OK, I’ll admit it. Face to face, John Mellencamp can be a little bit scary. He’ll deadlock his eyes on you, just daring you to ask a stupid question.
But as you’re quick to learn with Mellencamp, things aren’t always as they appear. Underneath that tough exterior, he’s got a quick, self-deprecating wit.
On his acting in the movie Falling From Grace: “I can’t act. I can slouch this way and slouch that way and talk while doing it.”
On his MTV dominance in the 1980s: “I think they had like two videos when they started — mine and Sting’s or something.”
And things are not as they might appear, either, on Freedom’s Road, Mellencamp’s first album of all new material in five years. With songs like “Our Country” and “The Americans,” the collection could be mistaken for a fist-pumping show of patriotic fervor. Listen closely to lines like “Freedom’s road must be under construction/Sometimes you wonder what kind of freedom they’re talking” and you’ll realize something else is at work here. Mellencamp is tapping into the discontent and fear that some Americans are feeling while the country is at war.
As demonstrated during a recent interview in Los Angeles with CMT Insider, Mellencamp isn’t afraid to jump into the heated debate about freedom, politics and personal responsibility.
CMT: As a songwriter, you’ve always had a very keen eye for writing about the reality of America, and this record to me almost seems like a state of the union of this moment. What got you thinking in those terms when you were writing these songs?
Mellencamp: It sounds funny, but I always try to keep an open mind about what I’m writing about. Sometimes I squeak my opinions in there, but generally I don’t. I try to be objective about things that I’m writing about. I don’t want the songs to come off preachy or anything, so I try to keep an open mind. I didn’t really know what the album was going to be about until I wrote “Ghost Towns Along the Highway.” You know, “Ghost Towns” works on a couple levels. When you first listen to it, you would think it’s a geographical thing about small towns and small villages disappearing. But if you go below that, it’s about us and kind of looking in the mirror and saying, “Hey, this is what I have done and the path that I have taken and the ghost towns in my soul.” So, I was very cognitive of trying to write on different levels. Sometimes I think people got it, and sometimes they didn’t.
That’s the beauty of music. It’s open to interpretation.
Well, it is as long as the interpretation is positive.
“Our Country” is such an optimistic song. I don’t know if “patriotic” is the word … but it’s such a positive song. What inspired that one?
A few years ago I was watching our president, and they asked him, “So how do you feel about the treatment that the Dixie Chicks have gotten?” And he was very smug about it, and he goes, “Well, that’s the price of freedom.”… That’s when I wrote that song. … It was just kind of trying to be open minded about this country. You know, “There’s room enough here for science to live/There’s enough room for religion to live.” It’s a big place. There’s enough room for a lot of ideas. There are too many people getting in the way of having a nice world by saying, “Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t have my kid in a school that says the Pledge of Allegiance. I can’t have my kid in a school that can’t pray. I can’t have my kid in a school that doesn’t teach creation.”
Isn’t our brain big enough to take in all this information and then let the individual make a decision about what the individual believes? If you hide information from people, don’t want people to see the Ten Commandments or don’t want people to hear about Darwin, aren’t we hiding things that we know from our future generations? I just think that that’s incorrect. That’s not the America that I believe in.
“The Americans,” “Someday” and even “Forgiveness” are songs about tolerance. Would you say the root of those songs is that we need more tolerance?
“The Americans” has been a bone of contention in my camp, anyway, because the song is basically how we describe ourselves in this kind of made-up version of what Southern people are like and what people from the Midwest are like. We’re not really like that, but we have this kind of made-up version of ourselves. And that’s what the song is about. The whole record is really kind of about going, “Here’s a mirror. Do you like what you see? Do you like the way that we’re presenting ourselves?” If you want a better world, it starts with that person inside that mirror — which is you — and that’s really what the whole album, I think, is addressing.
I want to ask you about one song I didn’t understand — the hidden track about the rodeo clown.
Now what didn’t you understand about that?
It seems on its face that it’s an anti-war song.
It is an anti-war song.
But I could not figure out who the rodeo clown was or who it was supposed to be.
The rodeo clown … it refers to it in the song as “she.” She is Lady Liberty. With freedom, there’s responsibility. The word “freedom” is not to be thrown around like other words that we throw around, like “love.” People say, “Well, it’s for freedom.” Well, I don’t know. Is it for freedom? I say in another song, “Sometimes you wonder what kind of freedom they’re talking.” Now, what kind of freedom have you got going here, man? Who’s really prospering from this freedom that you’re talking about? They’re pretty fast and loose with that word.
That “freedom” is often about pride.
Yeah, and I think that “freedom” is also about greed. As civilians, we always have to remember there’s always an agenda that we don’t know about.
In your musical career, you’ve always been very inclusive of bringing other people in to work with you, people you believed in.
Oh, I need all the help I can get! (laughs)
Little Big Town is on this record with you. How did you hook up with them? And what is it about them and their music that you like?
Oh, I thought Karen [Fairchild] was cute. (laughs) … No, I’m just kidding, although I do think she’s cute. But I think her husband [Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook] is a nice guy, too. Actually, I had heard them sing, and I thought, “Wow.” They opened up for me and did a few shows for me about a year and a-half ago when I was out playing, and they did really well. I kind of got to know them a little bit, and so when I started designing how this record was going to sound in my head, it was like, “OK, I’m going to have these kids do these background parts because I know that they’ll be able to deliver.” Forget country, forget rock. They’re just really a nice vocal group.
Do you think they’ll go on the road with you this year?
It’s in discussion. I want to try to put together something called the Freedom’s Road Show, which is kind of like this traveling carnival where I’ll come out and play, and then they’ll come out and be in my band for a little bit, and then they’ll play, and then maybe we’ll get Joan Baez to sing. I haven’t talked to anybody about any of this you know, I’m just kind of talking out loud.
I always thought of you as rock ‘n’ roll when I was younger. But, as I’ve gotten older, I began to appreciate your music on different levels. You’ve always had the instrumentation and the songwriting heart that country music has. Do you think your music has changed and now it fits in the country genre, or do you think the format has changed and it has just enveloped what you’ve always done?
Oh, I think country has changed tremendously. I think country has totally changed. Country music when I was a kid was Hank Williams. If you put Hank and Elvis together, there wasn’t that musical difference. But as the Beatles showed up and the English invasion, I think country music got pretty far away from rock ‘n’ roll.
Do you feel comfortable with your music being played on country radio? Do you think it’s a good fit?
I don’t really have thoughts like that. I just think if the song’s good, sing it. I don’t care who’s doing it. I don’t care if it’s a country act. I don’t care if it’s a rock act. If the song’s good, sing it. You know, when I was growing up, radio was a really a cool place to be. I could hear James Brown into Conway Twitty … into the Young Rascals into the Beatles … into the Rolling Stones into Johnny Cash. It was all the same radio station. To me, it was all music. You know, I’m an indiscriminate listener. I love all kinds of music from country to jazz to rock to folk. I have big ears. I love listening to music, and I’m always looking for somebody to make me break down and cry.