John Mellencamp lives in a lakefront mansion at the edge of a wooded 65-acre estate outside Bloomington, Indiana. It has felt bigger since he split with his wife, Elaine Irwin, in 2010, and his two youngest children, Hud, 19, and Speck, 18, took off for college. "Some nights it's weird," Mellencamp says. "I used to walk into my house and I could always go, 'Who loves their dad?' And throughout the house I'd hear Elaine go, 'I do!' Then I heard Hud go, 'I do!' and then Speck, 'I do!' It was this greeting that I always had. I walk in now sometimes and go, 'Who loves their dad?' Nothin'."
Moving to New York to be with his girlfriend, Meg Ryan, would solve the empty-nest problem, but Mellencamp says that's out of the question. "I'm too sensitive to live there," he says. "I can't see poor people. I can't see the suffering. I can't see the trash on the streets." There's also the big-city paparazzi, who trail the couple. "I don't give a fuck about me, but I don't like it for [Ryan]," he says. "I'm not leaving Indiana. I'm going to die here."
These days, Mellencamp, 62, spends much of his time in a large, bright room over a barn, painting. "I get up at 8:00, I have breakfast, I go to the art studio, and I don't come out until dark," he says. He's 86 hours into a giant picture of Ryan and her friend Laura Dern, but he's not quite sure it's finished. In the painting, Ryan is wearing red clown makeup, and both are wearing white dresses, under the words the stardust sisters. Says Mellencamp, "I wanted to turn them into the kind of girls you would find dancing at the Savoy in 1931."
He's also writing songs for his 20th studio album, which he'll begin recording with T Bone Burnett in January. And on December 10th, he is releasing a massive box set containing 19 of his albums. "Before CDs totally go away," he says, "I wanted to make sure that people who were fans of John Mellencamp could go, 'OK, I've got every fuckin' record he's made.'"
Mellencamp took that excuse to tell the stories behind 15 key songs from his career, opening up about his life and art in a way he never has before.
By Andy Greene