“I’m A Blue Guy In A Red State”: John Mellencamp And The Search For An American Soul

“I’m a blue guy in a red state”: John Mellencamp and the search for an American soul
As night comes to America, I visit John Mellencamp in his Indiana studio, where the art of tragedy and triumph rule


"I'm a blue guy in a red state": John Mellencamp and the search for an American soul
John Mellencamp (Credit: Marc Houser)
If you take the exit for the right rural route in Indiana, you will drive through hills of lush green on narrow backwoods roads. You and your vehicle will fall on the mercy of the wilderness. The cell phone will have no signal, and the road will be too narrow to accommodate two automobiles. You will pass miniature white churches, including one that proudly advertises itself as a home for Pentecostals. Just one hundred yards of dirt, grass and gravel separate speaking in tongues from the “Barn Dance” — a massive red edifice where country music blasts through the speakers every weekend, and the locals scuff the floors and wear down the heels of their cowboy boots. You will see a lawnmower repair shop with Coca-Cola machines propped against the wall near the front door. Then, with the correct navigation, you will find an unassuming, small green house where one of America’s greatest songwriters has created a life’s work of music — music to accompany the search for an American soul — since 1983.

“I have this studio, because I used to get into fights with other musicians when we worked out of the big studios in New York or LA,” John Mellencamp told me with a sardonic laugh.

When my own amusement prompted him to elaborate, he said, “Oh yeah — one of the guys from the Cars. I got into a bad one with another guy from Man-O-War. What was his name? He’s dead now.”

Mellencamp once attributed his uncanny ability to capture the reality of America’s triumphant and tragic struggle to achieve the beauty of democratic and egalitarian promise in the midst of painful, even fatal failures to simply looking out his window. “Small Town,” a magnificent celebration of communal bonds of solidarity and empathy with an alt-country meets rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, is such an act of musical observation, but so is “Ghost Towns Along the Highway,” a 2007 lament of funereal rock for villages like the one of Mellencamp’s origin — Seymour, Indiana — that were once prosperous but now hang over the edge of oblivion. “I just looked out my window, and wrote what I saw,” he said.

Outside the window of Mellencamp’s Nashville recording studio — that’s Nashville, Indiana — you will see the majesty and rarity of undeveloped America, and you will also see people who, for those who have spent their lives in nearby Indianapolis or Chicago, exist only on the large screens of movie theaters or in the dusty pages of novels. When I was less than two miles from Mellencamp’s recording studio, and driving slow through the twists and turns of the Indiana forest, I passed a ramshackle home with a large, bearded man sitting on the front porch reading the Bible. He waved to me. I waved back, and just a moment later found myself pulling into the driveway of the Belmont Mall, where I could hear one of the world’s best bands running through a fiery rendition of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Mellencamp’s enraged and mournful reaction to the corporate pulverization of the family farmer.

Unsure where to go or what to do, I wandered around the driveway. The band could see me from the window of the rehearsal space, which is little more than a finely renovated and converted garage. After 40 years in music — making hits and selling out arenas — Mellencamp still has a garage band. My presence did not matter, as the musicians, without Mellencamp, had surrendered themselves entirely to the energy of their performance. A beautiful woman with thick brown hair splashed with streaks of grey, wearing black leggings and tennis shoes, emerged out of the garage to welcome me to the property. She introduced herself, unaware that I recognized her at first glance.

“Hi, I’m Carlene. Can I help you?”

It was Carlene Carter, the prolific songwriter and tender singer who grew up with her mother, June Carter, and Johnny Cash. Carter plays such a prominent and powerful role on Mellencamp’s new record, “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies,” that across its front cover, underneath a painting by Mellencamp’s own hand, the text reads, “John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter.”

The new record continues Mellencamp’s unfathomable and largely underappreciated sequence of great albums. “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies,” with its combination of spooky blues, rollicking gospel, ribald rock ‘n’ roll, and country as melancholic as it is melodic, addresses subjects ranging from romantic love to Black Lives Matter; from stolen moments of joy to self-hatred.

“It all came together in about 90 seconds,” Carter told me as we waited for Mellencamp, who was making the short drive to the recording studio from his home in neighboring Bloomington. “We were on tour together, and while his band played an instrumental break, he leaned over and said, ‘Let’s make a record together.’ I said, ‘yes,’ and the next day we started writing.”

