John Mellencamp has been a voice for the blue-collar American for three decades. His latest CD, Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits, includes 35 of his most popular songs and two new tracks. His country connections include a longtime friendship with Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson and a collaboration with Kenny Chesney on CMT Crossroads. Mellencamp is currently on the country singles chart with “What Say You,” a duet that appears on Travis Tritt’s latest album, My Honky Tonk History.
CMT News sat down with the forthright rock ’n’ roller before a recent concert performance to discuss his music, God and wasting time with interviews.
CMT: Tell us about your new single “Walk Tall.”
Mellencamp: “Walk Tall” really was written … you know, I heard Woody Guthrie say in some kind of documentary that it was important for him to write songs about people and try to make them feel good about themselves. He said, “I ain’t gonna write no more songs that would make anybody feel bad about themselves.” And I always kind of took that with me as a songwriter. I didn’t always do that, but in today’s world where there seems to be so much … I don’t know … fear and hatred toward each other, it seemed like, “If you can write an inspirational song, John, you should probably try to do it,” you know? So that’s where that came from. That’s how that song was written.
Do you consider yourself a positive person?
Me? I’m the gripiest guy in the world. Are you kidding me? Anybody that knows me, knows I’m a gripe. I’m old craggy-faced John Mellencamp.
But you try to inspire other people?
Yeah, so my personality doesn’t count anyway, you know? People don’t buy my records because of my personality. If they buy my records or like my records, they like the songs. I think the man behind the mask. … You know, “I’m Oz. Don’t pay no attention to the man behind the thing.” You know? So my personality, I don’t really think plays into it. Because a writer always should write to what he strives to be — not what he is.
Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits CD is out, and you’ll be touring soon. What is it like for you to look back on these 35 songs?
For me, I hear songs like the “Authority Song,” and I think, “How am I gonna play this song?” You know, I mean, I haven’t played that song for 10 years. … I wrote it when I was in my 20s. And it has this rhythm — da-da-da-da-da — and it’s like, I can’t play that anymore. It’s too silly. But the message is still clear, you know, so we have to go in, and we have to rearrange these songs so that they present themselves in a more grown-up, I guess, way … so that I don’t feel silly out there playing them. You know, I can’t go out and just be a jukebox of my material.
But the thing that was interesting to me was that when we put all these songs together, every one of those — except for maybe two — had videos with them. And for a guy who really didn’t want to make videos, I sure made a hell of a lot of them. … I must have made 50 videos in my life — at least! And, wow, you think about the dough that I spent on those videos, I should have just kept the money, and I could have been retired.
A lot of artists say that a greatest hits album is the easiest album to do.
It’s the hardest album I’ve ever made.
It’s easier to write a new song than it is to have to go in and … after you’ve made something … and go in and remake it. I have to reinvent each one of these songs. And sometimes you don’t want to do it. It’s like how am I gonna play “Hurts So Good”? I wrote that song when I was a kid. How am I gonna a play that now? I haven’t even touched that song in the rehearsal room, so maybe I can’t play it, I don’t know.
Tell us about the other new track, “Thank You.”
It’s another attempt at writing an inspirational song. It has a lot in common with the feeling of “Pink Houses” or something like that. You know, I’ve written hundreds of songs, but I only really ever wrote four of ’em. I mean, I write the same four songs 4,000 times. You know, I got about four topics I can deal with, and then anything other than that and I’m lost. I’m not a very good love song writer. I have one love song on the record, and when it comes on, I want to burn the clothes I have on, because it’s so silly.
Which one is that?
(Sings “This Time”) This time I think, oh … I want to shoot myself. But you know, it was written in 1977. That was a long time ago.
Well, are there any songs that do just the opposite? Songs you’re really proud of?
I have been very fortunate to have a lot of records that people recognize. And even more fortunate that even three or four of them were more than pop songs, more than just noise in the air to occupy radio for a moment — songs that somehow were able to get inside people’s imaginations and become part of their life, if you will. (knocks on his own head) So, you know, a lot of guys have done that, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few of them. So when I hear those songs and like when I played “Pink Houses” tonight, people respond to that song. I have a song called “Small Town” that people respond to. You know, I’ve been lucky.
