NASHVILLE SKYLINE: John Mellencamp Rides Freedom’s Road

New CD Explores His Roots Rock Approach to American Values

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I have always liked John Mellencamp ever since I first heard the story of his sparks cage escapades. What it was, he and his high school buddies in Indiana would go to the welding shop and build a big steel ball — with a seat inside and a little door that closed.

What they would do was that they would load it into the bed of a pickup truck — with the tailgate down — and then one guy would get inside the ball and strap himself into the seat. Then they would take off on a country road and get up to about 60 miles per hour and then a couple of guys in the truck bed would push the big steel ball out the back of the truck onto the highway.

Well, you can imagine what commenced. Sparks flying everywhere and a hell of a ride for the guy inside that contraption. So Mellencamp had to be a pretty cool guy. That was even before I heard his music. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top did the same ball of sparks thing as a teenager and wrote the song “Master of Sparks” about it. Cool guys think alike.

Mellencamp had a tough childhood but persevered playing in bands and moved to New York City at age 24, when he had the misfortune to link up with David Bowie’s manager, who arranged to release Mellencamp’s first album under the name “Johnny Cougar” and to try to position him as a glam rocker. Well, you can imagine the backlash in the rock world. At the time, I was working for Rolling Stone. We wouldn’t even take calls from Johnny Cougar’s publicist.

But Mellencamp has fought through to build a substantial career and has become a well-respected champion of heartland music with such anthemic songs as “Jack and Diane” (which was so influential on such younger artists as Kenny Chesney). He also joined Willie Nelson and Neil Young as pioneers in forming and nurturing the Farm Aid movement and organization.

Now comes his new CD, Freedom’s Road. Set for release on Jan. 23, it’s his first album of new music since 2003′s Trouble No More. The album’s highlighted song is “Our Country,” which has also been a Chevy commercial. Well, that’s OK with me. Bob Seger was a Chevy commercial for a hundred years or so. And that’s OK with me. And I think Mellencamp’s song is a pretty sturdy heartland values song, if a bit obvious. If you’ve missed it on TV, here are the entire lyrics. Judge it for yourself:

Well, I can stand beside
Ideals I think are right
And I can stand beside
The idea to stand and fight
I do believe
There’s a dream for everyone
This is our country

There’s room enough here
For science to live
And there’s room enough here
For religion to forgive
And try to understand
All the people of this land
This is our country

From the east coast
To the west coast
Down the Dixie Highway
Back home
This is our country

That poverty could be
Just another ugly thing
And bigotry would be
Seen only as obscene
And the ones that run this land
Help the poor and common man
This is our country

From the east coast
To the west coast
Down the Dixie Highway
Back home
This is our country

The dream is still alive
Some day it will come true
And this country it belongs
To folks like me and you
So let the voice of freedom
Sing out through this land
This is our country

From the east coast
To the west coast
Down the Dixie Highway
Back home
This is our country

Nothing wrong with that, as far as I can tell.

The song, naturally, has inspired parodies. The most effective is an affectionate send-up by Rick Moranis that works on more than one level. Listen to it on his Web site (his first and last names followed by dot com). He prefaces the lyrics with this note:

Dear Friends,

Like many Americans, and other resident alien Canadians, I’ve been watching those Chevy Silverado truck commercials play over and over and over again during NFL games. And it’s made me realize not only how much I love America, but how much I’d love my truck, if I had one.

Then it occurred to me: Chevy really is on to something with these commercials. America isn’t just a great country. America is a great truck.

Read the lyrics to “America, My Truck”:

America got muscle
She tough and strong like steel
America can climb so high
She never lose her feel

America pull more than her weight
Plow through anything get in the way
America the workhorse of the world
And the very best at play

But America can spin her wheels
And sometimes she get stuck
I love America
America’s my truck.

America got power
Never let her ever run right outta gas
Headlights shine to the future
Burnin’ tracks, leavin’ dust in the past

America she love football
She drops her tail so sweet
It’s the Fourth of July, there’s fire in the sky
So save me a power seat

But America can stall and spin
On patches of bad luck
I love America
America’s my truck

No, Lincoln didn’t drive no Lincoln
And Rosa just rode a bus
And Martin had a dream
Nixon liked to scheme
Try to make the country a better place for us

Now Jack and brother Bobby, they had a vision
So Neil took a walk on the moon
And Louis still wails
Right through Louisiana gales
You can’t stop no Dixieland tune

But America needs a tune-up
All those shocks and brakes, the way she steers
Some tender loving care, cleaner water, fresher air
Keep on course for a couple more years

But America, needs more than an overhaul
Ain’t been the same since that day she was struck
I love American
But with this much wear and tear I can
And an interest rate that’s fair I can
Only in America can I
Get me a brand new truck
I love America,
My brand new truck

On Mellencamp’s Freedom’s Road, Joan Baez, the high priestess of the ’60 folk movement, joins him on the song “Jim Crow.” And Little Big Town, who have toured with Mellencamp, also drop in to add harmonies on “Our Country.” The songs, ranging from “Freedom’s Road” to “Ghost Towns Along the Highway” to “The Americans,” address the current American condition. It’s well worth your attention.

This amounts to a very solid, extremely thoughtful album, with a deep American roots underpinning. It is by no means a political album, but it is a very serious civic and social album in its devotion to America and to democracy. And to what we remember as American ideals.