In his first album of all new songs in over five years, John Mellencamp revisits the themes and locales that have long characterized his songwriting while continuing to confront head-on the grave issues that are at the core of our country's current condition. But in Freedom's Road, this most outspoken and influential of recording artists has also reconstructed his trademark roots-rock sound.
Indeed, Mellencamp, who virtually invented the genre now also known as heartland rock or Americana, has fine-tuned his sound with an ear toward the rock sounds that his music developed out of-particularly the highly influential garage-rock variant. In a recent interview, he noted that in order to get the sound exactly right, he and his band recorded the album's songs in the rehearsal room of his Belmont Mall studio in Bloomington, Indiana-which, in fact, is a literal garage.
It was in that very garage that that Mellencamp -- who wrote and produced Freedom's Road -- and his longtime band members Mike Wanchic and Andy York spent almost a full year creating a worthy template for the new material that would still retain the essence of his long-established musical identity. Hence "Our Country," the #1 Classic Rock hit that heralded Freedom's Road with its release in October, is as evocative of any number of his many previous populist anthems.
Yet, there is a discernable difference in opening track "Someday." Stark and intense with burning guitar play underscoring a message of hope in the face of "intolerance, ignorance and fear," the song is truly redolent of Mellencamp's musical upbringing. "Ghost Towns Along the Highway," the next cut, likewise finds love existing in a desolated landscape. "It's not really about ghost towns along the highway," he told Performing Songwriter. "It's about each individual and the opportunities that we have in our personal lives that we let go of, that we ignore. When I was writing the songs, I was very cognizant of trying to send two different messages to the listener."
But Freedom's Road now shifts dramatically to an upbeat, tuneful "The Americans," glorifying in the common ground and goodwill of hardworking Americans of all stripes-much in the manner of the mutual respect expressed in Mellencamp's 2004 "What Say You" country duet hit with Travis Tritt. The reflective "Forgiveness" strikes another universal chord in recognizing "plenty of goodness in this world" while owning up to his own failings.
"Jim Crow," among the album's most arresting songs, takes on racism-with the help of the legendary folksinger and political activist Joan Baez. Also guesting notably, on "Our Country," and numerous other tracks is Little Big Town, the young country vocal group that had been his opening act when Mellencamp starting performing the song in concert last year.
In "Rural Route" Mellencamp addresses what has become an all too common horror of a little girl's disappearance--minus the resulting all too common thirst for revenge. Sadly, this narrative is based on a true story. But "My Aeroplane" then offers a tuneful take on the same humanitarian gist of the Weavers' (and made popular by Peter, Paul & Mary and Trini Lopez) great folk hit "If I Had a Hammer."
Freedom's Road ends with the Dylanesque vision of "Heaven is a Lonely Place," which seems only fitting: Mellencamp cited "Masters of War" when asked what music had swayed him toward his own political activism, as well as the songs of Woody Guthrie. Such influences were strongly manifested in his last album, Trouble No More, which was released in 2003 and was his first album containing all cover material, primarily the deep blues of Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon but also including songs by Hoagy Carmichael, Lucinda Williams, and his avowed hero Guthrie.
In fact, as a child growing up in Seymour, Indiana, Mellencamp (who was born October 7, 1951) listened to his parents' Guthrie recordings. Long afterwards, he appeared on the Folkways: A Vision Shared-A Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly album with the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen; he also received the Huntington's Disease Society of America's 2003 Woody Guthrie Award for his embodiment of Guthrie's ideals.
But these influences weren't particularly evident in Mellencamp's initial musical incarnation. A rebellious teenager who played in local bands and worked various blue-collar jobs, he succeeded in securing a high-powered manager and recording contract after going back and forth to New York to further his artistic ambitions. His first album, Chestnut Street Incident, was released in 1976 and showed a hard rock edge-not to mention a hard rock stage name in Johnny Cougar that had been thrust upon him, a handle that would take him years to dispatch once and for all. The name was shortened to John Cougar for his second album, The Kid Inside (1977), but the sound-and Mellencamp's wild and unruly rock 'n roll image-remained.
