John Mellencamp spends an awful lot of time alone, painting. Not long ago, he went 35 days without leaving his Indiana compound, a stretch so lengthy that his 85-year-old dad told him he was worried. But whether he wants them or not, songs still come to him, as his strong, country-inflected new album, Sad Clowns and Hillbillies (made in collaboration with Carlene Carter), makes clear. "A voice in my head will go, 'OK, put your brush down and write these words down,' " he says. "And I'll be like, 'No, I don't want to fucking write a song.' Then the voice will go, 'You better write this down, you idiot.' Then I forget about it, and I find it and go, 'When did I write this?' It's a wonderful way of writing songs."
How would you define your relationship with the country-music world?
Hold it – how do the country people define their relationship with me? I was doing this long before they were doing it – Scarecrow, Big Daddy, Lonesome Jubilee. So I didn't go to country. They caught up with me. I hate to sound like Little Richard, when he kept going, "I invented rock & roll!" But if you ask Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney what inspired them, they'll tell you me.
You seemed to enjoy your recent CMT Crossroads show with Darius Rucker.
He was so excited. When someone is that ingratiating, it's hard to be a curmudgeon, though I tried. He made it easy. And I'm hard to work with.
Why are you hard to work with?
My opinion is hard to deal with. I remember arguing – not arguing, joking – with Arlo Guthrie about how to play "This Land Is Your Land" at a Woody event. He kept putting in these passing chords. I said, "Guthrie, your old man did not put those fucking chords in there." He goes, "That's the way I played it forever." I go, "I don't care." We ended up playing it my way.
You recently said that Woody Guthrie wouldn't get any attention today.
Well, yeah. He'd just be playing songs for friends. You think he would go somewhere? I just wrote a beautiful fucking [protest] song called "Easy Target." And nobody gave a fuck.
In that song you mention "Sucker Town." Are Trump voters suckers?
I don't know if it's just this guy. It's been discussed for years – a certain element of our country ...
Who vote against their interests?
They voted for Reagan, and in the town I live in, there would be Bush signs up in people's yards. I knew they couldn't afford to, you know, take him to dinner.
Some think that's racism at work.
Well, I was in New York, and I went on a date with a girl. We went to a movie called – you should go to this movie – Get Out. We walked out and we went, "How come black people hate us? They fuckin' hate our guts." And then we both agreed that, you know, they've got good reason! But it's really fun to go to the movies and be me. I sat down and the guy next to me goes, "Hey, John, you want some popcorn?" "Sure."
Speaking of dating, your new song "Sad Clowns" basically warns women to stay away from you.
As soon as I wrote that, I looked up and said, "Thanks, Ray." Because I know it's a Ray Davies song, like "Sunny Afternoon" – a self-deprecating song. I did 130 shows opening for the Kinks in the late Seventies, and I learned a lot. Though at the time, I said, "This is fucking horrible." Ray was rough on everybody. Him and his brother spitting on each other. Like, "Are you kidding me?" And then Ray wouldn't let us eat catering. We always had to go out to McDonald's or something.
You worked extensively with Stephen King on the musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. What did you guys have in common?
I'm a hypochondriac. Steve's a hypochondriac. "Steve, I can't possibly have sickle cell anemia. But I think I do." And he's always got some kind of ankle disease or some shit. But he explained it to me. He said, "Here's the thing, John. You and I make shit up for a living. When we have idle time on our hands, we turn it on ourselves and make shit up. You don't have sickle cell!"
Your friend Bob Dylan shouted you out in his MusiCares speech a couple of years back. What did that mean to you?
That wink and a nod was worth more than 50 Grammys. That came from Bob, that came from his heart. He didn't have to fucking say that. The girl I was with started crying. Bob doesn't like very many people.
What do you make of his standards albums?
They're great. Bob is always so far ahead of us. He's given me a lot of advice: "Go where they're not."
Are you ever going to quit smoking?
I'm smoking right now. It's been great for my voice. My engineer said, "You sound like somebody." It turned out to be Louis Armstrong. We A-B'd his voice against mine. And I was like, "Fuck, what's wrong with that?"