Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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From the Heartland

"Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town/And people let me be just what I want to be ..." -- "Small Town"

It doesnt get much smaller than Belmont, Ind.

The hamlet in the southern half of the state is technically not a city, according to the convention and visitors bureau of Brown County (in which Belmont sits). In fact, it doesn't even have an official population figure.

There's no post office in Belmont; but there is a small motel, a country-and-western store and the T.C. Steele State Historical Site. Thats the turn-of-the-century home and studio of, as the sign out front reads, a "native Hoosier artist" who created impressionist works.

Belmont also houses the factory where John Mellencamp likely the area's most notable business owner churns out his records.

"You could carpet the whole town," the rocker reported in a phone interview from his Belmont Mall studios, where he was at work on his forthcoming CD "Cuttin Heads."

Fitting that Seymour, Ind., native Mellencamp, who performs Saturday at "Tiger Jam IV" at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, set up shop in Belmont, seeing as how he sung the praises of such a life in the song "Small Town."

"Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town/Now she's small town just like me ..." -- "Small Town"

Truth is, that's pretty much how it happened for Mellencamp and his wife, fashion model Elaine Irwin.

A small-town Pennsylvania girl (before pursing her modeling career in New York), Irwin brings the couple's young sons, Speck and Hud, to the recording studio most nights to eat dinner with their daddy.

"I just heard them walk in," Mellencamp, who also has three other children from previous relationships, said during the interview. "I hear Speck raising hell like he always does."

But when Irwin and the boys aren't around, there's plenty of work to be done.

There's a tired sound to Mellencamp's throaty voice as he talks about the effort that's gone into "Cuttin' Heads" -- an album that's been scheduled for release "for the last year and a half.

"But I keep stopping on it and listening to it, and I don't like what I've been doing, so I keep starting over. I'm having a hard time taking off," he said.

At least he's got the title of his 18th album nailed down. (Early on it was reported that he would call it "Kiss My Mule.")

"Cuttin' Heads," he said, comes from an activity that took place years ago on the Mississippi Delta.

"The blues guys back then, on the weekend, would play on the street corners," he explained. "One guy would play on one corner and the other guy would play on the other corner, and the one that drew the crowd and made the most money won. It was called 'cuttin' heads.' "

"A million young poets/Screamin' out their words/To a world full of people/Just livin' to be heard ..." -- "Check It Out"

Drawing crowds on street corners is something Mellencamp knows about. It was the premise of his "Good Samaritan Tour" last year, where he and his bandmates, with little or no advance notice, set up their equipment at parks and other open spaces in nine cities for concerts that drew thousands.

"That was (expletive) great," Mellencamp said, his voice perking up at the memories.

"Let me tell you something -- we showed up in Chicago, this was like our fourth or fifth (concert), and 20-some thousand people were there. I couldn't even get to the corner I wanted to play at.

"We were playing out of little amplifiers and I was singing. My PA system, we carried them to the street corner and sat them down ourselves, that's how little they were. So I know nobody heard anything."

He intends to start up the "Good Samaritan Tour" again sometime (though he's not certain if it will stop in Las Vegas). "It's gonna go on forever because it was so much fun."

Not scheduled to make a stop here is Mellencamp's upcoming tour in support of "Cuttin' Heads," which was formally announced last week.

Similar to the record, the tour is still being tweaked.

"Right now I've got the show narrowed down to 63 or 64 songs, so we've got to figure out what songs we're gonna do," he said.

"This is my 18th album I'm working on, and there's some songs that I haven't ever played (live) from any of these records, and I'm thinking I'll go back through all of these records."

His performance at "Tiger Jam IV" will, however, be packed with his hits, including "Jack and Diane," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Lonely Ol' Night" and "Hurts So Good."

Mellencamp joined the "Tiger Jam" lineup, which includes pop band Third Eye Blind, simply because organizers "were just so nice about asking me ... and I think that (golf star Tiger Woods) actually does have his best foot forward."

"The crops we grew last summer weren't enough to pay the loans /Couldn't buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed ..." -- "Rain on the Scarecrow"

Concerts for charity aren't a new concept to Mellencamp, one of the founders -- along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young -- of Farm Aid, benefiting farm organizations, churches and service agencies that assist America's farmers. The 16th Farm Aid concert will be presented this fall in Indianapolis.

"It's still working," Mellencamp said of Farm Aid, "but the truth of the matter is I wish we didn't have to do them because the problems still exist."

He's especially proud that Farm Aid continues to thrive despite the deaths of other rock-endorsed charitable endeavors of the 1980s, such as Live Aid.

"So much of what was started in the '80s, people really didn't have the kind of commitment they needed, and they made a big noise and it all just kind of went away," he said.

But will the focus of this year's Farm Aid event be more important than in years past, given the country's faltering economic condition and concerns about a looming recession?

Also, what effect will fears of agricultural plagues, such as foot-and-mouth disease, potentially sweeping the county and claiming entire herds of livestock -- along with farmers' livelihoods -- have on the show?

"I think everybody -- farmers included -- is going to suffer from this economic situation," Mellencamp said. "We had it too good for too long."

If there's one bright spot in it all, leave it to a musician to find it. "I think the one thing that will improve by this is the music, though.

"I think the music will get better because in times of prosperity, music gets really silly. If you look at history, in times ... when people really have to watch their p's and q's, the music seems to get more serious and people look at their lives a little bit more -- it's not so frivolous. When things are going well, all anybody really wants to hear is 'How Much is That Doggie in the Window?' "

So it's safe to assume that Mellencamp has not been a fan of the boy bands that have seemingly taken over mainstream music.

