Musician John Mellencamp

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Grammy-winning singer-songwriter wraps his ‘rocker week with two live performances.

Called one of America's greatest storytellers, John Mellencamp fell in love with music at an early age in his native Indiana and was gigging in local bars and fronting a soul band by age 14. He began his music career in earnest in '76 and went on to sell more than 40 million albums worldwide and garner 22 Top 40 hits in the U.S. His latest project, "No Better Than This," was recorded on vintage equipment at several historically significant locations around the South, including the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA, Memphis' Sun Studios and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX.


Tavis: Tonight we’ll hear two songs from John Mellencamp including his classic hit, Pink Houses. Before we get into our conversation with John, let’s get one last preview of the new project. The disk is called “No Better Than This”and here is John performing “Thinking About You.”
Tavis: When I sat down with John Mellencamp on the eve of the release of his latest CD, we began our conversation by talking about the unique American journey that served as the backdrop for the new project.
I don’t know where to begin because I want to talk about the songs in just a second, but let me start by asking the process for how you’ve made this. You traveled around the country; you used some authentic and old equipment. Just tell me about the process for making the project.
John Mellencamp: Well, the idea – I was on tour with – Bob Dylan and I were on tour together and I had written this song called “Save Some Time to Dream” and I thought this is an awfully good song for me. I’ll just play it live. But I played it and I thought, you know, I’m gonna be in this location and that location and I started looking geographically and I’m going to be in Savannah, Georgia where the First African Baptist Church is where the underground railroads started and people went through.
I’m gonna be in Memphis where Sun Studios is located which is where Sam Phillips recorded Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Cash and I’m also gonna be close to San Antonio which is where Robert Johnson recorded back in the 1930s at the Gunter Hotel. So I started thinking and, you know, things are on your back. So I thought, well, if we’re gonna record in these historic locations, then we should use that type of gear.
Now those guys like Johnson when they recorded him, they recorded straight to disk, you know, straight to the record. So I thought that’s what we’ll do, but that turned out to be really problematic in this day since nobody does it anymore.
So then we went with – I think it’s a 1954, mono Ampex field recording machine and an RCA microphone and recorded in these three locations with the band. You know, the old fashioned way. Set a microphone up, everybody kind of gathers around it and you play. The drums are sitting over there, and Sam Phillips made it real easy for us because he had X’s on the floor at Sun Studios.
Tavis: Where to stand.
Mellencamp: Where to stand. He did (laughter). He had X’s where the vocalist was supposed to stand, an x where the drum kit was supposed to set up. So the minute we started playing, it was just like, well, this sounds like the Sun sessions. You know, it sounds just like Johnny Cash.
Tavis: The word is that you wrote 13 songs in 13 days. Is that true?
Mellencamp: Well, I had to, yeah. That’s true because once we decided to do it, you know, it wasn’t anything – you know me, Tavis. I’ve never planned anything in my life, you know (laughter). It just kind of falls out. So by the time that we decided we were gonna do this, we were already behind schedule. So I called up T-Bone and I said, “Have you got time to do this?” and he said yeah.
Tavis: That would be T-Bone Burnett.
Mellencamp: Yeah. I called up T-Bone and said, “You got time to do this?” He said, “Yeah, I can work this into my schedule.” So everything was kind of like, you know, being worked in and made up as we went along.
Tavis: I mentioned earlier how busy you’ve been. He’s busy and everybody wants to work with him. What’s the relationship? Why does everybody want to work with T-Bone Burnett?
Mellencamp: I can’t speak for anybody else, but T-Bone and I met and just kind of became brothers. You know how that works. You meet somebody and it’s just like you’ve known him your entire life. I had been knowing T-Bone, you know, casually, socially for about ten years or so, ten, fifteen years, seen him around.
But when we got in the studio together, it was just like we were connected and it worked. It’s nice to be able to meet a guy that you could say, “Okay, you got it, man. You take it from here” and basically that’s what I’m able to do with T-Bone.
