The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses his career and latest album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.
Acclaimed Musician John Mellencamp
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with John Mellencamp. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s known for creating music that gives voice to the heartland experience. His biggest hits include “Jack & Diane” and “Hurt So Good”.
He’s also a humanitarian. He organized the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. His latest project is called “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” and he joins us to discuss the project and so much more, I suspect.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with John Mellencamp coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: This guy really needs no introduction. His latest project is called “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies”. It marks his 23rd full-length album over the course of a remarkable career. Before our conversation, here now some of the video for “Easy Target” from John Mellencamp.
Tavis: So I was waiting to see the other night at the Greek Theater here in L.A. whether or not you were going to do this song. I’m watching you and the band the entire concert except on this one song because I know the lyrics so well. You gave us this video back in January when you first did this. We premiered this video on this program. So I know the lyrics and we just saw some of them on the screen.
I wanted to watch the audience as you performed this song, overwhelmingly white audience, to see how they responded to this song. I was so relieved when they got into this song and, at the end, the applause on this was rapturous, as you recall, in that audience. Those are some tough lyrics and I didn’t know how the audience was going to swallow that.
John Mellencamp: Well, I got better news for you. We’ve done like 10 or 12 shows now and I’ve done that song every night, and every night you can hear a pin drop and every night there’s certain lines and certain audiences where I talk about Black Lives Matter, who we trying to kid? And the places erupted.
So there are people paying attention, you know, not just to the song, but to the climate of America. But the best line in that whole song is “Our country’s broken heart”.
Tavis: “Our country’s broken heart”, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, and at the end, the audience — you can tell by the spirit, the applause, you can feel the weight of that in the audience. I’m sitting in the audience the other night watching this and you can feel the audience just grasp that line and grab hold to it as you uttered it.
Mellencamp: Yeah, and I can feel it onstage.
Tavis: You can feel it too?
Mellencamp: I can feel it onstage.
Tavis: Tell me why you wrote this song.
Mellencamp: Well, you know, race has always been a vernacular in a lot of my records for years, you know. It all started when I was a kid being in a soul band, in an interracial band in 1965, 1966, and it was surprising to me.
I was like, whoa, wait a minute. I was in a band and I sang and then this other kid sang and they loved us. I was like 14. He was 17, and they loved it, but when we walked offstage, they didn’t love him so much.
It was confusing to me because I thought, wait a minute. You guys were just screaming and yelling and loving this guy and now that we’re offstage on a break — you know, when you’re in a band like that, you do four sets a night and you have like 15 minutes. You had to go outside.
I learned about it real early, you know, and it was just like, wow, there really is a lot of hate for your skin being a little blacker than mine [laugh]. I don’t get it. I never did get it.
Tavis: Where did the soul come from in your music? The one thing that your fans know — and you can’t go to a Mellencamp concert without feeling this — you’re a drummer, That beat, man, that beat drives everything on that stage.
Mellencamp: I’m digging them drums!
Tavis: I’m digging them drums. I love…[laugh].
Mellencamp: I’m digging them drums!
Tavis: Where did you get all that soul from growing up in Indiana? We’re two Indiana boys, but where’d you get all that soul from growing up in Indiana?
Mellencamp: Okay, okay. My great-grandmother’s Black [laugh]. There you go. Now you got it [laugh]!
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mellencamp: No, no.
Tavis: Is that a true story?
Mellencamp: My grandfather came over from Germany and he married a Black gal. She taught him how to speak English, you know.
Tavis: So you got it honestly.
Mellencamp: Well, you think this nose just grew [laugh]?
Tavis: That explains it, man. All this time, I didn’t know. Now I know where you got it. Since we’re talking about that, what is it about that — you describe it. You’re the musician here. What is it about that heavy drumbeat that is at the backbeat of all of your stuff?
Mellencamp: Well, if you examine music, people — particularly musicians — they had the idea, oh, I know what they’re doing. I got it. And I learned this from being in a cover band. Let’s play this song. You name the song. You know, any Smoky Robinson song.
Oh, yeah, I got that part. I know what he’s doing. No, you don’t know what he’s doing. You think you know what he’s doing. You have a vague notion of what he’s doing, but you don’t really know what the guy on the record’s doing.
So let’s learn what the guy on the record is really doing and play it that way. So that way, we are learning how this works. What I discovered is that those old Motown records, if you walk away from those Motown records and just kind of listen, what do you hear? You hear the vocal, you hear the drums and you hear the tambourine, and that’s it.
