Feature: John Mellencamp

By GARY GRAFF  |  June 19, 2003 at 1:12 PM
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DETROIT, June 19 (UPI) -- For his new album, veteran rocker John Mellencamp decided to dip into something old.

"Trouble No More," the Indiana singer-songwriter's 18th release, sports a dozen folk, blues and country songs written or made famous by artists such as Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Son House, Howlin' Wolf and others. Mellencamp and his band recorded the songs in Feb. 10-27 at his Belmont Mall Studios in southern Illinois.

"I made the decision to try to do songs by great American songwriters or great American blues guys, but not do something like Woody Guthrie's `This Land is Your Land' or things that were too obvious," Mellencamp, 52, explained by telephone from his home near Bloomington, Ind., where he lives with his third wife, model Elaine Irwin, and their two young sons.

"I wanted to do songs that weren't so well-known. I didn't want to be too obvious, but at the same time I didn't want to be too obscure."

The seeds for "Trouble No More" -- which has been No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Blues chart since its June 3 release -- were sown at last fall's pair of tribute concerts to the late Billboard magazine editor Timothy White, a close friend of Mellencamp's. He performed Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" at the shows, and afterwards executives at Columbia Records -- a label Mellencamp had, ironically, left after his 2001 album "Cuttin' Heads" -- approached him about doing an entire album of such material.

"In today's world, that's a real opportunity because as long as I've been making records, my contracts said you have to record 10 original songs -- that was just part of the deal," Mellencamp said. "Traditionally, record companies don't want you to do cover songs.

"I said `Oh, you want me to do a whole record of this stuff? I don't know what I can do, but I'll start researching it.' That was my response."

With help from friends, colleagues and archivists at the label and the Smithsonian Institution, Mellencamp considered hundreds of songs for the project -- a process he says was as interesting as actually recording the material.

"I thought I knew a lot about this kind of music, but I didn't," Mellencamp said with a laugh. "You start digging into it, and you don't know anything."

Amidst a number of decades-old selections -- the traditional "John the Revelator," Son House's "Death Letter," Kansas Joe McCoy's "Joliet Bound," Willie Dixon's "Down in the Bottom" -- Mellencamp did wind up with one contemporary song, Lucinda Williams' "Lafayette." He also wrote new lyrics to two songs, the traditional "Diamond Joe" and "To Washington."

His version of the latter, which was written in 1902 and has been recorded by Guthrie and the Carter Family, was posted earlier this year on Mellencamp's web site and courted some controversy because of its pointed lyrics about the 2000 U.S. presidential election and American foreign policy. But Mellencamp was unruffled.

"The song was always re-written about a timely thing in the country, or a story. That's part of its tradition," he explains. "If anybody knows anything about my records, I've said a lot more scathing things about American that I've said in that song.

"All I did was report the weather. Everything in that song is pretty much out of a newspaper. I didn't make any of that up. I didn't feel like I put any of my bias in there."

Mellencamp currently has no plans to tour in support of "Trouble No More," but he said he may consider a few small-venue shows where he would "just do this material alone" rather than his established hits. For now, however, he hopes the album can educate listeners about forms of American music he feels have become homogenized over the years.

"White people have really wrecked the blues, `cause they boiled it down to the lowest common denominator, which was 16-bar boogie," he explains. "There's nothing worse than that. That's part of what happens in a blues song and in some of these folks songs, but there's other things going on, too, that somehow over the years just got omitted.

"I was very aware of that and made the musicians in my band very aware of that. We avoided it like the plague."

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