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But ain't that America

Continuing to eschew rock's corporate side, John Mellencamp makes an album of American roots music -- because it just feels right.

August 10, 2003|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

In a way, it took death to revivify John Mellencamp's recording career.

Only a year ago, shortly after he'd turned 50, the Indiana rocker had parted ways with Columbia Records after two albums that had sold respectably, about a half-million copies each, but far from the multiplatinum heights he had reached in the mid-'80s with his hit-laden "Scarecrow" and "American Fool" albums.

He'd hit a point in his life where he would have been perfectly happy to lock the door on the home studio where he'd recorded 19 albums since 1976 and focus his energies on developing a stage musical he'd been discussing with horror meister Stephen King, or devoting himself to the painting he's engaged in as a sidelight or any number of extra-musical interests.

Then a close friend, Billboard editor in chief Timothy White, died of a heart attack. During a subsequent benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for White's widow and children, Mellencamp sang blues man Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," which had been a favorite of White's, then joined in an all-star rendering of the gospel number "This Train Is Bound for Glory" in bidding their friend farewell.

Much to Mellencamp's astonishment, he soon got a call from Don Ienner, then president of Columbia, asking if he'd consider making an album of such songs, excavated from the treasure trove of American roots music: blues, folk, country, gospel, Tin Pan Alley. It was the kind of project musicians reserve for their "When I Rule the World" list of things to do.

"If I had gone to them and said, 'This is what I'm doing ...,' they would have tried to talk me out of it," Mellencamp says, leaning back in a neo-Craftsman wooden chair in the small courtyard outside his hotel suite while his wife of 10 years, Elaine, strolls off for a bite of lunch.

Like his attire this day -- blue jeans with patches on the seat and knees, a loose-fitting gray sweater, no shoes -- the result of that exec's surprise invitation, Mellencamp's new "Trouble No More" album, is all about what feels right, nothing about what's hip.

It was not only White's death but also that of a longtime member of his entourage and then loss of the paternal grandmother who had raised him, all within 18 months, that emphasized for him what seemed to be the pointlessness of continuing to try to play to the whims of an ever-changing music business.

The idea that became the "Trouble No More" album allowed him to shelve that quandary -- if only temporarily. Although it was apparently the only thing that could lure Mellencamp back into a recording studio, "Trouble No More" may, in fact, represent the swan song for a musician who still says: "I don't see what the point of making another record is right now."

"The commercialization of music kind of makes my skin crawl," he says, dragging on a cigarette. "The idea of dissent and rebellion [in pop music] is no longer anywhere to be seen. The reasons I got into the music business have long ago been lost.

"Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that people can sell records. I'm not against that at all. But the music one would have to make to do that," he says, his face flattening into a grimace, "it makes me feel creepy."

Re-creations, not just 'covers'

That frustration with the business side of music might just be what gives "Trouble No More" much of its bite. In one sense, it's a tribute to music made before corporations took over. It's filled with musically and emotionally raw, often scorching performances of largely obscure songs, Mellencamp's craggy, remarkably appropriate Midwestern twang and Andy York's scratchy slide guitar work at the center.

The album opens with the fierce "Stones in My Passway," moving on through, among others, Son House's harrowing "Death Letter Blues," Woody Guthrie's defiant "Johnny Hart," a haunting treatment of Hoagy Carmichael-Paul Francis Webster's usually comic "Baltimore Oriole," Lucinda Williams' ebullient "Lafayette" and a nervy deconstruction of Skeeter Davis' 1963 fatalistic pop-country hit "The End of the World."

"The decision was made early on that we weren't just going to go in and quickly record these songs, because that would have just been a cover record, and a cover record of the worst kind -- some pale, cheap imitation of something that had gone before," Mellencamp says. "We had to find a way to make these songs feel like they were ours. We've played some of these songs hundreds of times, so if the record is successful on any level, it's because the musicians actually got their heads around the songs."

Indeed, "Trouble" has elicited some of the most enthusiastic reviews of a recording career that began with a 1976 debut album that introduced Mellencamp to the pop world as leather-jacketed rebel rocker Johnny Cougar.

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