Back in the 80s and the 70s when I first started making records, it was like turn everything down except the vocals, tambourines and drums [laugh]. You know, it turned out to be correct. I mean, to this day, you listen to a Motown record, you hear the [drumbeats]. That’s what you hear and you hear, you know, somebody singing.
Tavis: It works. I had not heard Carlene Carter in person until I saw her the other night. She’s pretty amazing.
Mellencamp: She’s really amazing. She’s really amazing. You know, she has a thing that she does and she got that from her mother.
Tavis: June Carter Cash, right.
Mellencamp: She got that from her mother and, you know, she’s part of the Carter family heritage. Is that the right word? Heritage?
Tavis: Mm-hmm, heritage, yeah.
Mellencamp. Heritage, yeah. So she’s grown up with that. As long as she’s in that box, there’s nobody better. She’s fantastic and that box is big and wide, so there’s a lot of things that gal can do. She has a really wonderful spirit and a really nice girl. Her and I have never even had a cross word. You know me. I can have a cross word in an elevator by myself [laugh].
Tavis: I’m glad we haven’t had one all these years. Let’s keep it that way [laugh]. When you’ve been doing records for this many years, what’s the challenge to doing stuff that’s new and different? Because if you wanted to repeat the stuff you’ve done before, that’s pretty easy to do. What’s the challenge to doing stuff that’s new and different 25 albums in?
Mellencamp: Well, here’s the thing. About 1988, I decided that I needed to start living an artist’s life and not really a rock band life. Because I had turned into a competitive guy that I didn’t like. How come my record didn’t come in higher? Why aren’t we selling more tickets? Those became the questions in my vernacular that I didn’t like.
I became a person I didn’t like, so I decided at that point to start living an artist’s life which means you create something every day. Every day, I’m making something. While you’re lounging around here on this big soft chair, laughing and talking, I am…
Tavis: You’re writing.
Mellencamp: I’m writing or I’m painting or I’m building something in Indiana by myself, isolated. But what that does, it opens your brain up to the muse. I know that sounds crazy. I know it does, but your brain becomes open to suggestion a lot more rapidly than it’s like, oh, now I’ve got to write, which was what I did as a kid. Oh, I’ve got to write. It’s like starting from scratch.
I’m never starting from scratch. I’m always in it. I am always in it. There’s always like, oh, that would make a great painting. Oh, those words are great. I’m gonna steal those words. You know, if it’s out there, it’s mine, it’s mine. If I see somebody do something in a movie, it’s mine.
Tavis: You were telling me about Sydney Poitier a moment ago. Tell me that story. Tell me that story again.
Mellencamp: There’s a part where the drummer was [drumbeats]. In “Raisin in the Sun”, Sydney Poitier raises his arms and goes, “Man, I’m digging them drums!” And in the middle of my show, what did I do?
Tavis: You did it. “I’m digging them drums!” [laugh]
Mellencamp: “I’m digging them drums!” And I try to say it as much like him, “I’m digging them drums!”, in the way he said it and the way he twisted his fists. It was great. So if it’s out there, it’s mine. Hey, man, you put it out there, it goes out into the atmosphere, comes into my head, into my filter, and then I filter it out.
Sometimes it’s exactly like what I saw and sometimes it’s so different, but I’m open. I am open to the muse. So I’m always writing, I’m always painting, and it’s a great way to live, man. And the best thing is I don’t give a [bleep] if anybody likes it. When you’re young, you go, oh, they like me. It’s like I don’t care now. And guess what happened. When you stop caring…
Tavis: They like you more [laugh].
Mellencamp: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I was about to ask what the benefit was. I think you just answered it now, John. I was about to ask what the benefit was of getting out of that space where you’re worried about ticket sales and worried about album sales and worried about — but I think you’ve answered that now.
Mellencamp: Yeah. I wrote a song called “Pop Singer”. I played it last…
Tavis: I loved it. You played it at the Greek and the audience loves it. Before you go further, you know what’s cool about your stuff? What’s cool about seeing you or somebody like James Taylor, who I love, is your fans adore you. They show up in droves to see you, but they know the words to all of your songs.
And when you heard that “Pop Singer” — I mean, you’re on the stage, so you can’t really feel this the way we feel it. But in the audience, I’m looking around and everybody, thousands of folk, know these words and they’re lifting you to like higher heights, it seems to me, because they’re singing right back to you.
