The Tennessean: Honesty Still Drives John Mellencamp's Brand of Music - Songwriter To Be Honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

The By Peter Cooper

Twenty-three years ago, amid radio directives to “walk like an Egyptian” and “wang chung tonight,” suddenly there arose a sprightly interplay of accordions and fiddles.

The instigator was John Mellencamp, the musical pugilist once known as Johnny Cougar. He was using his pop star status as a bully pulpit, proclaiming the validity of tradition-based American roots music and proving the commercial worth of what has come to be known as Americana.

On Thursday, Mellencamp will receive a lifetime achievement award for songwriting from the Americana Music Association. It’ll be the first formal acknowledgment of his impact on a music movement whose practitioners tend to rhapsodize about doomed “Cosmic American Music” enthusiast Gram Parsons, doomed song-poet Townes Van Zandt and other shadowy masters of jagged song.

Mellencamp’s name went unmentioned at past AMA awards shows, and yet the impact of 1980s albums such as Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee is hard to dispute. With those works, he tweaked the ears of millions of listeners, helping make palatable a rootsy blend of largely acoustic instrumentation.

He did not invent the kind of music now made by Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale and others, but he furthered its popular cause. And this year he has issued a nearly universally praised album called No Better Than This, which dwells in country and blues terrains and was recorded at three Americana Meccas: Sun Records in Memphis, the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson first recorded, and the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., a former Underground Railroad hideout.

No Better Than This, which features contributions from Nashville bass man Dave Roe and from former Jason and the Scorchers guitarist Andy York, was produced by tastemaker T Bone Burnett. The musicians gathered around one RCA microphone and played and sang. Mellencamp’s 1980s hits weren’t recorded so simply, but neither were they exercises in artifice. They were Americana songs that happened upon unlikely popularity, and they impacted audiences and artists alike.

Mellencamp recently spoke with The Tennessean about his life and career, and about his dealings with one notable Music City pool shark.

No Better Than This is garnering the best reviews of your career. Surely that’s a point of pride?

Well, it’s interesting to me. I don’t live my life by reviews. If I did, I would have quit a long time ago. But I’m very happy that people are discovering this record in a very natural way.

It’s a different kind of album. And so was Lonesome Jubilee, back in 1987.

Yes, I was acutely aware of how different Lonesome Jubilee was, simply because the guy I was making records with (Don Gehman) spent the entire record fighting with me, saying, “Why are you doing this? You just made Scarecrow, and now why are we changing?” I said, “We’re not changing, just moving a little bit further. We’re progressing.”

Did the record company go along with that progression?

In the early ’80s, I made a record called American Fool, and the record company absolutely hated everything about it. They hated the songs, hated the production and hated me. But, much to their chagrin, or good fortune, it had two songs on it (“Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane”) that were both No. 1 records. That album turned out to be the largest-selling album of the year in 1982.

After something like that happens, it became “Well, we already told him we hated this record, so our advice to him is worthless.” I never had interference after that. Which is good. I really hate to be told what to do. I wrote “The Authority Song,” and it may be juvenile in its lyrical content, but I still feel the same way today.

Do you consider your songs to be Americana works?

After I learned to write songs, I had Woody Guthrie in one hand, Hank Williams and Smokey Robison in the other. Combining with Hank and Woody and all of a sudden putting the melodies — my strongest suit — with this type of folk music. I’ve always considered myself a folk singer. I read a review the other day that said, “John Mellencamp’s new record is like a lost Woody Guthrie record,” and I liked that.

In the new century, T Bone Burnett has introduced more people to roots music than anyone else, through his work on movie soundtracks and through his productions with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Jakob Dylan and others. What did he bring to this project for you?

I think the reason T Bone is so successful, and the reason I work with him, is (that) his sense of honesty toward the music is unparalleled. He’s my conscience in the studio.

When I started with T Bone, he’d go, “Why are you (cluttering) up this song with all this stuff you don’t need? Just put a bass and drums on it and let’s call it made.” It takes courage to expose a song so nakedly, and that’s one of the things people are responding to.

Of course, you’ve got to have the right bass and drums.

Yeah, and we did. Dave Roe on bass was absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to come play on it. He was spectacular. These guys had not heard any of those songs until I would go, “Okay, here’s the next song.” I’d play it on acoustic and we’d launch into it. No arrangements, and they all jumped right in.

You didn’t record any of this album in Nashville, but Nashville isn’t new to you.

I’ve been there a lot. One time, in probably 1985, I came to play at the arena, and I walked into the Hermitage Hotel, where I was staying. Turned out (billiards legend) Minnesota Fats was living there.

I was shooting around at the pool table, and this guy comes up and says, “You want to shoot for some money?” After he hustled me, he gave me a card that said, “You’ve just been hustled by Minnesota Fats.”

He also gave me one of my favorite lines. He was telling me how handsome he used to be. He said women used to follow him around with mattresses on their backs.

Isn’t that lucky, to have a story like that? I’m the luckiest guy in the music business. No matter who you are, nobody’s had more fun than me. I’ve had so much good fortune, it’s ridiculous. I’ve fought with many, but people love me just the same.