"I don't really care what young boys have to say, although I understand the mathematics of it. I hear their harmonies and they're pretty, and I get that young girls would like a cute guy -- (having) used to be a cute guy myself, I remember that," he said, laughing.

"Never wanted to be no pop singer/Never wanted to write no pop songs ..." -- "Pop Singer"

Look for Mellencamp to strike a relevant chord -- as he's done throughout his career in songs describing the plights of farmers and blue-collar workers in middle America trying to make ends meet -- on "Cuttin' Heads."

He said he's working on a pair of songs that deal with racism. One is about a mixed-race couple and will feature a rap segment performed by Public Enemy's Chuck D.

"I think (racism is) a huge problem, and I think that the kids who are rapping today and using words like (the n-word) are doing a great disservice to their race, and I think that we really won't see that disservice they have done for another 10 years."

Because rap records are largely purchased by white teenagers living in suburbs, Mellencamp theorized, "What you get is a bunch of teenagers who hear (the n-word) and hear black people talking about the underbelly of their race. So when these kids grow up, they're not gonna have a very high opinion of the other race.

"And I think that's sad because we (as a nation) had made such headway up until the early '90s with this, and now it seems we're set back."

"I'm pretty good with first impressions/But sometimes I'm not always right ..." -- "Get a Leg Up"

Over the years Mellencamp has not restricted his endeavors to music. Also an artist, a book featuring his original artwork, "Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections," was published in 1998 by HarperCollins.

He ventured into acting and directing in 1992 with the film "Falling From Grace," which co-starred Mariel Hemingway and Claude Akins. Plagued by poor distribution, the plot followed a country-music star who returned home to Indiana -- and his family.

"I was kind of a novice to directing and, boy, that's a lot of work, and I can see why people get confused and lost doing that. I certainly did," Mellencamp said.

More recently he starred in an independent film called "After Image," a thriller, which was shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

"Ugghh," Mellencamp groaned at a mention of the movie.

While he enjoyed working with "guerrilla moviemakers" who were "out on the street trying to scrounge together a movie," the final product was not what Mellencamp envisioned.

"But I was just an actor there," he said. "I didn't have control over that. It was up to the director (Bob Manganelli) and I think the director made the film he wanted to make. So that's the problem with being an actor, I think."

Will we see "After Image" in theaters anytime soon? "Oh, let's hope not."

Mellencamp also lent his talents to the soundtrack of last year's big-budget hit, "The Perfect Storm."

"Oh, that sucked," he said of the little-heard single, "Yours Forever." "That was terrible. I hated that whole experience. I didn't like that song ... I didn't like much about that, to be real honest. It will be a long time before you see me do (a soundtrack) again.

"You always go into things like relationships -- you always hope for the best and think that this is gonna be a certain way. But it was just a bad experience. I didn't enjoy it and I'm glad nobody heard the song."

"Who's to say the way a man should spend his days ..." -- "Paper in Fire"

A few less-than-pleasurable experiences aren't enough to deter the renaissance man from moving forward.

The announcement last year that Mellencamp was collaborating with horror-genre god Stephen King on -- of all things -- a musical generated a slew of publicity, and raised more than a few eyebrows.

Mellencamp has already penned several songs for the piece, and King has written the script, which features ghosts. ("Not the kind of ghosts that scare you. They're the kind of ghosts that shape your personality," Mellencamp said.)

The untitled production is still very much a work in progress, and no date has been set for when it might debut onstage.

After all, the men have day jobs to work around: Mellencamp is finishing his album and going on tour. King, whose latest book, "Dreamcatcher," is on best-seller lists, is working on his next book and continues to recover from a 1999 accident near his Maine home in which he was struck by a vehicle and severely injured.

"So I think before the thing really comes together, both of us are gonna have to sit down and carve it out ... We both agreed that (there's) no rush, it will come together when it's time for it to come together ...

"But when I think about it I get excited about it, because Steve wrote such an unbelievably beautiful story. I'd say it's up there with 'The Green Mile' and that kind of stuff. My problem is I'm a little nervous. Can I write songs that good, because Steve wrote a helluva story."

"Well I look in the mirror -- what the hell happened to me?/Whatever I had has gone away/I'm not the young kid that I used to be ..." --"I'm Not Running Anymore"

One thing Mellencamp is not nervous about is his health. He suffered a heart attack in 1994 at age 43 and has heart disease. But, he said, he rarely thinks about either anymore.

"I'll tell you what, man, when it first happens to you, you wrestle with it for a while ... I sort of told the doctor he was an idiot. 'What the (expletive) are you talkin' about? I didn't have a heart attack.' And he said, 'John, a first-year medical student could tell you've had a heart attack.' "

But the episode was actually a blessing in disguise, Mellencamp said, as it forced him to stick to a diet and an exercise program, as well as spend time with his family.

"I got the opportunity to just stay home and hang around these two little baby boys, and my wife didn't work, so it really helped our family out a lot."

"Seventeen has turned 35/I'm surprised that we're still livin' ..." -- "Cherry Bomb"

Mellencamp turns the big 5-0 this year. "It's surreal ..." he said. "I was just 35 last week. I was just 25 the week before that."

But even he concedes that the years have been good to him.

"Man, I'm so lucky. I just do what the hell I want to do, and I don't know anybody else, at least not around here in Indiana, that has the ability to go out and play for 10- or 12,000 people every night ...

"My life has just been so much more than I ever thought it would be when I started out with an acoustic guitar standing at some little bar in Indiana playing folk songs."

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