Two years ago, John Mellencamp didn’t expect to make another album for a major record label. He’d left Columbia Records after arguing with the company’s executives over “Peaceful World”, a song about racism on his 2001 album, ‘Cuttin’ Heads’. Executives felt the song was incendiary; he insisted on its inclusion. Mellencamp eventually won, but the episode was enough to sour him for good on the music business.
Or so he thought. Mellencamp, whose hits include “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane”, has been pulled back in for ‘Trouble No More’, an album of blues and folk covers. Columbia executives asked him to record it after hearing him play Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” at a memorial concert last year for Billboard editor Timothy White. True to form, Mellencamp has already created a stir with one track from the new album: “To Washington”, a traditional folk song for which he wrote new lyrics. The song was released as a single as the war with Iraq began.
The 51-year-old singer took heat for its apparent critique of President George W Bush: “So a new man in the White House, With a familiar name, said he had some fresh ideas, But it’s worse now since he came.” Mellencamp, a proud Hoosier, is still based in Bloomington, Indiana, where he lives with his wife and children. How did you pick the songs for ‘Trouble No More’?
Initially there was a vision of trying to do only folk and blues from the 1930s to 1950s, but then you start looking around. I do that song by Lucinda Williams (“Lafayette”, from 1980’s ‘Happy Woman Blues’). When I got into rehearsal, I said, ‘I feel funny about doing this song,’ but I wanted to do one with a Louisiana feel. I’m not going to eliminate a song just because it’s newer. When you were writing the lyrics for “To Washington”, did you think they would be negatively received?
Never dawned on me. Because I’ve written such scathing songs on the landscape of America. The song was written before we went to war. There wasn’t talk of leaving the UN yet, but if there had been, that would have been in the song, too. You’ve become disillusioned with the music industry and major labels in particular. Why? The record companies think (artists) all need to have their clothes off and bellybutton rings and there’s no room for songs now that try to do anything more than entertain for the moment. I started out playing in bars when I was a kid, doing four sets a night, doing cover songs. Most singers today started on the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’. What will the musical you’re writing with Stephen King be like?
(Laughing) I can tell what it’s not going to be like: It won’t be ‘Jack and Diane’ meets ‘Cujo’. He’s already written the story — it’s very beautiful, more like ‘The Green Mile’. It’s an American story about an American family. Some of the characters are 100 years old, some are 15. So, that will give me the opportunity to write for each character in a different style. I ain’t writing a bunch of (darn) rock songs.
Do you ever worry about being perceived as too serious? No. I’ve read reviews where they say I’m crabby; I can’t argue that. What I worry about is that people over the last 30 years have pegged me as a Mid-western rocker. Let’s look at the history of Mid-western rock — (bands such as) REO Speedwagon. I don’t do that.