music collections, searching feverishly for riffs to pick out on his instrument. On October 15, Nichols will release his eponymous debut album featuring demos and studio recordings. Here’s How to Love, the third upfront track that became available on September 21 – love that Dobro and Nichols’ singing, and look forward to the album!

Sources: Apple Music; Atwood Magazine; John Mellencamp website; AZLyrics.com; Buffalo Nichols website; YouTube