Mellencamp: And this is the first tour that I have played “Pop Singer” since I wrote it in 1988. Because at first, you know, I was chastised for the song. Mellencamp is biting the hand that feeds him, you know. He’s written all these pop songs and now he’s saying — the critics tore me apart. But at this point, it’s like, no, it’s still true. This is not what I want to do.
So in 1988, I quit. I didn’t tell anybody I quit, but I took three years off and I painted and I tried to live a respectful Midwestern life. And then I went back to work, married Elaine, went back to work and then I had a heart attack and took three more years off.
So at the top of my career, six years just went. Nobody can stand six years, so that’s why last night when people sing these songs back to me, it’s still kind of a surprise. Even though I didn’t write songs for people to sing along with, the fact that they do it is, you’re right, it’s uplifting.
Tavis: You know, as many times as I’ve seen you, I felt something different the other night maybe because I’m getting older, but it took me back to when I first met you in Bloomington as a student when I was there years ago and just run into you on the square and different restaurants here and there.
You know, just fan boy because here’s John Mellencamp. I had no idea that all these years later we’d be friends and I’d have you as a guest on my show.
So I was sitting in the audience the other night with a sense of gratitude just having known you and being able to be in your circle, but the part that really moved me was looking at how your career has grown over the years. And for the first time, it just kind of hit me. You have a deep, deep catalog. You have a serious corpus, man.
Mellencamp: I have a lot of really crappy songs to chew on [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever [laugh].
Mellencamp: I have a lot. But there are a couple of good songs in there. You know, I got to write 50 not so good ones to get one good one. You know, it’s like getting your picture taken. Click, click, click, click. Oh, there’s the good one. I think most songwriters are that way, but you have to be open, man. You have to be. Your brain has to be open to not try to direct the songwriting or the painting.
You know, like “Easy Targets”, I was painting when I wrote that song. I was painting. I was working on a portrait or something and this voice goes, “Hey, you want to write this down.” I was like, “No, not now. Don’t bother me. I don’t want to mess with songwriting.” “You better write this down.”
I walked over to the table and went, “Black Lives Matter…” I couldn’t write it fast enough and I sang it all at the same time. So realizing that the song was there, I mean, that fast, I just picked up my phone. There’s a memo thing on your phone now.
I just sang the song into the phone, pushed it off, put it down, took three, four or five minutes, went back to painting, found the song a couple of days later and went, “Wow. When did I write that?” Really, I had forgotten that I’d even written the song.
Tavis: You know I hate you, right?
Tavis: I’m hating you in this moment right now.
Mellencamp: Well, a lot of people hate me. Get in line [laugh]. Get in line.
Tavis: That just seems — I mean, I’m being funny here because obviously you’re a vessel and you’re open to receiving it, but it just seems so unfair that something that good could just pour out of you in five minutes.
Mellencamp: And I would agree if you’re Elvis Costello, which is what happened to him. He was a kid and that must have been happening. He wrote “Almost Blue”. I mean, give me a break. Who writes “Almost Blue”, right [laugh], at 30 years old?
So, anyway, it must have happened to him right away. But for me, it took, you know, 40 years for this to happen. So don’t be too mad at me about it because I worked at it for a long time unknowingly that it would happen.
I didn’t know that that would ever happen because I got to tell you. When I was a kid, it was a struggle because I was crafting. I was writing. Does this work? No, I don’t want the song to go this way. The song just took a wrong turn. No, I can’t go there. It was just like, you know, it was terrible. It was awful. That’s why the songs were so terrible.
Tavis: Got to get out of the way, huh?
Mellencamp: Get out of your own way, yeah.
Tavis: Own way, yeah.
Mellencamp: Keep your mouth shut and your head down and just do what the muse tells you to do.
Tavis: You talked earlier about making the decision to live an artist’s life and how that changed your outlook and changed your flow and your music and your output. How did having that heart attack change you, impact you?
Mellencamp: Well, anybody that’s ever had a heart attack, particularly when you think you’re bulletproof, which I thought I was — because what happens as you go along and you’re bulletproof and then you’re not, and that is a shock to anybody.
People would say, “Oh, yeah, but you had a little heart attack.” Little heart attack? You go have a little heart attack! See how you feel about it! There’s no such thing as a little heart attack! They’re all bad! Nothing’s good about any of them!
