Musician John Mellencamp

Grammy-winning Rock and Roll Hall of Famer discusses his new album and the 25th anniversary of Farm Aid.

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.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So a few months ago, the phone rings. On the other end, John Mellencamp, calling me to ask if I would consider doing something special on the show for an entire week in conjunction with the release of his new record. Took me about three seconds, maybe a little less, to say “yes” to his being on this show tonight and for that matter every night this week.
In addition to his new CD, “No Better Than This,” he’s about to celebrate the 25th anniversary – hard to believe – 25 years of Farm Aid. The fundraising concerts have, of course, now raised millions over the years, with this year’s event being held in Milwaukee on October 2nd.
In a few minutes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will give us an exclusive preview of the new project, which will be in stores tomorrow. You can also pick up the four-disc boxed set of all of his greatest hits. The set is called “On the Rural Route 7609,” which also includes 14 never-before-released tracks.
John Mellencamp, you’ve been a busy, busy man this year.
John Mellencamp:Not much to do in a small town. (Laughter)
Tavis: I love that small town.
Mellencamp: (Laughs) I know you do.
Tavis: I love that small town. I met John Mellencamp when I was just a kid, a student at Indiana University down in Bloomington, and whenever he would show up anywhere around town where he lives, I was there in the front row, rocking with Mellencamp. It’s just a blessing for me all these years later to have you on this set.
Mellencamp: Well, it’s a blessing to be here.
Tavis: 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 about 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.
Mellencamp: Well, the idea – Bob Dylan and I were on tour together and I had written this song called “Save Some Time to Dream,” and I thought, well, this is an awfully good song for me; I’ll just play it live. But I played it, and I thought, I’m going to be in this location and that location, and I started looking geographically that I’m going to be in Savannah, Georgia, where the First African Baptist Church is, where the Underground Railroad started and people went through.
I’m going to be in Memphis, which Sun Studios is located, which is where Sam Phillips recorded “Howling Wolf” and Johnny Cash, and I’m also going to be close to San Antonio, which is where Robert Johnson recorded back in the ’30s at the Gunter Hotel.
So I started thinking, and things get on your back. So I thought, well, if we’re going to 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 disc, 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 those three locations with the band 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 Xes on the floor at Sun Studios -
Tavis: Where to stand.
Mellencamp: Where to stand – he did. (Laughter) He had Xes where the vocalists are supposed to stand, an X where the drumkit’s supposed to set up. So the minute we started playing, it was just like well, this sounds like the Sun sessions. It sounds just like Johnny Cash.
Tavis: To an untrained ear – that is to say to the ear of those of us who are fans of yours – what are we going to hear differently on this project, given how you recorded it, than we would hear on any other Mellencamp project?
Mellencamp: Well, the first thing is obvious, is that it’s in mono. Mono is everything comes out of one place. When we were kids, or when I was a kid, that’s when they invented stereo – two speakers, and you could mix.
But this was like there was no going back fixing anything. It was like you had one shot, and you just had to keep doing it until you got it right. Thankfully for me, the musicians around me were good enough that a couple run-throughs and we would have the song recorded.
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, it wasn’t anything – you know me, Tavis. I’ve never planned anything in my life. (Laughter) It just kind of falls out. So by the time that we decided we were going to 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 I said, “You got time to do this?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I can work this into my schedule.” So everything was kind of like being worked in and made up as we went along.
Tavis: T-Bone has been – 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 casually, socially, for about 10 years or so, 10, 15 years, seen him around.
But when we got in the studio together it was just like we were connected, and it worked. I’ve never had anybody produce my records. I’ve always produced my own records. I’ve worked with a guy for a while who was an engineer who helped me produce records, but I’ve always made my own records.
But with T-Bone, I just – he could just take on so much responsibility that at my age I don’t want to do anymore.
Tavis: I was about to ask you – at this age, you don’t want to do it anymore, but why has it been important for you all these other years to produce your own records?
Mellencamp: I’m a control fanatic. (Laughter) I’ve got to control everything, so 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’ve 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’m going, “Hey, how about if we put that on here,” and it was the first time that anybody had looked at me in the recording studio and said, “John, shut up.” (Laughter)
Tavis: And how did John take that? How did John handle that?
Mellencamp: The same way you did. (Laughter) I just started laughing. I just started laughing. It was just funny, and we have been friends ever since, socially and professionally.
Tavis: We’re talking about Bloomington, and I’m reminded now that there’s 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 it and what he had to say about it, because it’s on the record.
Mellencamp: My wife, Elaine – the Dalai Lama has come to Indiana a couple times because the center is there, and my wife Elaine is always his – oh, I don’t know – escort. 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?” (Laughter) “I am?” So I played a song that I’m playing on your show called “Save Some Time to Dream,” and so the Dalai Lama’s on stage and they introduce the Dalai 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. It was pretty astonishing to me.
Of course, I would look out in the audience because I was on stage, and Elaine’s going, like, can you believe this? And I’m kind of sitting behind the Dalai Lama, and he keeps looking back at me and smiling and shaking his 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, and I’m kind of sitting there going, “Yeah, 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 commenting on one of my songs. Great.
