John Mellencamp, Mavis Staples Honored by Bruce Springsteen Archives

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Moments after being honored at the American Music Honors of the Bruce Springsteen Archives, John Mellencamp took a moment to talk about its namesake at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theater in West Long Branch on Wednesday night (April 24).

“I know you all love him,” he said of Springsteen. “He put down a big footprint — him and [Bob] Dylan, for me. And [Woody] Guthrie. And Bruce just kind of put it down and said, ‘There it is, punk. Fill my footprint.’ And that was inspiration for me, ’cause I could hear him, and I could hear Bob, and I could go, ‘God, these guys… maybe me, too.’ ”

That big footprint is part of the ongoing story of American music, and Wednesday night’s ceremony celebrated musical legends part of that rich tapestry, including honorees Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, Mellencamp and Dion DiMucci. All four were introduced by fellow storytellers in music history: Springsteen, fellow E Street Band member Steve Van Zandt, Darlene Love, and Springsteen manager Jon Landau. Former news anchor Brian Williams hosted the evening, with remarks by Governor Phil Murphy and music from the house band, Van Zandt’s Disciples of Soul, led by musical director Marc Ribler.

Springsteen, dressed in a white shirt, vest and tie, honored Mellencamp for his musical legacy and activism, as well as creating Farm Aid with Willie Nelson in 1985. The Freehold native gave Mellencamp credit for creating a musical stew of “traditional country and roots instrumentation mixed with a rhythm section and the energy of a rock band.” It’s something “that he invented,” he continued. “It formed the bedrock of alternative-country, and country music today, and it’s something he really hasn’t gotten the credit for, that he so richly deserves.”

“His eye for the details of working-class life in the belly of the country has been flawless and unforgiving, Springsteen said in his remarks. “He’s captured and remained true to an unflinching vision of a country at war with itself, a country caught between its hard realities and better angels. And even more than the detail of the blue-collar life he captures so perfectly, is an underlying taciturn, stubborn, unsentimental streak that he mines better than anybody else.”

Mellencamp, who joked about not being prepared with even a piece of paper, told the crowd that his only ambition in his early career was to sing in a band to meet girls with a future career as a painter when a manager plucked him up fresh out of college that changed his name to “Johnny Cougar.” “I had never written a song,” he said. “Never wrote a song in my life, and I had a record deal. ‘Now what am I going to do?”

After his speech, Mellencamp performed a song he wrote when he was just 25 that worked out well for him: an acoustic version of “Jack and Diane.” Springsteen then took the stage to perform his version of Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” repeating a verse before Mellencamp emerged from the audience to duet.

Browne, a long-time social justice, environmental and educational activist who has supported everything from anti-nuclear alternative energy resources to political freedom in Central America, was inducted by Landau, who said his pitch to be Browne’s producer on his 1976 album “The Pretender” was, “‘Jackson, don’t sound too mopey. Sing out, loud and proud. And most importantly, turn that goddamn snare drum up.’ He wound up doing all of that, and the album came out sounding pretty, pretty good.”

Browne spoke eloquently of his career and partnership with the late David Lindley, as well as his early beginnings in Orange County — “a suburb of Disneyland actually.” “There was some very good traditional music being played at Disneyland. David Lindley played there in a bluegrass band, and the same guy that booked serious folk musicians at Disneyland — Tom Campbell was his name — wound up producing hundreds, maybe a thousand benefit concerts for environmental and human rights organizations in the ’70s and ’80s, including the legendary No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden. He connected artists with issues that he saw needed to be addressed.”

Browne then strapped on a guitar for a sweet performance of “Running on Empty,” with an elated Landau dancing in the side aisles. He later honored the late Glenn Frey with a performance of the Eagles song, “Take It Easy,” on which he shares a co-writing credit.

Mavis Staples, who in the 1960s was on the frontlines of the civil rights movement and continues to use her music to support racial equality in America, was reverentially honored by Love, who detailed Staples’ storied history with The Staples Singers and their hits, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.” Staples, she said, was instrumental in standing up against “forces that have sought to keep women from entering their rightful place on stage and to sing and express themselves.”

Staples, who turns 85 on July 10, was slow to take the stage and catch her breath as she was gallantly helped by both Springsteen and Van Zandt. Visibly moved, she declared that she was “just a girl from Chicago who started singing with her father when I was nine years old, and folks didn’t believe that the voice was coming from this skinny little knock-kneed girl. To go from that time to singing with my father, [and] my siblings on our living room floor to being here and receiving this honor, is just amazing.”

She then made her way center stage to show just how big those vocals still are, leading the band with a spiritually uplifting and soul-shaking version of “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).”

DiMucci, whose landmark recording of “Abraham, Martin and John” became an activist anthem in the late 1960s, took a moment to praise Staples, who celebrates her birthday just eight days earlier and turns the same age. “Mavis, if you ever want to go out with a younger guy, the kid is here,” he joked. “You know what I’m saying.”

Van Zandt inducted DiMucci, who performed “King of the New York Streets” and “The Wanderer.” DiMucci suggested that the musicians take a break from their touring life and start a group as the New Staples Singers. “Backstage, Stevie Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp… We decided to put our careers on hold,” he said. “We’re going out on the road with Mavis Staples as The New Staple Singers.”

Springsteen and Van Zandt then took the stage, with the former strapping on a guitar. They launched into an energetic mini-E Street band concert with “Glory Days” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

The evening concluded with all the performers and presenters to give a rendition of The Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Springsteen in particular was enjoying himself as he sang his verse and directed the band with a big smile.

In attendance were New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy, as well as Steve Forbert, John Eddie, Warren Zanes (author of “Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska,” which is set to be a film starring Jeremy Allen White), Springsteen’s son Sam, Springsteen’s wife, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation chairman John Sykes.

Proceeds from the ceremony and a silent online auction (a signed guitar by Springsteen was fetching as high as $8,000) will go toward the construction of the Bruce Springsteen Archives.

The Center for American Music will feature exhibits on Springsteen and showcase diverse topics and themes in American music, while the Archives will offer visitors the chance to listen to oral histories and interviews, watch rare film footage, and explore major moments in music history. Intimate concerts, teacher workshops, symposia, lectures, film series, and other public and educational programs will also be part of the mission for the Archives and Center for American Music.

The new 30,000 square-foot building to house the archives will be designed by the acclaimed New York-based architectural firm, Cookfox, and will be located on the campus of Monmouth University on the corner of Cedar and Norwood Avenue, not far from where Springsteen wrote his landmark song, “Born to Run,” nearly 50 years ago. A campaign to raise the $45 million to construct the new building is underway, with two-thirds of the goal already raised, according to Monmouth University President and Chair of the Archives Board Patrick F. Leahy.

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