BELMONT, Ind. -- John Cougar Mellencamp sat in the control room of his rehearsal studio, chain smoking Marlboros as he talked about his new album, 'Lonesome Jubilee.'
'People don't understand the process of making a record,' he said, shaking his head. 'It's amazing to think what we accomplished with 'Lonesome Jubilee.' This is the first record where I can say we had a vision and we connected with it. I try to tell people it's an accident sometimes because I don't wanna start telling them how hard it really is.'
As he talked, his band rehearsed determinedly in the next room, preparing for the current tour. 'We've written new arrangements for everything,' Mellencamp explained.
The sound on 'Lonesome Jubilee' is a departure from the straightforward rock that Mellencamp has become known for. The record smolders with a gutsy early American sound built around violin, accordion, steel guitar and country-style picking.
Mellencamp is excited about this development, which he sees as a natural outgrowth of his group's sensibilities.
'There are people around me who can do these things but have never been allowed to,' he said. 'Larry, the guy who's been playing guitar with me for 15 years, is an amazing country guitar player. He's never been allowed to do that on record.
'He goes down to the (American) Legion and plays in a country pick-up band. The guy that cuts your hair is on bass, the guy who'll sell you a lawn mower is playing drums.
'Lisa, the violin player, was added for the 'Scarecrow' tour to play on the acoustic version of 'Small Town.' She's a local here who is classically trained but played at a place called the Little Nashville Opry, and she was in the house band for all these country acts who would come through town.
'So with her and Larry being able to feel their oats, me thinking forget lead guitar parts and dramatic musical things, think country, think bluegrass, think New Orleans, think gypsy, that's pretty much why this record seems so authentic. Really, what we thought more than anything was cajun, that New Orleans type sound.'
Mellencamp's songwriting on 'Lonesome Jubilee' is as rich and mysterious as its instrumentation. After his stridently political look at the plight of the family farmer in the last album, 'Scarecrow,' this time Mellencamp has personalized his observations about suffering and downward mobility in rural America.
'Down and Out in Paradise,' 'Hard Times for an Honest Man' and 'Empty Hands' draw portraits of individuals left in turmoil from chasing the American dream. 'Paper in Fire' is a chilling indictment of the emptiness in contemporary lifestyles inspired by Mellencamp's exposure to the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.
Mellencamp makes no apologies for his bleak view of contemporary society. 'They sell us this bill of goods,' he said softly. 'You go to school, you get educated, you find a wife and you'll be happy. Well, that sounds pretty easy. We can all do that. But that's not happiness. I've done all of those things, I went to school, I got married, I had children.
'But the passion is within these things, not the surface that they tell us it is. In America we sell happiness as a very cheap commodity. Do this, do that, make money and you'll be a happy person.
'And it's not just me, my next door neighbor and friends, it's all the same. We perpetuate this misery we all live in. And why? We don't have to be that way. Which is why I put that Ecclesiastes thing in there. I'm not a religious person, but some of these things have hung around because they make good sense. Do onto others as you'd have them do onto you. I don't care who said that, it's a pretty good idea.'
Mellencamp doesn't consider himself an especially powerful figure in the rock 'n' roll hierarchy. He's happy being the biggest thing in Indiana, and his concerns for local problems reflect his own family history.
Mellencamp's great-great-grandfather, Johann Heinrich Mollenkamp, a German immigrant, settled farmland outside Seymour, Ind., in 1851. Mellencamp's grandfather was in third grade when his father's death necessitated the selling of the family farm.
'Lemme tell you how I think of myself,' he said. 'I will never, ever be any more than a footnote to Bruce Springsteen. I accept that. That's my lot in life. So what that does is to make me try not to be so important, to take myself so seriously. That's why I write songs making fun of myself, like 'Play Guitar.' Springsteen would never write a song like that.
'But also it makes me be a lot more honest in my songwriting. Bruce is a great songwriter and I admire what he does, but he's very grandiose. Knowing I'll never be more than a footnote it makes me look at what he does and try to go the other way.'
Being a footnote more often than not puts him in Springsteen's shadow.
'The reviews on this record have compared it to 'Nebraska,' which slays me,' he laughed, referring to Springsteen's 1982 solo acoustic album. 'I don't want people to think, well John is so serious now, he's just too serious.
'So I try not to do that, but I guess with 'Lonesome Jubilee' I have gotten a little too serious for some people.
