Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, Mavis Staples honored by Bruce Springsteen at second annual American Music Honors

 Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt (left) and John Mellencamp perform onstage.
Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt (left) and John Mellencamp perform onstage.

Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, Dion DiMucci and Mavis Staples were honored by Bruce Springsteen this Wednesday (April 24) at the second annual American Music Honors show. Presented by The Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music, and held at Monmouth University’s 700-seat Pollak Theatre in West Long Branch, New Jersey, the event celebrates artists “who have demonstrated artistic excellence, creative integrity, and a longstanding commitment to the value of music in our national consciousness.”

Of one of the high-profile inductees, Springsteen said, “My great friend John Mellencamp has been writing songs for 40 years. His eye for the details of working-class life, in the belly of the country, has been flawless and unforgiving.

“From Small Town, Pink Houses, Rain on the Scarecrow, and Jack and Diane to The Eyes of Portland, 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’s captured so perfectly, is an underlying taciturn, stubborn, unsentimental streak that he mines better than anyone else.

“Our work has often been compared. But ‘Oh yeah/life goes on/long after the thrill of living is gone’ is something I wouldn’t have known how to write. It’s pure John.”

For Mellencamp, Springsteen – along with Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams – were important, and high targets for him to reach as a songwriter.

“I had a record deal and I had never written a song in my life. They wrote these beautiful songs. I thought ‘how the fuck am I supposed to do this? I can’t do better than that!’ I was just a singer. Bruce laid down the footprint and said, ‘there it is, punk!’ That became inspiration for me. I thought… if these guys [can do it]… maybe [I can] too.”

Mellencamp then strapped on his Martin acoustic and led the audience through a solo sing-along version of Jack and Diane.

Jackson Browne, meanwhile, spoke of the ‘60s folk revival, and how it served as the catalyst for finding his musical voice.

“I was playing guitar, sometimes learning different versions of traditional songs,” he recalled to the audience. “That allowed me to choose and adapt the lyrics I liked most. I began writing songs to locate myself in the world, and to describe the world to myself. I was part of a circle of friends who played folk music and blues, and some of us wrote our own songs.”

Jackson Browne performs onstage
Jackson Browne performs onstage

For Browne, finding the late multi-instrumentalist David Lindley was another key to his musical evolution.

“Lindley imbued my songs with his personality and the emotion of his playing. He became the center of my musical universe. We toured as a duo first and then as a band. His playing was the counterpart to my writing and singing. Two halves of a whole.”

Browne then launched into an electrifying version of Running on Empty, with Disciples of Soul guitarist Marc Ribler echoing Lindley’s parts using a slide on a Gibson SG.

Ribler worked directly with the honorees beforehand to ensure faithful representations of their music across the board.

If cats have nine lives, a cat named Dion stopped counting his lives a long time ago

“Their songs are so iconic, with musical parts that are so essential and memorable,” Ribler said. “We all grew up with their music, sitting in our rooms looking at the album covers, finding out who the musicians were, and learning these classic guitar riffs and parts. It was an honor to perform their music.”

Springsteen's longtime musical brother-in-arms, Steve Van Zandt, took the stage to honor Dion. In reference to his long career – which has seen the singer and guitarist channel doo-wop, pop, folk, country, rock, and blues – Van Zandt said, “If cats have nine lives, a cat named Dion stopped counting his lives a long time ago. He could have retired a legend in 1960! But he didn’t stop there.

“In the 2000’s, he returned to his blues and country roots with a string of great albums, including Bronx in Blue and Son of Skip James. He hooked up with Joe Bonamassa’s label for Blues with Friends. The guests on these records are unbelievable. Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Frampton, Rickie Lee Jones, Billy Gibbons, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen... And who did the liner notes? Bob Dylan!”

Dion then treated the audience to a gritty, punchy version of his iconic tune, King of the New York Streets.

Another inductee, Mavis Staples, attributed her long career to the powerful influence of her father, the pioneering gospel guitarist Pops Staples.

“I think about how far we’ve come and where we’ve come from. That’s the way it was – the living room floor, where my father taught us how to sing. To go from that time singing on my living room floor singing with my family, to receiving this honor, it’s amazing!”

The 84-year-old vocalist stole the show with a rousing performance of If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me), from the Staples Singers' 1973 masterpiece, Be What You Are.

A round of classics written by each artist capped the second half of the show. 2023 American Music Honors recipient Darlene Love hit a high note with the Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High. Springsteen performed Mellencamp’s Small Town – with Mellencamp jumping up to join him on vocals – Browne broke out Take It Easy, the Eagles hit he co-wrote with Glenn Frey, while Dion had the audience on their feet with his classic, The Wanderer.

Springsteen himself added Glory Days and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out to the setlist, with Van Zandt joining him, and the event concluded with all the honorees sharing verses on a stirring version of the folk essential, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

The Bruce Springsteen Archives serves as the archival repository for Springsteen’s written works, photographs, periodicals, and artifacts. The Center for American Music also preserves and promotes Springsteen’s legacy and role in American music, while creating exhibits, teacher workshops, public programs, and education initiatives that explore the works of American music giants like Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Patti Smith, and Frank Sinatra.