When I complimented “Indigo Sunset,” a stunningly beautiful tribute to lost love, Carter laughed. “I had that in my back pocket for years, but I knew it needed one big change. John did it in two minutes.” Her bond with Mellencamp — both as creative collaborators and friends — was instant, and so reminiscent of the mysterious chemistry of human connection, that Carter confesses it makes her think about the possibility of “divine order.” She asked if I was thirsty, handed me a cold can of root beer, and then went outside to check if “John is here.”

Mellencamp’s workspace is full of art books, hardback collections of prints with pencil-sketched notes in the margins. A framed photo of the Beatles hangs on the wall, while on an easel next to a large glass ashtray is a framed, handwritten letter from Barack Obama. In the bathroom, a poster from a Bridge School Benefit show featuring Mellencamp as co-headliner bears the signature of Neil Young. As I studied various souvenirs of excellence, artistry and accomplishment, I thought back to when I was a 13-year-old boy and I first heard the song “Hurts So Good” playing from a cassette boombox belonging to my friend’s older brother. In that moment, my lifelong love affair with rock ‘n’ roll began, but more important, I also made an entrance into the world of creativity, ideas and writing. The hormonally raging adolescent, even for all of his naïveté and idealism, would not have imagined sitting in Mellencamp’s studio sipping root beer with Carlene Carter, while listening to “American Fool” or “Scarecrow” and following along with the lyrics in the liner notes. The dialogic power of art, much like the magic of friendship, is a process of mysterious origin and effect.

“John, this is David. David, this is John,” Carter said when they walked into the room together. Mellencamp appeared just as I imagined he would — cigarette burning between his tattooed fingers, hair coiffed into an impossible pompadour like Elvis’. “It’s a good book,” Mellencamp said casually. I assumed he meant the book I wrote about his music, and before I could finish expressing how much such a simple compliment is an honor to me, Mellencamp started walking toward the soundboard. “Let’s do it over here.”

“What do you got, 20 minutes?” he asked while he crushed his cigarette. “How ever long you want,” I answered back. “Oh, good, we’re done then.” He laughed as he explained that he “hates interviews” — “I’m bored talking about myself.”

“Well, I’ll try not to make it feel too much like torture.”

“Don’t worry about it. I bitch about everything.”

Mellencamp’s cantankerous character has earned him a reputation. Once he admitted that he has two moods: “OK and pissed off.” When he sat across from me at the soundboard of his studio, he seemed to oscillate between the two states of mind. His visible irritation with much of what he discussed and derided never seemed like bitterness. He gives the impression that he is at ease with himself and at peace with his life, but that even at the age of 65, he maintains the anger that animated his chart-topping confession, “I fight authority / Authority always wins.”

The less romantic line of that lyric assumes perpetual defeat for the rebel. While Mellencamp is still as pugilistic as a heavyweight with his eyes on the prize, he seems resigned to the limits American culture places on authentic and artistic expression.

“I think we’ve gone through a cultural change,” Mellencamp observed. “What I do, and especially guys and gals around my age — we like to think it has some importance, but it probably does not. Rock music and folk music no longer seem to have much value or influence. That’s why I laugh when I hear musicians talk about playing for their legacy. What the fuck are you talking about? There’s no legacy. None of us will be remembered. Maybe people will remember Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Chuck Berry, maybe even Dylan. That’s about it.”

He then shared with me a recent text message he sent to his 35-year-old daughter with a jocular reference to Roy Rogers. She had no familiarity with the legendary singer and actor. “You look at people who have died in music, and you see how the family and the record company partner to sell everything off for the maximum amount of money. They don’t give a shit about it. They just want the money,” Mellencamp explained, and as “distasteful” as he finds it, he does view the liquidation of the music business and traditional radio as part of the steady erosion of cultural infrastructure in the United States.

One musical innovation for which Mellencamp receives insufficient credit is the use of traditional instrumentation in rock ‘n’ roll to create a hybrid of folk, country, gospel and rock. In the late 1980s, Mellencamp scored major hits with songs featuring violin, banjo, accordion and dobro — long before Americana became as popular a genre as it is now. When I asked him if he feels he should garner more praise for his influence, he shrugged the question off. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“For me, it was the most natural thing in the world. I was singing in bar bands since I was 15, and playing soul music and rock music, but also, around the same time, I started singing folk songs, and with just my guitar I’d play some hotel or lounge. Back then, you could turn on the radio, and on the same station you could hear a rock song, a soul song, a folk song. So, for me it’s all always just been music.”

