The Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame member sang the song "Jim Crow" with veteran folkie Joan Baez -- as well as a terrific song version of "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" -- on a night that also featured performances by Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, Yolanda Adams, the Five Blind Boys from Alabama and Bob Dylan, among others.
That was powerful company, but Mellencamp was up to it.
For the past quarter century, he has been penning and performing smart, often very political songs -- focusing on the farm crisis, economic hard times and race relations. He's been a key organizer of Farm Aid and other fund-raising events for good causes, and he's been a steady presence on the campaign trail in recent years, appearing at the side of numerous Democratic presidential candidates, including Barack Obama.
So, could Mellencamp perform in the U.S. Senate?
Could he be the right replacement for retiring Senator Evan Bayh, D-Indiana?
Forget the blah-blah-blah about celebrities in politics. We crossed that bridge decades ago.
The question is whether this celebrity makes the right connections with this state.
Mellencamp certainly has the home-state credibility. Few rockers have been so closely associated with a state as Mellencamp with Indiana.
Mellencamp has a history of issue-oriented political engagement that is the rival of any of the Democratic politicians who are being considered as possible Bayh replacements.
And Mellencamp has something else. He has a record of standing up for disenfranchised and disenchanted working-class families in places like his hometown of Seymour, Indiana.
In other words, he's worthy of the consideration that has led to talk of a "Draft John Mellencamp" movement. In fact, he might be just enough of an outlier to energize base votes and to make independent voters look again at the Democratic column.
Mellencamp's not making any campaign moves.
He's a savvy player who has been around power politics for a long time -- he counts Bill Clinton as a pal -- and he's smart enough (and humble enough) to know that the leap from rock star to senate candidate is a long one.
But John Hall, the songwriter and leader of the band Orleans, is now a two-term Democratic congressman from New York.
And the Republicans have run more than a few actors for jobs like senator, governor and even president.
Notably, President Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign wanted to use the song "Pink Houses" at campaign events. And John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign did indeed use it, even as Mellencamp explained that the Arizona senator might not fully "get" the point of the song about working families living on the backroads of America.
So Mellencamp has already crossed some partisan and ideological lines.
That's more than can be said for most Senate prospects -- be they Democrats or Republicans.
By John Nichols:
Reprinted with permission from The Nation