Tavis:  But you got to trust that guy, though.
Mellencamp: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I trust him emphatically. I actually trust him more than I trust myself because my nature is to decorate the Christmas tree too much, to put too many ornaments on the tree. T-Bone’s nature is to undress the tree.
Tavis: To strip it down.
Mellencamp: Yeah. So a lot of times we’d be in the studio and I’ll go, “Hey, how about if we put that on here?” It was the first time that anybody had ever looked at me in the recording studio and said, “John, shut up.”
Tavis: (Laughter) And how did John take that? How did John handle that?
Mellencamp: The same way you did. I just started laughing, I just started laughing. You know, it was just funny. We have been friends ever since, you know, socially and professionally.
Tavis: I’m reminded now that there is a Dalai Lama connection to one of these songs. He came to Indiana to give a lecture. I’ll let you tell the story about the song and how he heard and what he had to say about it. It’s on the record.
Mellencamp: Well, my wife Elaine – the Dalai Lama has come to Indiana a couple of times because the Center is there. My wife Elaine is always like his, oh, I don’t know, escort. You know, she goes with him everywhere and makes sure he’s there. So they were having a lunch and Elaine kind of says to me, “Oh, do you know you’re playing today at the luncheon?” “I am?”
So I played a song I’m playing on your show called “Save Some Time to Dream.” The Dalai Lama is on stage and the Dalai Lama introduces me and I play this song and the greatest thing happened. He changed his entire conversation about what he was going to speak about that day and addressed the topics of “Save Some Time to Dream.”
Tavis: The lyrics.
Mellencamp: The lyrical content of “Save Some Time to Dream” and how they played into and were like Buddhist philosophy. Of course, I’m not Buddhist at all, but I was really flattered by that to have the holiest man on earth talking about a song that some dumb kid from Indiana wrote. You know, it was pretty astonishing to me.
And, of course, I would look out in the audience because I was on stage and Elaine’s going like “Do you believe this?” I’m kind of sitting behind the Dalai Lama and he keeps looking back at me and smiling and shaking is head and I’m deafer than a doornail. I can’t hear anything from being in a rock band, so I’m only picking up half of what he’s saying. I’m kind of sitting there going yeah, yeah.
But then after the fact, somebody played me the tape and I was so flattered and humbled by the fact that the holiest guy on earth is like commenting on one of my songs.
Tavis: Which means that the next follow-up question had better be for the audience for you to tell us a little bit about “Save Some Time to Dream,”about the song, about the content.
Mellencamp: “Save Some Time to Dream”just kind of came to me and I just accepted it the way it was and didn’t try to put any of my bull in it. You know, it was just sent and I didn’t try to guide it, so it was a surprise to me.
It worked so well that every song on this record ended up being that way. I didn’t try to direct these songs to go any particular way. I just let them present themselves and followed their path.
Tavis: I know this church in Savannah, the First African Baptist Church. What’s it like recording in that particular locale? This is a place, as you mentioned earlier, that’s part of the Underground Railroad.
There are still holes to this day, holes in the floor, and they put those holes in the floor so that the slaves, my ancestors, could breath and not suffocate underneath the floor where they were being hid out. Tell me about what it was like recording in that place.
Mellencamp: Well, even better than that, I’ll tell you what it was like to be baptized in that place. I have a song that said, “I ain’t been baptized, I ain’t got no church” and one of the congregation, one of the women, came up and said, “John, you’ve not been baptized?” I said, “Well, you know, I was christened when I was born.” She says, “Well, would you like to be baptized here?” and I said, “Yeah.”
This was unbelievable. This congregation was so unbelievable. It was like a Wednesday and I would say probably 20 or 30 people took off work. Because I thought I’d go in there and, you know, the minister would baptize Elaine and me, but they had attendance for me. People came and sang. I mean, it was a whole big thing. The kindness of this congregation was I think what makes the church last because it was kind and so understanding.
