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Q&A: John Mellencamp

The king of the heartland returns with renewed optimism, a new album and a Chevy ad

John Mellencamp, Farm Aid, The Tweeter Center

John Mellencamp performs at Farm Aid on September 30, 2006 at The Tweeter Center in Camden, New Jersey on September 30, 2006.

Jeff Fusco/Getty

IALWAYS DO THE SAME THING,” says John Mellencamp, comparing himself to Sisyphus. “I never get to the top — I just keep rolling that rock. I get knocked down, I dust myself off and I start over again.” This time, Mellencamp is not only bouncing back from the red-state backlash he endured as an early critic of President Bush’s war agenda but also a full decade of making records that even he considers subpar. “I tried — a little,” he says. Though he says that long ago he lost faith in the record biz, a re-cent reunion with his old label, Universal, has re-energized him. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to spend a year and a half making a record for no one to hear,'” he says from his home in Bloomington, Indiana. “I’m a songwriter and I want to get my message out, but I didn’t feel like there was an avenue to do that.” That avenue was finally provided by Chevrolet, whose ads endlessly pump his single “Our Country.” Mellencamp hopes it will provide a gateway to his new album, Freedom’s Road, which mixes Sixties garage rock and Woody Guthrie plain talk with a more hopeful take on American life. (The harsh political criticism comes on the album’s hidden track, “Rodeo Clown.”) “I tried to make a positive statement,” he says. “As opposed to bitter and angry.”

How much shit have you taken for selling “Our Country” to Chevrolet?
First of all, the thought that an album can be tainted because of over-exposure is crazy. There’s certain people who will say, “I can’t believe Mellencamp’s done that!” But at the time I was making this record, Tom Petty had just put out a beautiful record, you know?

Yeah, “Saving Grace” is one of his best songs ever.
It’s unbelievable! Do you know how many times I heard that song on the radio?

Zero?
Nobody played the fucking record! So Chevrolet is talking to me, and I ask, “How many times are you going to play this commercial?” They said, “You’ll have more airplay than on any record you’ve ever had.” I couldn’t believe it. I believe it now.

What about the moral dilemma? In the past, you’ve been adamant that artists should not license their songs.
I was outspoken about it. But times have changed. Dylan’s selling his songs. If nobody’s playing Petty’s record, why the fuck would they play mine?

“Our Country” borrows a lot from Woody Guthrie.
Are you kidding me? I would steal, borrow, beg, learn and practice Woody’s songs. The same goes for the Sixties music that this record is so based around: “How’d they get that guitar echo on all those old San Francisco records?” Instead of doing some bullshit digital imitation of it, we bought the echo unit. The way I look at it, anything that I’ve ever seen or heard, I own. It’s not the Byrds’ sound, it’s my sound. That’s what Picasso did, and that’s what Dylan did.

Your song “Rural Route” is about a meth addict who rapes and kills a young girl. Was that based on a true story?
My mom called me a couple of years ago and said a dead little girl had been found behind their house, a couple of acres away. That was loosely the story, and I embellished it a bit. It’s about methamphetamines and the poor kids who get addicted to this stuff. As it says in the song, let’s show some forgiveness for this.

To me, it’s saying that we should show mercy toward the perpetrator.
It is. It absolutely is. It has to be hell to be addicted to that stuff.

Do you have a big record collection?
It’s huge! When I was a kid I fuckin’ sold my clothes for records. “I’ll trade you my tennis shoes for your Terry Reed album.” Half of the 13,000 songs on my iPod I transferred on this TEAC machine from vinyl to digital to the iPod.

Have your boys turned you on to anything?
Their iPods are wacky. The older Speck gets [age eleven], the more Slayer comes out of his iPod. But he’s also learning how to play guitar. He’s serious — he said he wants to be as good as Jimi Hendrix. I told him that was a tall order, so he said he wants to at least be as good as John Mayer [laughs]. The other day, both kids were on You Tube watching James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show. How good was that?

When you were fourteen, you were singing James Brown songs.
Fuck, yeah! I was in a band called Crepe Soul. We were a James Brown jukebox. We had the short pants like James had, the high-waisted jackets and the thick-and-thin socks — the whole bit. It was 1966 and we played everywhere. I was making thirty-six bucks a night. It was sweet.

Did you ever meet JB?
I did the Tom Snyder show in 1978. I was just starting out, and we sucked a big dick, and we were on the show with James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Ali was the sweetest guy, but James was angry. I’m not kidding you, he scared me to death. He was having a fit in the hallway, yelling about “goddamn fuckin’ whitey.” When I heard him talk, though, I thought, “Yeah, fuck white people!”

Is George Bush the “devil” you sing about on “Freedom’s Road”?
No, not really.

But he’s the “Rodeo Clown,” right?
There’s no question about that.

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