Indianapolis Star: Songs Keep Coming To John Mellencamp, Whether He Likes It Or Not

By David Lindquist - Indy Star
John Mellencamp isn't the first musician to say he hears voices in his head.

Fortunately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer claims his visitors don't bring fear or confusion. They bring songs.

One example is "Easy Target," a track released in advance of new album "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies." Mellencamp said the bleakly sarcastic song, which refers to minority groups and the impoverished as being "created equal, equally beneath me and you," presented itself when he was devoting time to his second artistic passion of painting portraits, landscapes and social commentary.

"I didn’t want to write that song," Mellencamp said during an interview at his Brown County recording studio. "I was busy painting.

'You need to stop what you’re doing and write this down.'


'John, write the song down.'

'Oh, OK.'

"That’s it. I wasn’t even thinking about race or poor people. Nothing. So the song just kind of came."

"Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" isn't a 13-song document that arrived completely by cryptic transmissions. It's more of a bit-by-bit collection that's fit for a bride: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Mellencamp said no specific concept guided the making of "Sad Clowns," but the album neatly checks off good-luck traditions associated with weddings.

Something old: “Grandview,” the current single from the album that arrives in stores today, is a sonic time traveler Mellencamp co-wrote with his cousin, Bobby Clark, in the 1990s. An early stab at recording the song featured Indiana native and former Guns N' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Stan Lynch, formerly of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Mellencamp said the "Sad Clowns" version of "Grandview" includes some vocals he recorded in the '90s and some recorded this century. Stradlin's gritty, insistent riffs and Lynch's beats were salvaged for the final version, and country vocalist Martina McBride came on board to portray Mellencamp's foil in the song's home stretch. "It took a long time to build this song," Mellencamp said.

Something new: Similar to "Easy Target," the song "Sad Clowns" arrived as an intact composition, Mellencamp said. "I am available to whatever is sending me songs," he said. "I take them for what they are. I don’t try to change them. I don’t try to manipulate them. I think it happens because I’ve been doing this so long."

Something borrowed: Mellencamp said "Sad Clowns" features two songs he has played his "entire life." Country musician Mickey Newbury wrote and recorded "Mobile Blue" in 1971, and psychedelic rock band the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood recorded "Early Bird Cafe" in 1970. Neither song charted for the original artist. Mellencamp said he discovered "Early Bird Cafe" when he caught the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood as the opening act for Frank Zappa at Indianapolis music venue Middle Earth. "Great things come and surprise us sometimes," he said.

Something blue: "Indigo Sunset" is a song Mellencamp co-wrote with Carlene Carter, who has served as his opening act on recent tours. Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, has such a large role on "Sad Clowns" that the album is officially attributed to "John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter." Regarding the album's origin, he said: "We were standing backstage, and I said, ‘We should make a religious record together. You know, an old-time religious record. But I don’t want to do a bunch of old religious songs. Let’s write our own.’ She said, ‘OK.’ She started writing religious songs, and I didn’t. I just wrote whatever came to me."

Marriage doesn't seem to be in the immediate future for Mellencamp. After splitting from his third wife, model Elaine Irwin, at the end of 2010, the musician dated actress Meg Ryan from 2011 to 2014 and model Christie Brinkley from 2015 to 2016.

He wasn't a fan of tabloids reporting on his relationships.

"I don’t want to be in those things," he said. "I don’t get it. Who cares? I don’t even know why they’re interested."

Mellencamp spent all of March sequestered at his home art studio east of Bloomington.

"This is the first day I've been off my property in 35 days," he said on April 5, when he ventured to his music studio to arrange and rehearse a Merle Haggard song he performed a day later as part of an all-star tribute to the late country singer in Nashville, Tenn. "But I made maybe 17 paintings. I got up every morning and painted until dark and then went to bed. I didn’t talk to anybody. They’d bring my lunch up to me."

"Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" is Mellencamp's first album since 1991's "Whenever We Wanted" to feature one of his paintings as part of the cover art.

That album, which sent four singles into the Top 5 of Billboard magazine's mainstream rock chart, followed a decade of heavy rotation on MTV.

Videos for "Hurts So Good," "Jack & Diane," "Crumblin' Down," "Pink Houses," "Authority Song," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Cherry Bomb," "Paper in Fire" and "Check It Out" aired relentlessly on the network during the 1980s.

"MTV propelled us to front and center," Mellencamp said of the era's popular acts. "And it was the biggest hula hoop ever. It went on for 10-15 years. I was on that ride. I’m glad the ride’s over."

The Seymour native said he is grateful for his career, one that has included the co-founding of Farm Aid and more than 27 million albums sold. "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" will be followed by a career-spanning covers album titled "O.P.M." — or "Other People's Music."

Mellencamp said no one would have predicted he still would be a major-label artist 42 years after he signed his first recording contract.

"There was Sinatra and Dean Martin and those guys from another generation," he said of singers who had longevity when he was a new act in the mid-1970s. "That’s what I am now to kids today. I’m Dean Martin. I’m Sammy Davis Jr. I’m a song and dance man."

But not necessarily a good-time song and dance man. On a recent episode of Sammy Hagar's "Rock and Roll Road Trip" series on cable network AXS TV, Hagar asked Mellencamp if he had fun in the 1980s. "No," came the reply.

In 1998, Mellencamp told IndyStar that battles with record-label executives made that decade miserable.

How are things these days?

"I don’t really look at life as ‘fun’ or ‘not fun,’" Mellencamp said. "I look at, what am I creating? What am I making? I think it’s a fallacy for people to think happiness and fun are valuable commodities. Most people are happy a fraction of the day and then they have to go to work and do stuff they don’t want to do. My life is the same."

Nobody is making Mellencamp play a concert in Indianapolis, and he won't on a 34-date national tour that begins June 5.

"They’ve seen me enough," he said. "I’m 65 years old. I may play there again sometime, but no time soon. Nothing against Indianapolis, but I’ve played there enough."