'Trouble' on mind of heartland troubadour


June 8, 2003



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 fascinating history.

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 and 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 enough.

Q. What makes a song timeless? What makes it transcend the ages?

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 same way.

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 this record?

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.