There is an unbreachable distance between the organic process of creativity Mellencamp describes, whether in his youth listening to the diversity of American music on the radio and trying to replicate it on a small Indiana stage, or now spending nine hours in his painting studio, and the hawking, marketing and packaging of the product. Mellencamp finds “liberating” the recognition that legacy is an illusion and that importance is elusive.

“I don’t even think about it any longer,” Mellencamp said. “Unless someone like you asks me a question, it doesn’t even occur to me. It doesn’t concern me how I’ll be remembered, because I’ll be dead.”

“That’s why in the ’90s,” Mellencamp continued, “I began working less. I found myself becoming the guy I always despised. I was competitive, and driven by the wrong ideas — ‘Did we sell 30,000 tickets?’ ‘Why isn’t my new single charting higher?’ — I had to break out of that mindset, even though it is a really American mindset.”

Emancipated from the careerist cell of his own mind’s making, and liberated to live permanently on the emotional edge of invention, Mellencamp’s motivation is now much simpler. “I try to live the life of an artist, which means that I work on creating something every day. Today, before I came here, I was painting. There is a certain magic that happens some nights on stage, but I’d rather be home painting than in some fucking shed.”

“Would you still write songs?” I ask, and without hesitation, Mellencamp answers in the affirmative. “Writing songs is the best part of the musical process, and because I have the studio, I can record them. To put them out, now, is different. I think of my records simply as postcards. Unless you’re Adele or some pop phenomenon, the idea that you are going to sell records is laughable. But the postcards tell people, ‘I’m not sitting on my spine worrying about playing ‘Hand to Hold Onto” or ‘Hurts So Good.’”

The difference between the brash, young and green John Cougar who wrote those hits in the early 1980s, and John Mellencamp, who compiles musical postcards, is the difference between obligation and inspiration. “It was hard for me then, because it had never dawned on me that I would write songs. I knew I would sing songs, but I never thought about writing them. I don’t even have an approach now. I’m very lucky. The songs just come to me. I’m open creatively to ideas about paintings and songs. When you have that communication with creation, shit comes to you. I cannot explain it, but it happens. There is a song on the new record, ‘Easy Target,’ that I could not write fast enough. It presented itself to me in full form.”

“Black lives matter / Who we trying to kid?” Mellencamp sings in his chilled-to-the-bone ballad of American exploitation, “Easy Target.” “Don’t matter / Never did / Crosses burning / Such a long time ago / 400 years and we still don’t let it go.”

Rare for most white men in their 60s, Mellencamp has spent a lifetime chronicling the violence of racism and white supremacy. “Easy Target,” like an additional chapter in a trauma narrative, perfectly complements the Mellencamp songs, “Pink Houses,” “Peaceful World” and “Jim Crow.”

“My great-great grandmother was black,” Mellencamp said. “When I was a teenager I was in an integrated band called Crepe Soul. We played the Salem Speedway, and in bars throughout Indiana. I was not naïve about the race problems, but it was shocking for me to see, as a kid, how in one second the audience was singing along and cheering on our black singer, and then 20 minutes later they were calling him names and getting into fist fights.”

Performing at small racetracks in Indiana, and continuing to live in a provincial village in the Midwest, not only provides Mellencamp with a treasure trove of material for his muse to inspect before she knocks on the walls of mind, but it also places him in the center of what many conservative commentators have mythologized as the “real America.” Success and failure; good and evil stand side by side on the rural route, just as Mellencamp has artistically illustrated throughout his career. It is the home of kindhearted, hospitable people who seek only quiet lives of stability and family, but it is also the shadowed center of bigotry, social recrimination, and political regression — the place where the black singer of a soul and blues cover band barely makes it out of the venue alive. The rural route, as no shortage of analysts have explained, has also become Trump territory.

Mellencamp often self-identifies as one of the few voices who does not exclusively broadcast to his base. “I’m a blue guy in a red state,” he says. What insight does he gain into the celebration of Trump from his neighbors?

