The Orange County Register: John Mellencamp Looks Back On Years Of Making Music

By Kelli Skye Fadroski - The Orange County Register - Article includes photo slide show.

Indiana born singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has enjoyed a lengthy and successful music career. He has released 22 studio albums, which spawned over a dozen hits such as “Jack & Diane,” “Small Town” and “Pink Houses.”

He continues to tour North America extensively and has collaborated with numerous top-selling artists and music legends. Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and scored his first Grammy that same year. He’s also one of the founding members and still very active with the organization Farm Aid, having helped raise more than $48million to keep families in rural areas living and working on their farms.

The 63-year-old has done it all in these past four decades, he said, by sticking true to his motto: “Try to be honest and never kiss ass.”

It’s just a little something he picked up from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, two artists which Mellencamp said during a recent phone interview that he loved just being around.

“Those are the two guys that I think I admire for their songwriting ability and the way they conducted themselves,” he said. “I think that it would be fair to say that both of those guys were always honest and they never kissed ass.”

Mellencamp and his crew put a lot of thought into creating the perfect set lists for their latest North American jaunt, which includes 80 show dates and kicked off in January in support of his 2014 record, “Plain Spoken.” The tour stops in Los Angeles on Tuesday at the Microsoft Theater, formerly Nokia Theatre L.A. Live.

“It’s very important that I present an age-appropriate show,” he said. “I don’t want to, nor do I need to pretend that I’m still 25. When you combine certain songs together, they take on a whole different meaning than they did when I wrote some of them like back in ’85. So, surrounded by songs written in 2015, they’ve taken on a whole different gravity. This show is for people who like to listen to music and appreciate musicianship and songwriting. It’s for people who want to sing along, who want to dance and have a good time. But, if you’re coming just to get drunk, don’t come.”

Though he admits that he’s not so good at recalling which album which songs came from, or even his own song titles at times, he said the sets would include a mix of hits, with some of the more rockin’ tracks getting an acoustic treatment, as well as deep cuts and a handful of new, more roots rock and folk-sounding songs like the lead single “Troubled Man,” “Lawless Times” and “The Isolation of Mister.” Several conversations took place about which songs would be played in which order to really create a good retrospective of Mellencamp’s career.

“I’ll be honest ... I don’t remember which songs are on ‘Plain Spoken,’” he said with a laugh, as he had to call out to someone while we were on the phone to help him remember the title of the song “The Isolation of Mister.” Even after singing a few lyrics, he chuckled at his momentary forgetfulness.

“When we first put this thing together one of the band guys said ‘OK, you have three songs from this album and two from this one, but did you want to play anything from ‘Big Daddy’ or anything from ‘Mr. Happy Go Lucky’ because if you did, you’re not.’ There was a lot of that going on, but it was important that the songs all tied together in some fashion. I had a lot of hit records that I’m not playing because they just don’t fit this format.”

He has also been joined on stage during this outing by tour opener Carlene Carter, a country singer-songwriter and daughter of June Carter, on “Away From This World” and “Tear This Cabin Down.” Both offerings are off of the soundtrack to the musical “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which Mellencamp worked on and launched alongside author Stephen King and musician-producer T Bone Burnett in 2012. Carter and Mellencamp will be getting back together when the tour ends Aug. 4 in Indianapolis to record a brand new duets record, he added.

“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” was a project Mellencamp had worked on for the better part of a decade and he’s happy with the outcome. The score and soundtrack had him teaming up with artists such as Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Ryan Bingham, Taj Mahal and Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters. The musical is currently being set up for performances in London, but will hopefully return to the U.S. sometime next year.

“Broadway is a very different kind of place,” Mellencamp said when asked if he’d consider doing more musicals. “It’s kind of like Nashville in that there’s a certain amount of people that are involved and those people are what run it. You’re either in or you’re not, and Stephen and I weren’t, so we ended up doing things the roundabout way. In London, the people working on ‘Ghost Brothers’ there are people that run the West End, so I feel very confident that good things are going to happen with that.”