1. Steve Earle
Though originally emerging in the aftermath of outlaw country and neo-traditionalist country-rock, consummate singer-songwriter Steve Earle has covered plenty of disparate territory in a lengthy career of his own. Like Mellencamp's, Earle's well-drawn characters typically harbor small-town but also quite sophisticated concerns about justice, family, aging, and the nature of a meaningful life. Although the latter's music is generally regarded as the more hard-edged of the two, both tend to alternate between a left-leaning political focus and highly personal examinations of loneliness and mortality. Earle highlights from the past two decades-plus include "Rich Man's War," "Jerusalem," "The Rain Came Down," and "Someday," to name but a few.
3. John Hiatt
Like Mellencamp an Indiana native, this earthy artist has been recording for nearly 40 years and has packed an impressive amount of life experience into his emotionally thoughtful compositions. Following some flirtation with the new wave scene in the late '70s and early '80s, Hiatt found his niche toward the end of the latter decade as a roots rock champion. Bring the Family and Slow Turning built considerable late-'80s success for Hiatt as a solo artist, even as his songwriting efforts began to pay off in the form of hits for other artists, namely Bonnie Raitt ("Thing Called Love") and Jeff Healey ("Angel Eyes"). As for Hiatt's own recordings of his songs, essentials include "Drive South," "Perfectly Good Guitar," and "Slow Turning."
4. Peter Case
Here's an artist with considerable underground pedigree who ultimately chose the strictest of roots rock paths for his solo career as a singer-songwriter. Originally a pioneer of American punk, power pop and new wave outfits the Nerves and the Plimsouls, Case always harbored an interest in blues, folk and country, influences that have forged an utterly unique niche for the artist's later work. Along the way, Case has influenced any number of artists more famous than he, sporting admirers from Bruce Springsteen to John Prine. But a trip through the former's catalogue is an immensely rewarding one, as evidenced by standout tracks "Until the Next Time," "Dream About You," "Old Blue Car," and "Travellin' Light."
Fast-forwarding to the current era of roots music singer-songwriters, I gravitate toward some female artists who draw from Mellencamp's general palette to create their own compelling acoustic visions. Of course, there is no shortage of male artists who share such a link, but one of the nice developments of the last 15 years or so has been the conflagration of independently spirited female artists with their own leading-role careers, ranging from Nanci Griffith to Tift Merritt to Patty Griffin. I settle on McNally as a particularly current artist carrying on Mellencamp's legacy with impressive singularity, and her albums from the past decade Jukebox Sparrows and Geronimo offer plenty of sonic evidence for that choice.
6. Lori McKenna
Allow me to conclude for now with one of my favorite current artists, another female American singer-songwriter from the Northeast (the fertile Boston area, in this case) who brings full circle Mellencamp's working class concerns in phenomenally bittersweet fashion. Her most recent albums Bittertown and Unglamorous are stunning collections of astute observations about everyday people that belong proudly alongside Earle and Hiatt in both a lyrical and musical sense. Tunes like "One Man," "Stealing Kisses," "Unglamorous," and "Witness to Your Life" alternate beautifully in celebrating and lamenting life's complexities, and the flag of singer-songwriters going forward could not be held aloft by a more diverse and emotionally direct artist.