Mellencamp Renews His Roots

Excerpted from the magazine for

In recent concert appearances, John Mellencamp has featured Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory" and Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway." Apparently, the songs struck a chord.

Both are found on the enduring rocker's new album, "Trouble No More," released June 3 on Columbia. In fact, most of the disc comprises old blues and folk covers. Mellencamp's sole songwriting credit is "To Washington," a Guthrie-inspired song that took on anti-war overtones when it was hastily distributed on the Internet just ahead of the war with Iraq.

Other noteworthy tracks include Son House's "Death Letter" and "John the Revelator," the traditional folk staple "Diamond Joe," and the Willie Dixon-penned Howlin' Wolf classic "Down at the Bottom."

"It's similar to the first Rolling Stones albums," Mellencamp suggests, noting how initial Stones sets largely consisted of blues and R&B covers.

"As a young person, I was under the impression that they wrote all those songs," he adds.

Mellencamp, who received the Billboard Century Award in 2001, immersed himself in the music of Guthrie, Johnson, and Hank Williams prior to recording his last album, "Cuttin' Heads."

"We did 'Bound for Glory' a few times on the last tour, and 'Stones in My Passway,'" and Mellencamp's guitarist Andy York was into playing a National resonator guitar -- "That's how the project really started," Mellencamp says.

"We recorded the entire record on 16-track with no computers and all '50s and '60s tube mikes, and you can hear the richness in the bottom end. But I wanted to make it sound like me and the band invented the song. You can never do any of them as good as the originals, but you can put a personal stamp on them."

Mellencamp selected songs "that were somewhat familiar, but at the same time weren't songs that have been covered by 50 billion people."

He also chose familiar artists for the most part. "I had to be cognizant of people who won't listen to anything that isn't of this ilk, as well as the general public, who will listen to this record and discover those songs for the first time," Mellencamp says. "So I didn't want it to be so abstract and deep that people couldn't find records by these guys."

Mellencamp also included a few tunes rooted elsewhere. "The End of the World" was a 1963 country and pop hit for Skeeter Davis; "Teardrops Will Fall" was a hit by '50s novelty act Dicky Doo & the Don'ts. "Baltimore Oriole" came from Hoagy Carmichael, who hails from Mellencamp's hometown of Bloomington, Ind. "Lafayette" is a Lucinda Williams cover.

A fall tour will feature a stripped-down band: "I might do some of my old songs in this fashion at the end of the show," Mellencamp says.

Excerpted from the June 28, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Premium Services section.

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