CNN Interview: John Mellencamp's 13 tracks in 13 days

Denise Quan's of Cable News Network recently interviewed John on the rooftop of the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles before his Grammy Museum show about his new project, his political future and his contribution to the world. Read the full feature and interview of "John Mellencamp's 13 tracks in 13 days.

"Is my cigarette out of the shot?" asks John Mellencamp, as smoke curls around his tousled head. When asked why he even bothers to hide it, the singer replies sheepishly with a chuckle, "Cuz I don't want people to know I smoke."

That pretty much sums up the 58-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. He's savvy enough to know what's best for him, yet too stubborn to play by the rules.

In fact, the reason CNN is interviewing him on the rooftop of the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles is because the museum interior is smoke-free. And Mellencamp, being Mellencamp, might be tempted to light up in the vicinity of some carefully preserved artifact, or even worse, a fire marshal.

The Indiana born singer/songwriter/rabble rouser is at the museum to preview a handful of songs from his 25th album, "No Better Than This."

It's a refreshing change of pace from his last few albums of politically-charged heartland rock. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the record is stripped-down and sparse, haunted by ghosts from three historic locations of the Great American South that served as a recording backdrop.

Mellencamp even sings differently on the 13 tracks -- which he wrote in an inspired 13-day stretch in 2009 -- sliding into each note like a man channeling voices from a different place and time.

The first songs were cut at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, where tiny diamond-shaped cut-outs dot the floor -- air holes for slaves hidden in the basement during the Underground Railroad. Mellencamp and his wife, Elaine, were baptized under the church's altar during a break in recording.

Other tunes sprung to life at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, home of Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The final tracks came together in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson made his first recordings in the early '30s.

Mellencamp and Burnett even pulled drapes off the wall and installed wood parquet flooring over the carpet to re-create the room's original acoustics. Everything was captured in mono on a vintage Ampex tape machine. Rumor has it Mellencamp bought the machine on eBay for 350 bucks.

Mellencamp recently spoke to CNN about his new project, his political future and his contribution to the world.

CNN: You made this album on days off from your tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan when the three of you were playing minor league ballparks.

Mellencamp: I've known Willie for quite some time because of Farm Aid (this year's event take place October 2 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), and if you don't mind me stopping and saying so, whoever the people are that put together the Nobel Peace Prize -- they should consider Willie Nelson. This guy has helped a tremendous amount of people, donated a lot of money and kept Farm Aid going for 25 years. So I think he deserves some recognition for it.

CNN: You had a lot of fun making this album.

Mellencamp: Oh, I loved making this record. It's 180 degrees away from what music is today. It's actually musicians playing songs, standing there close together by one microphone, and no overdubs. No way you can fix it in the mix, because there's no mix.

CNN: I would think recording in a culturally significant place like the First African Church would bring out the political activist in you. But this album really doesn't come from that kind of place.

Mellencamp: It only has one song that's pretty politically motivated, and it's the song called "The West End." I wrote it as if it was about the west end of town, but of course, the west end is really us. We are the West. It's a comment -- not so much about a town -- but about a nation. It's kind of veiled in the idea that it's about a small town, but it's really about this country.

CNN: You were an Obama supporter during the presidential campaign. How do you think he's doing now? He's certainly had his share of challenges.

Mellencamp: He's a politician, which is a problem from the get-go. That's always a problem because you can't really do what you want to do, or what you intended to do. Very few presidents have been able to complete, or even come close, to doing what they promised to do. I do think that for the mess that was left here, I think he's slowing digging his way out or in -- I can't tell ya.

CNN: What about running for political office yourself? Your name has been floated out there every now and again as a potential candidate for office.

Mellencamp: (He stammers a bit.)

CNN: Too many skeletons in your closet?

Mellencamp: Nah. Well, that and too many *@&%$#!!'s come out of my mouth to be talking on the floor, I think.

CNN: But it is anything you've seriously thought about? You certainly care about this country.

Mellencamp: This is the first time that I've ever even spoken about it in an interview. That was something that a bunch of people dreamt up, and I didn't even really dignify it by answering any questions about it. This is just such a ridiculous thought.

CNN: You have a point of view, you're passionate about it. Isn't that what we need in our politicians?

Mellencamp: I do things my way, and I pay an awfully high price. A lot of people like it, a lot of people hate it. It's just what I think. It doesn't make it true.

CNN: You've always opposed the war in Iraq.

Mellencamp: A lot of people just did not appreciate me putting my two cents in.

CNN: Do you feel like sometimes you haven't been allowed to say what you wanted?

Mellencamp: Oh sure, you know. During the Bush administration, there were things done and said that, you know, were meant to intimidate me.

CNN: You mean someone was beating down your door and trying to break your kneecaps?

Mellencamp: No, nothing like that. It was more subtle than that.

CNN: What were they objecting to?

Mellencamp: "Why don't you just shut up." That's what they were objecting to.

CNN: Doesn't that make you fired up and want to --

Mellencamp: It makes me disappointed in our country.

CNN: Are you still disappointed in our country, or are you feeling more hopeful?

Mellencamp: We always thought the rest of the world would "come up to our level." We'd always be "a step ahead," you know, but they'd always come up. But it looks like to me that we're going down to their level, to a more tribal community now. And it's not fair. There's no middle class -- don't even get me started. There's no middle class, our education's messed up, there's so many things wrong. And corporate America has got to be fixed. It's gonna be rough on the normal guy.

CNN: As a musician, what do you think your contribution can be to fix it.

Mellencamp: All I can do is sing about it. I'm a barroom singer, you know. I can sing about it, and talk to you about it, but other that that, there's not much I can do. It's up to us as a nation. If you want a better nation, it starts with you.

CNN: Do you think you've helped to make the world a better place?

Mellencamp: I don't know about that. But I feel that I have contributed to making people happy. I damn sure know that a lot of kids got drunk to my songs, and danced to 'em! So there's value in that! (He laughs.)