“Through its lack of creativity, slowly but surely this country changes by the men we admire,” Mellencamp said. “It is not difficult for people to be snookered, particularly when the most successful movies deal with superheroes — Batman, Spider-Man. These are the big franchise movies that make money. Not just with kids, but adults. So, because of lack of imagination, maturity — many people in this country wanted a superhero. And then this TV guy comes along and says what? Only I can fix it . . . Only I can do this . . . ”

Mellencamp lights another cigarette and scratches his forehead, his voice growing louder as he extends his argument. “Maybe people will catch onto it, but sometimes, whether people listen or not, it takes the artist to demonstrate the truth of the matter. I remember one year at Farm Aid, Bush had announced that the war in Iraq would last for only three weeks, but he asked for an obscene amount of money. I said, ‘Bush claims that the war will last only three weeks, and he’s just asked for all of this money. Does anyone really believe that?’ They booed me.” He shouted in disbelief: “At Farm Aid, and I’m one of the fucking founders of it.”

“But, I’ve always said,” Mellencamp added with a grin, “If you are in the public eye, and you haven’t been booed off stage at least once, you haven’t done anything worth shit.”

“The World Don’t Bother Me None,” is the name and declaration of one of Mellencamp’s best songs — an obscure anthem for the documentary “America’s Heart and Soul.” The movie gives glimpses into the lives of unknown artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and social activists around the country. No matter how divergent their work — whether it is woolmaking in the hills of Kentucky or jazz composition in the neon reflection of New York — all of the unsung heroes of American creativity and diversity pursue their passions, even while their culture and country intervenes with the impediments of financial pressure, communal ostracization or political obstruction.

Much of America’s cultural drift has occurred due to the winds of apathy. Mellencamp believes that individual and institutional improvement would result if people would seek to activate their own agency, rather than settling for passive consumption and commentary. “It takes some courage to go out and do something — whether it is write songs or write books or organize a march,” Mellencamp said, contrasting the spirit of individuality and initiative in “The World Don’t Bother Me None” with the mediocre tedium of passivity. “It is much easier to sit back and be an armchair judge, jury and hangman. It doesn’t take much of a man, or much of a woman, to lean against the back wall and heckle.”

Songs might appear for Mellencamp at the bottom of a bolt of inspiration, but in his early years, his arrangements required exhaustive “on the job training.”

“Believe it or not, we recorded over one hundred takes of ‘Hurts So Good,’ and that song is so simple,” he said. “But it was hard for us. Those early takes were terrible. Now, we do three or four takes.”

In the 1990s, it was his own deficit of energy and avidity that resulted in him making music he now sees as below his standard of excellence. “Are you unhappy with those songs?” I asked.

“No, I’m not unhappy. I just don’t like them.” Mellencamp said that after he had married his now ex-wife, Elaine Irwin, had two sons, and then suffered a heart attack, his “heart was not in the process of making records.”

“Sad Clowns and Hillbillies,” his 23rd studio album, offers an entirely different experience to the listener. It is an emotional triathlon; a trek through the varied topography of American music. If it were a postcard, it would arrive through the U.S. mail on a gigantic canvas. There is the blind whimsy in a waltz when Mellencamp’s character sings of loving a woman he knows does not love him back, but freely falling for all her charms and tricks in “You Are Blind.” “Damascus Road” is a dark, gospel and rock blend of a man in spiritual crisis as he approaches the hour of his death. In the plaintive and painful folk ballad “What Kind of Man Am I?”, Mellencamp sings of a loner whose weakness and self-delusion have turned his life into a city of ruins. “My Soul’s Got Wings,” written by Carlene Carter, is a gospel celebration fit for a roadside tent revival in the Deep South summer heat. “Grandview,” the album’s lone tune of rock ‘n’ roll purity, most reminiscent of Mellencamp’s ’80s records, “Uh-Huh” and “Scarecrow,” sounds like an escapist tribute to the libido, but underneath the surface there is a raw account of the low expectations people have for their lives when they cannot envision an exit out of poverty.

“When you start dealing with the general public, you really have to dumb it down,” Mellencamp told me. “That’s why my songs like ‘Hurts So Good’ were such big hits. There was nothing to think about.”

He starts to laugh. “Don’t get me wrong, I was on the top of my game at the time.”

There is nothing remotely dumb on “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.” The record emerges as yet another mark to measure the growth of Mellencamp from what he once called “a macho twit” into a seasoned songwriter whose music has the potential to challenge the intellect, pull at the heart and shake the spirit, just as much as it has the capacity to entertain.

Entertainment, however, is what Mellencamp fears most people exclusively desire. “John Prine said it best,” he remembered. “He told me, ‘You’d think after one hundred years of doing this, one fucking person would take the time to think about what I actually said in a song.”

“The best example is Crumblin’ Down,” Mellencamp said before breaking into its first few lines. Mellencamp’s unexpected vocal performance electrified the atmosphere of the room.