What kind of satisfaction do you get out of that response?
I don’t really think of such things, as that. … I never really judge what I do by the applause I get. I always judge what I do by the way I feel while I’m doing it. If I feel like I did a good job and get a good response, then that’s great. But last year at Farm Aid, I did a song called “To Washington,” which was a very big anti-war song that I wrote. And the war had really just started blazing, and I got booed for it. I played it great. I sang it great, but you know, some people in Columbus, Ohio that night didn’t want to hear about any anti-war stuff.
You know, I’m against people killing other people. God is, too, I think. I hate to drag Him into it. But it is one of the big Commandments. You heard that joke, right, about Moses coming down off the hill? He says, “Well, I got some good news — and I got some bad news for you. I got Him down to 10, but adultery’s still on there.” (laughs) But killin’ is still on there, too. So, I’m against people killing each other, particularly for money. For any reason, really, but money seems to anger me quite a bit. But I’m not a pacifist. Don’t think I’m a pacifist, because I’m not.
With that said, are you a spiritual person?
No, I’m … I don’t know. I’m a logical person. I’m very logical. I think I approach my life in a logical manner. I try to behave in a logical manner. I try to make sense out of what people say to me. I try to make personal judgments about what I’m going to do. I try to, but I’m also an emotional person. Some of the worst decisions I ever made in my life were emotional decisions when I was mad or too happy or too greedy or something. So it’s been a bad thing. But I’ve also written some of the best songs I’ve ever written, emotionally. You know, you don’t really write songs from a logical place. It’s all emotional. I try to write from an emotional point. If I try to write a song logically, it usually stinks.
In Nashville, writers often set writing appointments. How do you write your songs?
I don’t have writing appointments. (laughs) Nashville has a different way of doing things than the way I do them. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way Nashville does it. But that’s just not what I do. I would think it would be harder to sit there and sift through hundreds of songs that you might record than it would be to just write your own damn songs. You know, that’s what I do. But to have to sit there and listen to somebody else’s songs and see if you understand it and see if you can sing it and see if you can relate to it … too much monkey business for me.
Throughout your career, you’ve been involved in a lot of causes. (Farm Aid, Vote for Change, etc.) When did you first realize that your music could elevate social consciousness?
I don’t know. … When I first started out, I was strictly about lifestyle. What I did was about lifestyle. Songs like “Hurt So Good” … I was playing in bars. (A toilet flushes in next room) Time out! Now with all these damn questions, this thing [the television interview segment] better be more than three seconds long, or I’ll come and choke you.
We’ll use the interview in a variety of stories. Kind of spread it out.
Uh-huh. I sit here and do this interview and the f**king thing ends up being three seconds long. It’s like, ’Whoa, why the f**k did I sit around and talk for an hour and a half?
We so seldom get to talk to you, that’s why.
I don’t care as long as you put it on the radio.
OK, so getting back to elevating social consciousness …
When I started out, it was I was all lifestyle, very cavalier, young guy playing in night clubs, playing in bars, staying out all night. It was the ’70s, you know. Anything went. So I wrote songs like “Hurt So Good” because that’s what I saw people doing. I tried to be a voice for those bar flies and those guys and gals that were partying all night. There I was, you know, 24 years old and coming to your town in some bar. So that’s what I wrote about. I wrote about what I saw. … I had kind of written songs that I didn’t put on records because I thought, well, people don’t want this from me. So I would kind of disregard them. And they weren’t that good anyway. And then all of a sudden, I made a record called … I think it was the Uh-Huh record … and it had a couple of songs that edged up, and “Pink Houses” was on that record. And I was surprised how people responded to the song. Because it was like, “Hey, that’s the same guy that that sang ’Jack and Diane,'” and they still liked “Pink Houses.” It was surprising to me.
OK, we’re done with the interview. Was that so bad?
See, that threat scared you off.