Anyway, you know, for years — and this is where I got to take my hat off to Elaine, my ex-wife. She became a heart specialist. I mean, she knew more about heart disease — because we knew nothing about heart disease. I thought I was dead. You have a heart attack, you’re dead.
She became a heart specialist and really nurtured and helped me through that time period. For that, you know, regardless of 22 years of marriage, regardless, I’m indebted to her in some fashion for that, for being there for me.
Tavis: The other night, one of your sons was with you and you brought him onstage at the end. The audience — again, these are people who’ve been following you for years. I could sense that it was really cool for the audience to see your son come onstage with you and sing a bit at the end.
Mellencamp: Well, he’s never done that and I’ve asked him for years. “Come out and sing a song, Hud.” “I don’t know any of the songs, Dad.” Oh, right. You’ve only been on tour your whole life. Anyway, last night he was standing on the side of the stage and I saw him. You know, it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t like I talked to him.
I just walked over to the side and said, “Why don’t you come out and sing? All you got to do is go yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s it. I mean, there’s nothing to it.” He went, “Okay.” So after the show, I said, “Why did you do that? You’ve never done it in 22 years.” He goes, “Father’s Day.” I said, “Okay, great.”
Tavis: That was nice.
Mellencamp: Yeah, Father’s Day.
Tavis: The touring. You do this like every summer.
Mellencamp: No, I do not do this every summer.
Tavis: Every other summer?
Tavis: How often?
Mellencamp: I haven’t been on tour in the summer in 15 years.
Tavis: It’s not been that long.
Mellencamp: Yeah. I don’t play outside. This is the first time I’ve played outside — I played with Dylan outside…
Tavis: That’s the last time I saw you, as a matter of fact.
Mellencamp: About eight or nine years ago. And before that, I hadn’t played outside. I don’t like playing outside. I don’t like playing in front of drunk people [laugh]. You know, it’s music. It’s like I try to keep it respectful. I want the shows to be respectful. I went to playing theaters long before I needed to.
I probably need to now, but long before I needed to, I went into theaters because I felt that it was a more respectable way to present music than to be in an arena or a stadium being a cheerleader or a monkey on a string. And that’s what I felt like.
Tavis: So I get not playing in front of drunk people. What do you got against playing outside, though? It’s really cool seeing you play under the stars, man. That’s pretty cool.
Mellencamp: Well, that might be good, but let me tell you something. Outside, summer night, alcohol equals drunk people [laugh].
Tavis: Okay, I got you.
Mellencamp: There’s drunk people there [laugh].
Tavis: You take your craft seriously.
Mellencamp: Well, I do now. I used not to. I mean, you know, when I was a kid, it was like, “You know, this’ll last a couple of years and then I have to get a real job.” But who would have thought at 65 I’d still be doing this? Really?
Tavis: Since you went there, what do you make of how this has turned out, since you didn’t think it was going to last this long?
Mellencamp: I don’t think anybody thought it would last this long. I can’t imagine any artist worth his salt going, “Oh, yeah, I knew I would be doing this when I was an old man.” I don’t believe it. Because, you know, when I signed my first record, it was 1974. You know, people made a couple of albums and then they disappeared.
There were a couple or three people that breathed a different ether than most people. You know, you take a guy like Dylan or — I even hate to mention the name– but the Rolling Stones, these were like the higher echelon bands. But guys like me, a couple of records, a little change jingling around in your pocket, get out. That’s kind of how I thought it would pan out for me.
Tavis: You were wrong. You were way wrong.
Mellencamp: Can I tell you what?
Mellencamp: I don’t mind being wrong [laugh]. I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong because I’m wrong a lot.
Tavis: On those rare occasions, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Mellencamp: I’m wrong a lot.
Tavis: This is a good project. Why did you call it “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies”?
Mellencamp: There’s a song on the record called “Sad Clowns” which is really a tongue-in-cheek song. I was listening to a conversation in the studio between me and Carlene and I thought, “If you’re not from the Midwest or the south, you don’t understand what’s being said here” because her accent’s pretty strong.
And my accent can get really — I get around somebody from the south and, all of a sudden, I don’t even understand myself. That’s how it came out.
Tavis: There you have it. “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” is the new project from John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter. It’s a wonderful project. Add it to your collection. I highly recommend it. Mr. Mellencamp, my friend, good to see you.
Mellencamp: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you for being here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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