Well, some people ain’t no damn good
You can’t trust them, you can’t love them
No good deed goes unpunished
And I don’t mind being their whipping boy
Hell, I’ve had that pleasure for years and years

His last few words trailed off. “People think of it as some party anthem. It is a song about the challenges of being a young guy in the Midwest during the Reagan years, and how the walls will only come crumbling down if it is exposed that the king has no clothes.”

“Well, some people say I’m obnoxious and lazy / I’m uneducated…” he began to sing again before immediately adding, “You know, I have kids who haven’t even listened to all of my music. One of them called me up on the phone two weeks ago because he heard one of my old songs on the radio for the first time.”

“Does that bother you?” I ask.

“No. Why should it? People have different interests.”

There is not a summer that passes without a Fourth of July festival blasting “Pink Houses” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” just before the fireworks display. “Those songs are anything but patriotic celebrations,” I told Mellencamp, as if he was unaware. “Well, they’ve made them into that,” he shot back. “Those songs are subtle enough, and there’s enough going on in between the lines, that people can ignore their true meaning. I’ve never wanted to write or even listen to songs that are on the nose, though. That’s the problem with contemporary country music. Most of contemporary country songs are so on the nose that they are really for people who don’t want to put any thought into what they are hearing.”

The subject of commercialization and shallow entertainment values provoked Mellencamp to circle back to his earlier topic of the decline in American storytelling — a field, as far as he observes, no longer in the control of men and women like one his favorite artists, Tennessee Williams, but the CGI specialists of comic book movies. “Hollywood and the record companies have turned the entire country into a cartoon,” he said.

The true brilliance and greatness of American art rests in its potential to wrestle with what Mellencamp called the “dimension of tragedy.” Now under the suffocation of sanitization, commercial art, like national politics in its adoption of a delinquent criteria to choose men fit for admiration, successively fails to live up to its potential. Its promise perishes quietly and without ceremony, much like the fish in the classic novella from one of the writers Mellencamp most admires, Ernest Hemingway. In “The Old Man and the Sea,” the elderly fisherman Santiago nearly destroys his body to angle a giant marlin. Before he can bring the aquatic beast to shore, sharks have devoured its flesh, leaving only a skeleton to represent what was once majestic and beautiful.

Death has often acted as inspiration for Mellencamp. “Scarecrow” had Mellencamp examining mortality and disappointment after his grandfather’s death, while “The Lonesome Jubilee” emerged out of the conflicted mourning he felt after his bitter and resentful uncle’s passing. I asked him about this predilection for death.

“It is because I grew up listening to American songwriting,” Mellencamp said. “American songwriting is fraught with tragedy. If you listen to Jimmie Rodgers, if you listen to Hank Williams, if you listen to Woody Guthrie, if you listen to Robert Johnson, all of those songs are fraught with fucking tragedy. The 1990s were really the last gasp of music wrestling with tragedy. The further we drifted from the original, great songwriters, the worse it got.”

When I asked why the tragic element of human life has disappeared from American entertainment, Mellencamp offered a simple but profound conclusion: “People don’t want to know about it.”

Carlene Carter stood in the driveway when we left the recording studio, and Mellencamp joined his band to run through a frenetic and fiery rendition of “Paper in Fire,” an Americana collision with rock that summons all of his early influences, along with his own sense of primal abandon in musical expression, to narrate a story of people’s individual and collective impulses toward self-destruction.

There’s a good life
Right across this green field
And each generation
Stares at it from afar
But we keep no check
On our appetites
So the green fields turn to brown
Like paper in fire

As the band crashed through the closing notes, I thought of the lyrical change Carter told me Mellencamp made to her song. He changed her original line, “I close my eyes and I see you,” to the elegiac, “I see the sun setting on you.”

While the sun sets on an America once ambitious enough to earn its own elegance and excellence, and while the night darkens throughout an America that aspires to discover the truth of its imagination, one can only hope for the dawn. John Mellencamp, in an act of subtle subversion, will continue to inject the element of tragedy into his songs of life, death, love and freedom, working out of a small house in a small town in Indiana.

Mellencamp’s music depicts a ride that is full of triumph and tragedy — dark roads with potholes and breathtaking coastal highways. “Happiness and sadness walk hand in hand,” Mellencamp said. “I don’t think about, ‘Am I happy? or Am I sad?’”

“I just am,” he said softly and then repeated it, again, barely audible under his breath, “I just am.”