Early on, John Mellencamp felt a strong kinship with folk icon Woody Guthrie, whose guitar bore a sticker that read, "This Machine Kills Fascists."
"He was always fighting authority," says Mellencamp, 60. "That's a romantic vision for a young man. I not only appreciated what he stood for, but I was fascinated with his personal life as a nomad. I enjoyed the fact that he was a womanizer. And I liked that he wasn't looking for a fight, but he wasn't going to back down. That was for me."
Like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp drew heavily from the music and ideals of the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," whose work and influence are being celebrated during a global, year-long Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration. Mellencamp and Arlo Guthrie will co-headline (and perform a song together) at a tribute concert Saturday as part of this week's commemoration in Tulsa. Rosanne Cash, Del McCoury Band, the Flaming Lips, Hanson and others also are on the roster.
SCHEDULE: Tours, exhibits, more for Guthrie centennial
Mellencamp's set list? "Whatever songs sound best in rehearsals," he says. He did Guthrie's Johnny Hart on Trouble No More, a 2003 compilation of blues covers. And his version of Do Re Mi is on the 1988 CD and documentary A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
The Indiana singer/songwriter fell under Guthrie's spell at age 6 or 7, before rock 'n' roll snared him. His father had one Guthrie record (he can't recall the title) in a collection of jazz and folk.
"We had that big stereo that took up half the living room," Mellencamp says. "When my parents were out, my brother and I would sort through their records. That's how I discovered Woody. To a young person, discovering music is like your first love affair. It left quite an indelible mark."
He was particularly impressed by This Land Is Your Land, Guthrie's 1940 retort to Irving Berlin's God Bless America. Guthrie's earliest recording references a "no trespassing" sign and the verse: "But on the other side it didn't say nothing/That side was made for you and me."
This Land "was in direct conflict with the image America was trying to propagandize to the world," Mellencamp says. "He was blowing against the wind, and you have to admire a guy for that."
Guthrie's influence can be heard in the populist tilt of Mellencamp's rootsy heartland rock, from Small Town, Hard Times for an Honest Man and Rain on the Scarecrow to his anti-war To Washington and the politician-skewering Rodeo Clown and Country Gentleman.
"I can only write about what I see," he says. "In my old age, I've learned to keep my head down and do what I do."
Mellencamp has been busy tweaking Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the haunting Southern gothic musical he and author Stephen King hatched in 2000. It opens April 4 in Atlanta. Universal is keen to release a set of the singer's obscure covers, akin to Dylan's Good as I Been to You. A rock record also may be in the cards.
"I don't know why you'd make a record now," he says. "I treat them as postcards. 'Hey, here's what I'm doing.' I don't expect to sell them or have them on the radio.
"I'm against any type of promotion. You get to a certain age, you don't want to see yourself on television. I see some of my contemporaries do that, and I go, 'Oh, man, stop, please stop.' It's hard to be 60 and act like you're 27. It just doesn't work."