CMT Interview: John Mellencamp Explains His Influence (or Not) On Country Music

He Prepares for Summer Ballpark Tour With Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson - Written by Craig Shelburne

During a recent visit to the CMT offices, John Mellencamp was asked about the treatment for his latest video, "A Ride Back Home."

"Treatment? I don't know what that means," he replied. Luckily his duet partner -- Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town -- steps in.

"Well, he's the video treatment because he always comes up with the concepts, so he just runs with whatever he wants to do. It's not the traditional way of soliciting treatments," she explains, referring to the common practice of asking video production companies to submit ideas.

"Oh, I have never done that," Mellencamp says, softly. "I have made 50 videos. I think I did that one time, and I didn't like that experience. I made a video in 1984 called 'The Authority Song,' and I was on tour and I was very busy, and the record company hired some guy to direct the video. I didn't like that. I've always worked with people that I've known and had relationships with. I've always come up with a way to try to present the song."

Then it dawns on him that "a really smart kid" -- Chris Milk -- directed him in "Walk Tall" in 2004. Fairchild also recalls that Mellencamp directed Bob Dylan's "Political World" video and asks if there was a treatment for it.

"No, I called up Bob, and I said, 'Bob, here's what we're going to do,'" Mellencamp recalled. "And he said, 'OK, just don't make me look stupid.' That's all he said."

Mellencamp can be equally reticent. Asked how it feels to turn on country radio and hear his influence, he says, "You know, I really don't think too much about that. I can turn on my radio and I hear my influences all the time. I think that if somebody makes something and it's out there, it belongs to whoever wants to use it next. ... I think if it's out there and in the air, it belongs to everybody. And everybody can use it. So I don't think it's a matter of even being an influence. I think it's just a matter of -- 'I hear that. I like that. It connected with me. I'm going to try to do the same thing.'"

When Fairchild says Little Big Town is intimidated to cover a Mellencamp song, especially because they have played some shows together, he shrugs it off. "Well, I don't even know what you're talking about."

Mellencamp also says he isn't familiar with requests by country artists to remake his signature songs from the 1980s like "Cherry Bomb" or "Small Town."

"I don't know about that kind of stuff," he says. "You'd have to ask my publishers. I don't know about that. I've had people ask me to write songs for them, but I'm very reluctant to do that. ... I mean, I am always flattered. Don't misunderstand me. But I am very reluctant. And same with movies and same with a lot. You get these requests. I've tried it a couple of times, but people always have an expectation of what they want you to do. You know, 'We want you to do this,' but they never tell you that. They just say, 'Will you write a song?' So you write a song, and they go, 'Oh.' I could always tell the couple of times I've done it that they were disappointed."

Fairchild says, "They wanted 'Pink Houses' and you gave them 'The Longest Days,'" to which he seems to agree.

"They wanted something similar to what they have heard, and it is an impossible feat," he says. "If you have a song like 'Pink Houses' -- you know, I am very fortunate with that song. It's been around for twenty-some years now, and you still hear it on the radio. Well, once you are indoctrinated with a piece of music like that for so long, it's impossible to say, 'Oh, here!' And you're going to have the same emotional attachment to a song that you just heard, to one that you've heard a million times? It doesn't work that way."

Many of those familiar songs will surely be heard on his current summer tour with Dylan and Willie Nelson, with bookings in numerous minor league ballparks -- which sounds like a home run idea to Mellencamp.

"Well, I like that. I really like that," he says. "I like that it's a family thing, and kids under 14 are free. But the thing I really like about it -- and I've said this before -- is that Willie is 76 and Bob is 68 and I'm 57. I'm the youngest guy, and any place I go where I can be the youngest guy, I'm going to go. I'm the juvenile of this bunch. This is great."

With younger people coming in, how important is it to try to expand his fan base?

"Oh, I don't know. I don't even think about that," he says. "I think it is important to have fans, and I think it is important to try to be accommodating to your fans, if you can. If you can be accommodating, you should. But I quit making records a long time ago with the idea of accommodating anybody other than what needs to happen in the song. I'm not suggesting that for everybody, understand, but for me."

When Fairchild declares that making music for himself is a refreshing thought, Mellencamp replies, "Well, that's what songwriting is really supposed to do, but don't forget I've worked 35 years to be able to do that. It wasn't that way when I first started out. ... I had to have hit records. Back when I started, you had to have hit records, or else you were done. So that was always in our minds. When we got to a certain point -- 'Thank God, that's over."

Back on topic, he's asked if he sees teenagers in his audience -- perhaps the children of his original fan base.

"I don't know." He turns to Fairchild, "Did you see teenagers?"

She says, "Yeah, I think you see both out there. There's a great reassurance in younger people finding music that they should be listening to. Older music. That's the cool thing about seeing his show -- or maybe Springsteen's -- is that you're seeing the parents and the kids, and they're all singing the songs, and that's what we all want. That's the whole goal."
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