'If you want to hear important music go listen to Bruce's records. I might be saying something about the human condition or whatever but he's gonna get all the credit. People don't wanna listen to a guy from Indiana anyway.'
Cougar's dream of scaling the heights of rock music began when he was a boy growing up in Seymour.
'I always had the fantasy to be a rock 'n' roller,' he said. 'I was always colorful, I enjoyed the attention that telling stories would bring as a child. I used to like to captivate people with stories, even lying like a son of a gun about them, just taking a story and making stuff up.
'That's how I figured out that if I could put these lies down on paper I'd really have something. And that's how my songwriting began. It wasn't very heartfelt, it's just what I thought would be interesting.'
After playing with several local bands, Mellencamp took a demo tape to New York and was signed by Tony DeFries, former manager to superstar David Bowie. DeFries arranged for MCA records to release an album, 'Chestnut Street Incident.' It wasn't until he saw a copy of the record that Mellencamp realized DeFries had changed his name to Johnny Cougar.
'I feel like having a nervous breakdown when I look back at that stuff,' Mellencamp said. 'But we're not the same people we were then. I was 22 years old. Back then I listened to every suggestion. I was thinking these people are in the music business and I'm not, I'd better pay attention. Some guy would throw off an offhanded comment and I would take it to heart, whether it be about songwriting, production, or image.
'Then one day I woke up and realized that listening to these people has gotten me nowhere, I'm further away from whatI wanted to do than I'd ever been. So that was pretty much when I decided to say drop me from your label, tell me to get the hell out of here, I don't need your suggestions anymore.
'I was disgusted with the whole thing, I had seen the music business for what it was and was disgusted with touring, with making records, with the record company executives.'
So he started all over again, lived in England for a while, then returned for another crack at the music business. 'John Cougar' (1979) and 'Nothing Matters and What If It Did?' (1981) got him off the ground, but 1982's 'American Fool,' yielded the hits 'Jack and Diane' and 'Hurts So Good,' making him one of the biggest artists of the fledgling decade.
At that point he was finally able to reclaim his own name. On the next album, 'Uh-Huh,' he became John Cougar Mellencamp. 'After I turned 30 I started to open my eyes to get past my adolescence,' he said. 'I realized that there was more to life than being in a band in a bar and chasing women, that was a big part of it for me at that time. I played in bars every night for four years and that's all I saw.
'The dances that were going on, and the behavior in the bars, that's where the name of the album, 'American Fool,' came from. I wasn't creating anything, I was just observing what was going on around me. It was foolish and 'Hurts So Good' was the perfect song for the bar.'
'That record got me out of the bars and I spent a year when I didn't have to go to the bar every night, and I was surrounded by my family, my wife and my daughter and I realized that what I'd been living was not real at all.
'I never understood that the lyrics and music were supposed to work together before. It has to work together, I realized that making the 'Uh Huh' record.'
Songwriting for Mellencamp also has its therapeutic side.
'Being able to write songs, you kind of become like your own psychiatrist,' he said. 'Songwriting has always saved me 50 bucks an hour. I don't have to go to the shrink ... All I have to do is listen to my songs two years later and it sort of points out how I was feeling at the time.
'As a songwriter I feel very confident now, whereas a few years ago I was still trying to find out what the hell I was doing. You give anybody the opportunity to do something for 15 years, wehther it be writing, teaching, whatever, they oughtta be good at it after 15 years if they have any interest in it at all.'
At 36, Mellencamp is comfortable writing for his peers, which is the only audience he feels understands him. 'I think it's foolish to see some people up on stage where the guy is 42 years old and the audience is 15,' he said. 'I couldn't do that, I'd feel so silly that I just couldn't stand it. I wouldn't be able to do it. I only care to relate to what I guess would be adults and if kids can get into it, fine.
'But it's not really aimed at them. To be honest, rock 'n' roll is not really for them anyway. It's our music. I grew up when it was invented, when it was young, it's our music. It's not teenagers' music. No matter how much they think they invented Motley Crue, they didn't.
'Heart rock 'n' roll, honest rock 'n' roll as an art belongs to us. I hope that I'm kind of cultivating that for another generation to be able to pick up on this side of it, and when they get older, maybe they'll evolve into the poets of the '90s,' he said.
'Maybe they'll do a better job than me and (Tom) Petty and Springsteen and the rest of us jokers, because by then we'll be on the 'Happy Together' tour.'