Detroit Show Preview / Mike Wanchic Interview

After all this time, John Mellencamp's lyrics still ring true; Artist to perform Friday at DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston
by Chad Swiatecki

CLARKSTON, Michigan -- There are pages and pages of socially relevant John Mellencamp lyrics to ponder, but chew on this one for a moment: "Record company's goin' out of business/Record prices are too damn high."

Sounds like a "no duh" statement, right? Hardly a revelation in these days when news of rampant music file sharing and piracy is all over the business and entertainment pages.

Except, here's the thing: That line from the song "Cheap Shot" was recorded in 1980 on the album "Nothin' Matters and What If It Did," when Mellencamp was forced to perform as John Cougar and was already bristling at the conventions of the music industry.

"What can I say? John was aware of being taken advantage of even back then," laughs Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp's guitarist and band leader for more than 30 years.

"He said that at a time when it was a lot harder to diss record companies than it is now, but anyone could see how messed up it was. If you've done 99 percent of the work in making something and a company comes along and says they'll manufacture it and keep 85 percent of the profits forever, what would you say? That's what a record deal was."

A lot has changed since then, but one thing that hasn't is Mellencamp's mission of crafting hard truths and vivid stories into song. It's what's guided him through 21 albums (his latest "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" was released today) and keeps him on the road with his latest tour, which visits DTE Energy Music Theatre in Clarkston on Friday.

It'll be an interesting show for old and new Mellencamp fans, Wanchic said, peppering hits from the past three decades with new material and older album cuts. A four-song solo suite is also in the mix, as is a section where the band takes on what Wanchic described as a "cocktail sound."

"The solo section is the really interesting one because you get to hear how he wrote those songs originally and where he started out with them, and I say that as someone who was there at the beginning," he said.

"We're trying to offer a broader musical palette and do things that satisfy us as artists. It would be all too easy to put together 20 top 10 singles, but that's not giving the audience something they haven't seen, and John's not that type of legacy artist."

Maybe not a legacy artist (lookup Newton, Wayne or Buffett, Jimmy) but certainly an artist with a legacy that includes representing the interests of the everyday working man and woman like those in his hometown of Bloomington, Ind., where he still resides.

That ambition keeps Mellencamp involved in charitable projects such as Farm Aid and the museums and other programs he sponsors at Indiana University.

And though there have been plenty of ups and downs in his career (record sales droughts, a near-fatal heart attack in the mid-'90s) Mellencamp's profile in recent years has been elevated by the success of his 2006 hit "Our Country," aka, the once-ubiquitous Chevrolet Silverado theme song.

Wanchic said the success of the song was a surprise to everyone in the band.

"John will never think, 'OK, I'm going to sit down and write a hit,' and we never intended for it to become the Silverado theme song," he said. "But when you have an American company like Chevy say this could work very well for us, then you put it out there, and the fact that it helped boost Silverado sales to some of their highest levels is great.

"Besides, for an established artist like John, what better ways are there to get exposure these days? It's not coming from radio, and the record companies are gonna be gone in another five years."

As it was in 1980, so it is today. Some things never change.