The Modesto Bee: John Mellencamp listens to the voices in his head, with surprising results


Indiana doesn’t have much on California when it comes to celebrity residents.

David Letterman. Larry Bird. The guy who draws Garfield. But few native Hoosiers have done as much to help define how the rest of the country think of Indiana than John Mellencamp. The rocker shot to fame in the 1980s and soon became known as the voice of the heartland. Timeless hits like “Small Town,” “Jack & Diane” and “Pink Houses” cemented his rural roots.

Now 65, Mellencamp continues to be a troubadour for his truth and still living in Indiana. And while the famously mercurial artist may have mellowed a bit with age, he is no less bold when it comes to his music. Not that, to hear him tell it, he has much of a choice.

“A voice in my head will go, ‘OK, put your brush down and write these words down,’” Mellencamp told Rolling Stone magazine recently. “And I’ll be like, ‘No, I don’t want to ******* write a song.’ Then the voice will go, ‘You better write this down, you idiot.’ Then I forget about it, and I find it and go, ‘When did I write this?’ It’s a wonderful way of writing songs.”

He stops to play the Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys on June 17 behind his latest release, “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” along with Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash who is heavily featured on the new album as well. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s album of the same name came out in April and shot to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 200.

While his all-American rock hits helped make him a star, Mellencamp has never been shy about his blues and country influences from albums like 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee” to 2003’s “Trouble No More.” This spring he also recorded a CMT “Crossroads” show with fellow rock-to-country convert Darius Rucker. Just don’t ask him about said supposed conversion.

“How do the country people define their relationship with me? I was doing this long before they were doing it – ‘Scarecrow,’ ‘Big Daddy,’ ‘Lonesome Jubilee.’ So I didn’t go to country. They caught up with me,” he said. “I hate to sound like Little Richard, when he kept going, ‘I invented rock ’n’ roll!’ But if you ask Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney what inspired them, they’ll tell you me.”

He also hasn’t shied away from his taste in social commentary. Whether singing about the plight of the American farmer (“Rain on the Scarecrow”), criticizing George W. Bush (“To Washington”) or taking note of popular political scapegoats of the moment (as in the first release off his new album, “Easy Target”).

Mellencamp told The Indianapolis Star the song, which touches on racial and economic inequalities, came to him while engaging in one of his other great passions – painting.

“I didn’t want to write that song,” Mellencamp said from his Brown County recording studio. “I was busy painting. (and the voice in his head said) ‘You need to stop what you’re doing and write this down....John, write the song down.’... “That’s it. I wasn’t even thinking about race or poor people. Nothing. So the song just kind of came.”