Mellencamp's third U.S. album, John Cougar, was released in 1979, after a foreign release, A Biography, yielded an Australian hit in "I Need a Lover." The song was a Top 40 hit for him in America-and spawned a major cover version by Pat Benatar. This set the stage for the Steve Cropper-produced 1980 follow-up album Nothin' Matters and What if it Did, Mellencamp's first Top 40 album foray, buoyed by a pair of Top 40 hits in "This Time" and "Ain't Even Done With the Night."
But his next album, American Fool, was his career turning point. The 1982 release went to #1, much thanks to its Grammy-winning #2 single "Hurts So Good"-a good-time rocker--and its chart-topping hit "Jack & Diane," a small-town romantic vignette that was a harbinger of his future work. The album, which went on to sell over four million copies, also included the Top 20 hit "Hand to Hold On," a song that likewise pointed the way toward the compassion that has marked so many of Mellencamp's songs ever since.
Next came 1983's Uh-Huh -the perfect follow-up to American Fool. Recorded hastily in a dilapidated farmhouse between Brownstown and Seymour, the album, which was released under the artist name of John Cougar Mellencamp, continued his chart success by reaching #9 and selling triple-platinum while yielding the Top 10 singles "Pink Houses" and "Crumblin' Down" and the Top 20 hit "Authority Song." Finally Mellencamp, who had toured with his band relentlessly playing bars and nightclubs, and theaters and arenas as an opening act-was a headliner. And he used his stature not only to promote his own songs but to showcase those of lesser known artists like Richard Thompson and Steve Earle.
But with 1985's "Scarecrow" Mellencamp moved rock into new territory. You could see it in the album cover: gone was the rock star iconography, replaced by a simple black and white shot of the denim-clad artist leaning against a barbed wire fence bordering a farm pasture. Musically, it likewise reflected a more organic sound required of lyrics that addressed the joys, sorrows, and all feelings in-between relating to life in heartland America. The album, which made it to #2 and sold five million copies, delivered three Top 10 tracks that remain Mellencamp concert staples-"R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Small Town" and "Lonely Ol' Night"-along with the Top 40 hits "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Rumble Seat."
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) took this new concept further in both sound and content, peaking at #6 and achieving triple-platinum status on the strengths of the Top 10 singles "Cherry Bomb" and "Paper in Fire," and the Top 20 hit "Check It Out." With sparkling arrangements employing fiddle and accordion, Mellencamp here fashioned an altogether radical blend of electric rock and acoustic folk.
After a break, 1989's Big Daddy proved a welcome return to form, reaching #7. The platinum-selling album bore a Top 20 hit in the ironic "Pop Singer," in which Mellencamp, who steadfastly retained his Indiana home base in Bloomington, vehemently decried the trappings of the success that inevitably came with his pop stardom. The hardworking Mellencamp then took a bit of a break from the recording studio and concert stage, focusing instead on his serious interest in painting.
Sure enough, he rid himself completely of the John Cougar name-a showbiz concoction of his first manager-and when his next album Whenever We Wanted was released in 1991, he was now simply and honestly John Mellencamp. It went Top 20 and platinum anyway, fueled by a harder-rocking sound that landed "Get a Leg Up" and "Again Tonight" in the Top 40. The "Get a Leg Up" video was especially noteworthy in that it starred top model Elaine Irwin, soon to become Mrs. John Mellencamp, the couple now have two children together and have been happily married for the past 14 years.
In 1992, Mellencamp made his screen acting and directorial debut with "Falling From Grace." The film drama was scripted by Larry McMurtry and its soundtrack featured John Prine, Dwight Yoakam and Nanci Griffith along with the star/director.
Mellencamp's next official album came the following year with Human Wheels, another platinum-seller that debuted at #7. Besides the Top 40 title track hit, the album offered "What If I Came Knocking," which topped the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and two more Mainstream Rock Tracks hits in "Junior" and "When Jesus Left Birmingham," the latter filled with religious symbolism and ending with a reprise of the ending from "Jack & Diane."