You know, I don’t think there’s been a lot of white folks in there. But to be baptized there, I was so honored. Elaine and I were so honored. The minister was fantastic. I had a couple guys, you know, great big guys like you wanting to change my clothes. It’s like, “Guys, I can get dressed myself.” You know, they stood there. They were my attendants. It was part of the deal, you know.
Tavis: That’s how they do it in Black church.
Mellencamp: Yeah. It was just absolutely a lovely experience and the congregation I can’t say enough nice things about them. As far as recording going on there, there were ghosts all over the place. Right across the street from the church – I don’t know if you know this, but Savannah, Georgia is like the most beautiful town in America.
Tavis: My grandfather is from a place called Midway which is so small. That’s why they call it Midway. It’s midway between Savannah and the next town. I know Savannah very well. My father’s from there.
Mellencamp: I think there’s 32 squares in Savannah and each square there’s houses or businesses built around and each square is a park. I believe the square in front of the church is Franklin Square. Well, they have Spanish moss that grows everywhere in Savannah, Georgia. I mean, it’s in every tree, it’s everywhere.
Well, the square across from the church was the flogging square where they flogged the slaves publicly. There’s no Spanish moss in that square and, if you look real hard like me and T-Bone did, you could still see on the trees the marks.
Tavis: The marks, yeah.
Mellencamp: Now I don’t know if they’re really there, but I saw them and T-Bone saw them. But I don’t know if the average eye would see them, but I wanted to see them.
Tavis: Does it make a difference when you have a project that is so spiritually rooted, spiritually grounded? I mean, it’s not just that this project is historically connected, but it obviously is spiritually rooted and grounded. That’s make a difference, I assume.
Mellencamp: Well, you know, it does. But like I said, I’ve never planned anything, so I was very surprised and I think T-Bone was surprised because he wrote the liner notes in there and the liner notes at the end just said, “This record is full of ghosts.”
You know, after getting baptized, I didn’t know that I was gonna feel uplifted for a while. You know, it didn’t last forever, but there was a feeling of being uplifted. So it’s great to be my age and be able to still be surprised. You know, see something you’ve never seen before.
So many people, myself included, we get into a rut and we just see the same thing, do the same thing, don’t want to change anything, and I’m that way too, you know. But to be able to be surprised and to be uplifted for a moment, it don’t get any better than that.
Tavis: Speaking of surprise and uplift, you have uplifted so many people over these 25 years with Farm Aid. Are you surprised that it’s gone that long?
Mellencamp: Well, I’m gonna take this moment to say that Tavis will be hosting Farm Aid this year (laughter) at the invitation of me about 15 minutes ago. So we’re hoping that he hosts Farm Aid.
Tavis: October 2 in Milwaukee.
Mellencamp: In Milwaukee, and it’s the 25th Farm Aid. I said this earlier and I still believe it. Who are the folks that give out those Nobel Peace Prizes? Because Willie Nelson should get one of them because, you know, Willie and I and Neal and Dave Matthews are just work from the neck down because this is Willie’s project and Willie has helped so many people and raised so much money and makes all the major decisions of Farm Aid that, you know, the guy deserves to be recognized.
I don’t think there’s any other charity event that has lasted 25 years, particularly that was born in the 1980s out of a rock and roll type of thing, you know. You remember back then. You know, all these big corporations were having these charity things and they were all, in my estimation, phony baloney stuff. I probably shouldn’t say that, but that’s how I felt about them. But Willie’s Farm Aid, I thought, was real. It was a real effort.
Tavis: So I guess I better pack my bags for Milwaukee (laughter). October 2, Milwaukee, here we come. Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, Neal, John Mellencamp and Tavis. I’ll be in Milwaukee on October 2.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this great week of music and conversation with John Mellencamp. The new CD is, once again, called “No Better Than This” and it’s been getting terrific reviews since being released on Tuesday of this week.
But there was no way we could let John get out of here without performing one of his classic songs. So for the final time this week, here is Mellencamp and his band performing his iconic hit, “Pink Houses.” Enjoy.
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Last modified: March 27, 2017 at 4:53 pm