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: When you’re a songwriter, you can – and it’s the same with what you do – you can make things go the way you want them to go. “Save Some Time to Dream,” it came to me and I just accepted it the way it was and didn’t try to put any of my bull in it. It was just said and I didn’t try to guide it. So it was a surprise to me, and 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: What was it like – 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. They put those holes in the floor so that the slaves, my ancestors, could breathe 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, “So, John, you’ve not been baptized?” I said, “Well, I was christened when I was born.”
She says, “Well, would you like to be baptized here?” And I said, “Yeah.” So this was unbelievable. This congregation is so unbelievable, it was like a Wednesday and I would say probably 20, 30 people took off work.
Because I thought I’d go in there and the minister would baptize Elaine and I. But they had attendants for me. People came and sang. It was like a whole big thing. The kindness of this congregation was I think what makes the church last, because it was so kind and so understanding.
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, and the minister was fantastic. I had a couple of guys, great, big guys like you, wanting to change my clothes. It’s like, “Guys, I can get dressed myself.” (Laughter) But they stood there, they were my attendants. It was part of the deal.
Tavis: That’s how they do it in the Black church.
Mellencamp: Yeah, it was great. (Laughter) I wasn’t anticipating it, and 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, and I don’t know if you know this, but Savannah, Georgia is 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 mid way between Savannah and the next town. So I know Savannah very well. My father’s from there.
Mellencamp: I think there’s 32 squares in Savannah, and each Savannah, 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 that Spanish moss that grows everywhere in Savannah, Georgia. 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 I did, like me and T-Bone did, you could still see on the trees the marks.
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 it. But I wanted to see it.
Tavis: Does it make a difference when you have a project that is so spiritually rooted, spiritually grounded? It’s not just that this project is historically connected, but it obviously is spiritually rooted and grounded. That makes a difference, I assume.
Mellencamp: Well, 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.”
After getting baptized, I didn’t know that I was going to feel uplifted for a while. 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. See something you’ve never seen before. So many people, and 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. But to be able to be surprised and to be uplifted for a moment, 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 going to 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 2nd in Milwaukee.
Mellencamp: In Milwaukee, and it’s the 25th Farm Aid. And 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 Willie and I and Neil and Dave Matthews – Neil and I and Dave 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 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 ’80s out of a rock and roll type of thing. Because you remember back then – 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. (Clapping, laughter) October 2nd, Milwaukee, here we come. Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, Neil, John Mellencamp and Travis. (Laughter) I’ll be in Milwaukee October 2nd.
Right quick here, I got this book in my hand, I hear that the opening act for your tour this summer is actually a documentary – not a group, not a performance, but your opening act is a documentary. Tell me about it right quick.
Mellencamp: Well, there was a guy named Kurt Markus who came, who I had known for a long time, a real famous photographer, and I just phoned him up one day and said, “Kurt, come and make a movie about us being on tour. I’m going on tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and I’m going to make a record at the same time, and Elaine and I think that it should be about you and your son trying to make a movie.” He came out and tried to make that movie, and you’re in it.
Tavis: Yeah, I’ve heard. (Laughs)
Mellencamp: You’re in it.
Tavis: So Mellencamp’s got a great documentary opening up for him. I love these ideas. This guy’s still spitting out these good ideas. So his opening act this summer is a documentary and then a great performance from Mellencamp. You’ve got to see him. If you’ve ever seen John, then you know of course you want to see him again. If you’ve not seen him, do yourself a favor and catch Mellencamp on the road this summer.
The new project is called “No Better Than This,” and before I make room for John to do his thing, I’m going to put your wife, Elaine, who’s my friend, on the spot. Elaine, will you please do me a favor and come here right quick? Have a seat right on the edge of John’s chair.
This is the gorgeous Elaine, the wife of Mr. Mellencamp, who he was referencing earlier in this conversation. And Chris, come here right quick. I heard a little rumor, and then I heard the rumor wasn’t exactly true, but I’m going to set the record straight here.
So I heard – thank you very much – this is Chris, our producer, by the way.
Mellencamp: Hi, Chris.
Tavis: That’s Chris. So I heard all over the Internet that today was your birthday, so I had them make a little nice cake here (laughter) that says, “Happy Birthday, Elaine.”
Mellencamp: Elaine.
Tavis: All right. So I get the birthday cake made and then I find out that even though it’s all over the Internet that today’s your birthday, today really ain’t your birthday, I’m told.
Elaine Mellencamp: Well, I’m not good with math and I’m really not 29, but I’m going with it. (Laughter)
Tavis: So her birthday is not August the 16th, it is what?
Elaine Mellencamp: The 26th.
Tavis: So somebody got it wrong by 10 days. They got the six part right. So anyway, for all of Elaine’s fans around the world, her birthday is not officially today, it’s the 26th.
Mellencamp: Well -
Tavis: But since I paid for this cake -
Mellencamp: What?
Tavis: Since I paid for this cake -
Mellencamp: I thought today was her birthday. (Laughter) You double-crossed me.
Elaine Mellencamp: He still thinks I’m 29 too.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, anyway, since I paid for this cake, we’re going to eat this cake.
Mellencamp: That sounds good to me.
Elaine Mellencamp: Perfect.
Tavis: So happy birthday to you.
Elaine Mellencamp: Thank you.
Tavis: And as soon as I make room for John to do his thing, after John’s performance we’re going to have some cake around here.
Elaine Mellencamp: Cake is good everywhere.
Tavis: So up next, the first of five new songs John’s going to perform for us this week – stay with us.
From his much-anticipated new CD, “No Better Than This,” here is John Mellencamp performing “Save Some Time to Dream.” Enjoy. Good night from L.A. and keep the faith.
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[Live musical performance]

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm