Changes in Mellencamp Country
By ALAN LIGHT
Published: January 22, 2007
"People say I sold out," John Mellencamp said, explaining his decision to license a song for a Chevrolet commercial. "No, I got sold out. Sometime during the '90s record companies made the decision that us guys who had been around for a long time and had sold millions of records and were household names just weren't as interesting as girls in stretch dresses."
Mr. Mellencamp, whose 21st album, "Freedom's Road," arrives in stores tomorrow, had long expressed objections to the use of pop songs in advertising. But he said a turning point for him came last year, after he heard "Highway Companion," the latest album by his contemporary Tom Petty. He liked it and thought the single "Saving Grace" would be a hit, but then never heard the song on the radio or saw it on the video channels. Fearing a similar fate for his own music, Mr. Mellencamp said he decided to accept Chevrolet's offer to use "Our Country," which he had been performing live for a few years and appears on the new album, as the theme for its Silverado truck.
"The bottom line is, I'm a songwriter, and I want people to hear my songs," he said. "I'm not saying it's right. I'm not suggesting it for anybody else. This is just what I did this time to reinvent myself and stay in business. Sometimes I get sad about it really. I still don't think that people should sell their songs for advertising."
Mr. Mellencamp has caught flak from some of his fans, and the Silverado spot, which has been in heavy rotation on sports broadcasts since it was first shown during last fall's World Series, has spawned some controversy. The ad mixes images of the Statue of Liberty and Rosa Parks with footage from Hurricane Katrina and the Vietnam War. A columnist at Slate.com called the commercial's blend of patriotism and tragedy, in service of selling a product, "exploitative" and "wrong."
Chain-smoking through an interview in a sprawling suite at the Carlyle Hotel (he and his wife, the model Elaine Irwin, were upgraded because "the commode in our first room was broken"), Mr. Mellencamp maintained that the ad's downbeat tone was his own decision. "Part of the deal I made was: O.K., I'll do this, but I'm in charge. Make it look like a John Mellencamp video. I don’t want to see 'Our Country' as rah-rah flag waving. Let's show the flood, let’s show the war, let’s show the whole thing. The fact that they rolled a truck out at the end made no difference to me."
Bill Ludwig, chief creative officer of Chevrolet's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, said in a statement that he hoped the campaign would evoke "the bruises and scars that have shaped our nation."
One question now is what impact a commercial that has been running for months can have on sales of a new album. Some executives at Universal Republic, Mr. Mellencamp's label, are concerned that the exposure peaked too soon, and that the audience has already tired of the song. Mr. Mellencamp admits that the situation has put radio programmers "in a position they've never been in before," adding that he never anticipated that the ad would be played so frequently. "They sure pounded it," he said with a chuckle. "I had no idea."
"Our Country" illustrates one side of "Freedom's Road," with its swing-for-the-fences themes exemplified by titles like "The Americans." The album's most striking songs, though, display a more intimate depiction of the small-town life that Mr. Mellencamp, 55 and a lifelong Indiana resident, knows so well. The acoustic "Rural Route" is an account of a crystal meth-fueled murder in which the victim's body was found at the edge of his parents' property.
"About halfway through the record I didn't really know what it was supposed to be about," Mr. Mellencamp said. "I had so many political songs akin to 'Masters of War,' that kind of stuff. But then I recorded a song called 'Ghost Towns Along the Highway,' and I said that's what this record is about.
"That's a very personal song because it's not really about a physical place, but about the decisions that we've made and the path that we've chosen. Corporate America has absolutely changed everything. Bloomington, where I live, has a beautiful square, there's some restaurants, but everyone wants to go shopping someplace else. So when everything becomes the Mc-Whatever, then you lose what I always enjoyed about living where I live."
Joan Baez, who sings on a song titled "Jim Crow," said she had long admired the subtlety of Mr. Mellencamp's work. "When people try to write protest songs, they get so trite and overstated," she said in a telephone interview. "This song was completely fresh. I never heard anything like it."
One thing Mr. Mellencamp never questioned was the sound he wanted for this album. "What I know and what I love is garage music," he said, citing '60s bands like the Byrds, Count Five and the Youngbloods as inspirations. "Whenever we’re messing around, that's what the guys in the band all play." For his previous album, "Trouble No More" (2003), he said: "I had gone so far down this folk thing, recording with Appalachian instruments. I wanted to go back to what we know how to do."
"Freedom's Road" was recorded over many months and many grueling sessions, in Mr. Mellencamp's rehearsal space, literally a garage. "At the time I was totally unaware we were making a record," he said. "But then I thought: We're never going to be able to beat these versions. It sounds as if they just walked in and played. And for a sound like that, you’ve got to go through hell to get it."
Though Mr. Mellencamp opted to avoid a more overtly politicized album, he couldn’t resist including "Rodeo Clown," a harsh attack on President Bush and the Iraq war, with lines about "blood on the hands of the rich politicians" and "blood on the hands of an arrogant nation." The song isn't listed on the packaging and appears several minutes after the album's last track.
"When I wrote that song two years ago," Mr. Mellencamp said, "the truth was nowhere in sight. But as the climate changed, now that song feels right on target."