John Mellencamp describes
his 21st album as "a small record," something he did more as a labor of love
than as what he calls "chest-thumping arena-rock."
But "Trouble No More," released Tuesday, is one of the strongest efforts
in the career of rock fans' favorite Hoosier--a soulful collection of blues
and folk standards that attempt to make sense of turbulent times, from his
reworking of the anti-war anthem "To Washington," to his reading of "The End
of the World," popularized by Skeeter Davis, which takes on new meaning 40
years after it first hit the pop charts ("Why does the sun go on shining/Why
does the sea rush to shore/Don't they know it's the end of the world?").
"In most of these songs, it's a case of 'Please, can we have some
mercy?'" Mellencamp says. As such, it is one of the most effective rock
albums released in the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.
I spoke to the singer-songwriter by phone from New York shortly after he
appeared last week on "Good Morning America." (There is no tour planned to
support "Trouble No More," but he is considering a handful of smaller
theater gigs later in the summer.)
Q. As someone who refuses to accept the notion that rock 'n'
roll is mere entertainment, it was encouraging to see you join with bands
like R.E.M. and the Beastie Boys in floating "To Washington" on the Net
before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
A. First of all, none of those songs were going to be embraced by
any record company. They just can't do that anymore. Something like "Ohio"
[Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's song about the shootings at Kent State]
could never happen today, because the record companies and the radio
stations cannot afford to offend anyone. Even though some people inside
those businesses may feel [anti-war], it's not about their feelings or about
what's right or what's wrong.
I can assure you that when Neil Young and those guys put out protest
songs [in the '60s], there was adversity, but it was different: It wasn't
about money, it was about opinion. Now it's about, "We can't do this, we
can't offend the listener because we don't want to lose the sponsorship."
The record companies are corporations, and they can't afford to offend
people. That's why people who thought there should be some sort of uprising
on the not-to-go-to-war side, they can't do that.
Q. Well, there was a protest here in Chicago that shut down
Lake Shore Drive.
A. I just don't think that right now is a very good climate for
people to be exchanging ideas. It doesn't have to be, "I hate you because
you think this way and you hate me."
There was plenty of room for everybody's thoughts here. But comments
coming from high offices saying, "Yes, we have freedom of speech..." well,
sometimes you may have to pay a personal price. Like the poor girl in the
Dixie Chicks--that was absolutely wrong and incorrect that people are
breaking into her house and shooting guns. Wait a minute, hold on for a
second--that's just wrong!
Q. It's un-American.
A. Yes it is! It's wrong, and it's against the f---ing law!
Q. When you chose to cover "To Washington," which is most often
associated with Woody Guthrie, what was your thinking? That tune has such a
A. When I was researching this record, that song just kept
appearing by different artists. I kind of knew the song anyway, but it
appeared here on this CD and there on that one, and I kept hearing it over
I was fascinated by the fact that the song had been rewritten so many
times, whereas you can hear some songs that were recorded by different
artists and nary a word changed. For some reason this song kept changing,
and I just thought that in lieu of what's going on, if I'm going to record
the song, I shouldn't do the Carter Family version or the Woody Guthrie
version or the North Carolina Ramblers', I should do my own version.
Q. It sounded like you were having a heck of a good time
covering these songs.
A. My reward for this record is just the fun of making it. It's a
small record, and I don't anticipate much chest-thumping to be occurring. My
reward has already been received in being able to make this record.
Q. Is it daunting when you take on a song like "John the
Revelator"? So many great artists have covered it that it must seem
impossible to put your own stamp on it.
A. Quite honestly I kind of felt that way about every song on the
record. Some songs may not have been recorded by as many people, but when
you sit there, and you listen to Son House do "Death Letter," it's like,
"Man...!" I couldn't have made this record 15 years ago. I wouldn't have had
the know-how or the depth in my voice or the understanding of the lyrical
content or anything.
Q. You had to kind of grow into it?
A. Even though Robert Johnson was 24 years old when he made his
record, I don't think I could have done it. I just don't think I was mature
Q. What makes a song timeless? What makes it transcend the
A. I think a song has to get into a person's soul in one way or
another, be it as simple as a person sees themselves in a song, or they
intellectually can relate to it on a very personal front. Other than that,
you're dealing with pop music. I don't mind hearing pop songs from the '60s;
I still like hearing [Every Mother's Son's] "Come on Down to My Boat" when
it comes on the radio. But it's not a song that really means anything to me;
it's just my enjoyment. But when I hear "Highway 61," that album, I've been
listening to that record since it came out, and I still respond to it in the
Q. Generation Y is the largest generation of American kids
since the Baby Boomers--demographically, this includes your sons, Hud and
Speck, as well my 6-year-old daughter. Many sociologists say that this
generation views music differently: It's just another commodity to be
consumed to enhance their hip lifestyle. As a venerated rock elder, do you
think the music still has the power to affect people in the way that it did
when you first heard "Highway 61"?
