John Mellencamp used to feel at home playing the biggest arenas and amphitheaters that could hold him during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.
Nowadays, however, the “Small Town” guy likes the smaller places.
Some of it is pragmatic, he freely acknowledges. The albums and radio play are not as abundant as they were during the multiplatinum ’80s heyday of “American Fool,” “Uh-Huh,” “Scarecrow” and “The Lonesome Jubilee.” Fortunately, however, that dovetails with a time in his life when Mellencamp, at 63, has less interest in playing the big rock shows.
“I just can’t go out in front of 10,000 drunk people and play anymore,” the Indiana native says in a recent interview. “There’s nothing there for me to do that. I’m a musician. I’m a songwriter. You’re coming to hear music. I’m not here for your folly and your throwing up, too. I really have no interest in doing that.”
But before he sounds like, well, his father, Mellencamp adds, “Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing with people having a drink or being stoned a little bit, but I don’t want fights breaking out and I don’t want to have to stop the show because people are jumping on the stage and all that stupid (stuff). That was all really fun when you were 28. It’s ... silly now”
The theaters and opera houses are also better suited for Mellencamp’s latest album, the aptly titled “Plain Spoken,” which came out in September. It’s his first new release in seven years, and Mellencamp’s first in a new lifetime deal with Republic Records.
“I thought it was time to probably make one,” Mellencamp says with a chuckle. “Y’know, I’ve never planned nothing in my life. I probably could’ve been more popular if I would’ve made a plan.”
Popularity is relative, of course. Since 1976 he’s sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, scored nearly two dozen Top 40 hits and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He also established credentials in painting, film (“Falling From Grace,” “After Image,” “Lone Star State of Mind”) and, more recently theater, via “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a joint effort with Stephen King.
Mellencamp began his career as Johnny Cougar during the mid-’70s, eventually retaking his surname and growing from brash ne’er-do-well into an Americana troubadour and activist who co-founded Farm Aid in 1984. Nearly four decades in, Mellencamp still sounds quietly awed by how durable his career has been.
“We were all kids when we signed our first (record) deals, and you didn’t really anticipate making records your entire life,” says the thrice-married Mellencamp, who has five children and has been linked with actress Meg Ryan, who took the cover photo for “Plain Spoken.” “I got a text from another artist the other day that just read, ‘Can you ... believe we’re still doing this?’ I wrote back, ‘No. It’s unbelievable to me.’
“I’m very grateful that I never had to have a straight job. I never had to do any of that stuff. But I will tell you that being in a rock band — I don’t even like to use the word ‘rock’ anymore — early in my career and now being a songwriter and my own boss tends to make it all very colorful, to be kind. It makes a guy very colorful.”
Early on, in fact, Mellencamp dubbed himself The Little Bastard on production credits in a nod to his sometimes surly temperament and the bad-boy posture of his music. At the start of “Plain Spoken” he declares himself “a troubled man,” while on “The Isolation of Mister” he confesses that he’s “never looked forward to the future, never enjoyed where I’ve been.” Give him an opening in conversation, he’ll grouse with gusto about the political right, the deteriorating state of the music industry and declining opportunities for artists in the Internet age.
“Intellectual property, it just doesn’t have any value because everybody thinks music should be free. Everybody thinks books should be free, and movies,” Mellencamp explains. And because of that, he considers “Plain Spoken” “just a calling card.”
“I don’t intend that it’s going to sell anything like I used to sell. Everybody goes, ‘Oh, it’s his age. He’s not writing hit songs. ...’ “That’s bull---- It’s got nothing to do with my age. It’s got nothing to do with the songs on the record. It has to do with the delivery system, the Internet, and that people don’t want to pay for music anymore.”
Mellencamp acknowledges that environment is liberating for a veteran artist like him, however, and “Plain Spoken” reflects that. Its 10 songs are dominated by acoustic instruments and introspective lyrical ruminations. It’s not until the closing “Lawless Times” that he and his band get up a head of blues-rock steam as he rails about big business, government, authority in general and illegal downloading.
“I think it’s definitely not an album a 25-year-old could write,” Mellencamp says. “Maybe some of our greatest songwriters could’ve written something like that at 25; obviously (Bob) Dylan did. But for me it was an achievement to be able to take my life experience and try to relate it to people our age, which is really what this record is.
“I’m not sure how much my 19-year-old son would enjoy this record, y’know? He’s 19; I’m not so sure he’s gonna know what I’m talking about. But that’s OK. It’s not for him. I don’t have to write songs for 19-year-olds anymore. That’s not really in my vocabulary anymore.”