Maintaining his creative roll, Mellencamp came back with another album in 1994-the platinum, Top 20 Dance Naked. The highlight of this set was his duet with the intense singer/bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello on Van Morrison's classic "Wild Night," which reached #3 and became the most-played video in VH1 history. The album's titletrack was a hit single as well.
Then in mid-1994 Mellencamp suffered a heart attack, forcing another break from major touring and recording and a period of recuperation and reflection. Recovered and renewed, he undertook an underground club tour under the band name "Pearl Doggy," and returned to the studio to record Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which went Top 10 and platinum following its 1996 releases. The album contained the Top 40 hit "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," and benefited from the modern rhythmic undercurrents supplied by dance producer Junior Vasquez.
Mercury Records, which had been his record company home since 1982, put out the retrospective The Best That I Could Do (1978-1988) in 1997, and enjoyed triple-platinum sales. It followed a year later with an album of previously unreleased material, Rough Harvest.
After a move to Columbia Records, he issued the self-titled John Mellencamp in 1998. The gold album included a pair of Top 40 hits in "Your Life is Now" and "I'm Not Running Anymore." In 2000, though he lacked an album of new material to promote on the road, he toured nevertheless, this time with just a violinist and accordionist-both amateurs. Harking back to the time of folk troubadours like Guthrie, he called it "The Good Samaritan Tour" and traveled around to big cities playing for free and without promotion on street corners during the day. But word spread, such that the 800 or so unsuspecting fans who happened on the first gig in Philadelphia grew to an estimated crowd of 25,000 at the last one in Chicago. In 2001, Cuttin' Heads, another gold album, was released. Keeping current, the disc featured a duet with contemporary r&b artist India.Arie on the Top 20 hit "Peaceful World," which evoked "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in the line "If you're not part of the future then get out of the way." Also guesting were Public Enemy's Chuck D, who contributed a rap to the title track, and country star Trisha Yearwood, who duetted on "Deep Blue Heart."
Upon its release, Trouble No More, an album on blues and folk songs, deftly adapted by Mellencamp, topped Billboard's Blues chart for 11 straight weeks and was also a Top 40 pop album hit. But in the post-9/11, pre-Iraq War climate, Mellencamp drew fire for "To Washington," the album's sole original song that was based on earlier works by Guthrie, the Carter Family and the Carolina Ramblers. Mellencamp's version was critical of the Bush administration and with references to the impending war, and when he and Elaine posted an open letter declaring "It's time to take back our country" he was harshly criticized in some quarters for his stance.
In 2004, a two-CD, 37-track compilation, Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits, came out as the most expansive collection of his career. It included all 22 of his Top 40 hits along with two new originals, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You," produced by Mellencamp and fellow Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, a fellow Hoosier and long time fan. He backed the release with an extraordinary tour that included Donovan and, later, John Fogerty as his opening acts.
But as Mellencamp stated in the February, 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, he had lost interest in recording following a disappointing experience with Columbia Records, and would have devoted his energy to his painting had he not been encouraged by Universal Music Group Chairman Doug Morris to record again. Freedom's Road, then, is a product of UMe/Universal Republic. Recorded with his band including included Wanchic, York, violinist Miriam Sturm, bassist John Gunnell, drummer Dane Clark and keyboardist Troye Kinnett, it "may be the best album of his multi-platinum 31-year career," noted Vanity Fair.
Of course, he does continue to paint. Seventy-five full-color representations of his favorite paintings are featured in the book "Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections," and his artwork often adorns his t-shirts and other merchandise. Meanwhile, he has written a play with music "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" with novelist Stephen King and remains heavily involved in Farm Aid, the family farmer support organization he helped found in 1985 with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
Mellencamp is no stranger to controversy, the latest catalyzed by his decision to license "Our Country" for a groundbreaking Chevrolet commercial campaign, arousing both acclaim and disapproval, but has never backed down from his decision to expose his song via nontraditional media-and in a way that drew attention to sorrier episodes of our country's history.
Perhaps his greatest recognition came in 2001, when his close friend, the late Billboard editor Timothy White, awarded him Billboard's highest accolade, the Century Award for distinguished creative achievement. As is evident from the early response to Freedom's Road, the award, while not premature, was hardly the final word.