A. It doesn't have the ability to affect a generation of people,
but I think that it does have the ability to affect individuals. Even that
being said, that's still a hell of an accomplishment: Not even to change
their minds, but to be able to put a new thought into somebody's mind. Music
is different than movies or even literature. Music is the most important
aspect of an individual's life. People who live without music--I don't know
how they do it. I'm shocked. I look at [my wife] Elaine's mother, who is
just a few years younger than me [he's 51], and I talk to her about
music--because she was at the very tail end of the Baby Boom generation--and
I say, "How can you not know that?" For me, it's like, "How can you live and
not know that or even want to know it?"
I've always been an indiscriminate music listener. Part of the problem is
that for so many people, it really wasn't about music--it was the beginning
of what you just said about being part of their hip lifestyle. "I like this
band, therefore I am like that band for the moment." It was the image they
bought into, the marketing of it, and not really so much what the song was
saying. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, I'm just saying that's what
happens. But I'm not a very discriminating listener; I'll listen to any f---ing
thing! I didn't think that I was snotty or cooler or whatever because I
liked whatever. And I still liked some dumb pop songs.
Q. Even a pop song can become something different, depending on
the context. When you cover "The End of the World," it sounds different from
any way I've heard it before.
A. I'll give you another good example: John Fogerty and Creedence
Clearwater Revival--critically those songs came out and were scoffed at. But
as time has gone on, they've taken on new importance. And the same with the
Doors. I remember being a kid and thinking, "I love that 'Touch Me' song"
and reading the reviews saying, "This is light bulls---!" But time has
corrected the moment's errors.
Hey, that was good! You should write that one down--"Time has corrected
the moment's errors." [Laughs]
Q. You're at a position in your career where you can pretty
much do whatever you want...
A. One would think! [Laughs]
Q. Was there a certain amount of resistance to you putting out
A. Not with "Trouble No More," since Columbia came to me and asked
me to do this record. What had happened is that I had played "Stones in My
Passway" at Madison Square Garden during a show, and I think they just went,
"Wow, we didn't know he can sing the blues! Let's see if he can do a whole
record of that."
But to answer your question, with most record companies, things are
pretty cookie-cutter-ish right now. It's hard to identify the players any
more just by the sound. When you do that--where all the drum sounds are the
same, the guitar sounds are the same, the production of the record is the
same--then you're depending on the song to break through and generally what
you have to have is somewhat of a novelty record. Sonically there's no
reason for you to be listening, because you've already heard that production
a million times. There's nothing original about it. Part of what we loved
about Creedence, for example, was his guitar sound--nobody else had that
country-ish, bayou-ish type of guitar going at the time, so it set him
apart. Artists were encouraged to be individualists back then, but now it's
not so much.
Q. Do you hear anything coming up that encourages you?
A. I really have disconnected! [Laughs] I hate to sound like
Popeye, but I only know what I know! I'm always looking for a new song that
will make me cry. If I thought there were hints of one being out there, I'd
listen, but knowing the climate of the music business, which is broken...
Look, the mold was created in the late '60s, and they pushed it on for
all these years, but now it needs to be reinvented. I think it will happen,
but I don't think it will be anything we'll be satisfied with. You can't go
backwards. You can't think that the solution to the problem is something
that happened 20 years ago. You can't say, "If record companies would only
give artists time to develop..."
If you look at my silly career, there were all those years of Johnny
Cougar and all that stuff. In today's world, that would have been where it
stopped: "This f---ing guy, he's not developing properly, he's only sold
this many records." But I was given the luxury of being treated somewhat as
an artist: "Well, you sold 50,000 records this time, and the next record
sold 150,000, so there's growth here. The songs are getting better, he's
learned how to write songs, and he's taking himself more seriously than he
used to." Because that was a big problem--not only were they not taking me
seriously, I wasn't!
Q. That's not so bad when you're 22 years old.
A. Damn straight! [Laughs] I was just happy to walk into a
nightclub, spill out a couple of songs, and leave. I thought, "God damn!
Here I am in this RV, and we're driving around all over the country. Who
gives a s--- if anybody is at the shows or if the songs I'm singing are any
good? Can you believe I'm actually living this way?"
Q. It beats working.
A. That's right!
Q. I'd like to ask you one more question, this time about your
painting: What's the difference between working as a visual artist and
working as a recording artist?
A. It's exactly the same, but at the same time it's two totally
different things. Writing the songs and painting the pictures are similar;
you're by yourself and it's just you against yourself, battling yourself
about your ability or inability. Then you take your writing and let all
these other people mess around with it. You can just ruin a f---ing song,
and it can be a very honest mistake--all you have to do is put the wrong
drum beat on it, and you're screwed. You can battle, you can change guitar
parts or bass parts or add this or add that, but if you don't have that
element right... So you never really know. None of these songs are ever
completed, they're just abandoned.