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John Mellencamp: A New Recording, An Old Sound

This interview was originally broadcast on March 31, 2009.

John Mellencamp's new CD, No Better Than This, was produced using vintage recording equipment at historic locations in order to capture the essence of old folk, country and blues music.

The Indiana-born singer-songwriter recorded the tracks for the album using just a single microphone and a mono tape recorder, in locations like Memphis' Sun Studios — once home to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash — on his days off while he was on the road with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

In a March 2009 interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, Mellencamp said that he almost never considered writing songs himself because he always had access to Dylan's repertoire.

"I was one of those guys, you know, playing and singing, and there was no reason for me to write a song, because there were so many beautiful songs out," he said. "And Bob Dylan was always the ultimate songwriter, and nobody could ever write a song as good as him, and nobody ever has written a song as good as him."

Mellencamp started writing his own music after he got his first record deal in the mid-1970s. But he didn't have his breakthrough until 1982, with the release of American Fool, featuring "Jack & Diane," which hit No. 1 on the pop charts, and "Hurts So Good," which won Mellencamp a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.

The next year, Mellencamp would release Uh-Huh, which featured the tracks "Pink Houses" and "Crumblin' Down." Shortly after releasing his next album, Scarecrow, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid concert with Neil Young and Willie Nelson.

He told Gross that he got his ideas for his music from a variety of sources.

"As I've matured as a songwriter, I realize that if it's out there, it's mine," he said. "You know, everything I see and hear. ... I will take ideas from anyplace, anywhere, anytime, and life has become a song to me. I'm always looking for a song."

In recent years, both Democratic and Republican candidates have used his songs in their campaigns. Two years ago, he performed "Pink Houses" at President Obama's inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, two months before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Billy Joel. His 26 albums have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Interview Highlights

On Going To Church As A Child

"Well my grandmother made sure that I went to church every Sunday. And she'd come over and pick us boys up, and we would go to the Nazarene church. And back then, that was about as close to heaven as I ever got, because just the time to be able to spend with her, and she was very, very religious.

"Before she died, she said, 'Listen, buddy, when you die, I'll be waiting on you, and you're in.' So I figure, you know, I don't — I got nothing to do. She's taken care of it for me. So if there is a heaven, I'm in. So I don't even think about it. Although she did say, 'Buddy, you're going to have to stop that cussing.' "

On The Topics Of His Songs

"I've got the same four songs, and I just rewrite them, you know, 50 times. But I've got four topics that I cover. You know, I cover race, and I cover what you're calling mortality, and then I, you know, sometimes write about girls, but I'm too old to write about that now. So, you know, I've only got a few things I write about. ... You've kind of got to lift up the veil of a lot of songwriters' songs to really realize what's being said."

On 'This Is Our Country' And Its Use In Commercials

"I still don't think that an artist should have to get involved with Wall Street on any level. That's not what I really do. I don't write songs for commercials, but I did this because I thought, 'Well, perhaps they are right.' I had so many people saying, 'John, you have turned down fortunes and fortunes of money, and now is the time. The music business has changed. ... Your songs can't grow from the ground up anymore. So go from it from a different angle.' So that's what we did."

On John McCain Using 'Pink Houses' In His Presidential Campaign

"What happened was that I called up my publicity guy, a guy named Bob Merlis. Bob said, 'You know, McCain's using your song.' I said 'Well, he can use it if he wants to, but you probably ought to write him a letter and say, 'You know, not only that you guys are using it, but so is Barack Obama, so is John Edwards, so is Hillary Clinton, and you should understand that Mellencamp is very liberal, and do you really think that it's pushing your agenda in the right direction? I mean, you're just really falling in line with all the other liberal candidates. Maybe you guys should rethink using the song.' We didn't tell him not to use it. We just wrote a letter that said, 'You guys might want to rethink about using this song,' and they quit using it."

On The First Record He Purchased

"The first record I ever bought was 'The Twist.' With my own money, I bought that by Chubby Checker and I was like, maybe, you know, 7 or 6 years old. And this girl who lived next door to us [and] her and I entered the twist contest in the window of the dime store in Seymour, Ind., and we won."

On The Nickname 'Cougar'

"It will never leave. I still walk down the street and people would say, 'Hey, John Cougar.' You know, I hear it all the time. Or John Cougar Mellencamp — I'll be introduced that way. But as you know, that's what it was, you know. I mean, that's what people, you know, knew me as at that time, and that's — you know, that's just the fate. That's, you know, that's the way God handed it out to me, and that's the cards I'm dealt, and so I deal with it."

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.