John Mellencamp wants to teach me a thing or two. The singer of such classics as "Jack & Diane," "Pink Houses" and "Paper in Fire" is at home on a break from his co-headlining tour with John Fogerty, and he's been spending 14 hours a day painting, preparing for a show he'll have at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis in November. "I should've really been a painter, to be honest," he says, sounding like he's only half-joking. He tells me about his favorite artists and notes that he's a "self-taught art historian." When I sound surprised to learn about Mellencamp's hobby, he tells me that he's been painting as long as he's been writing songs.
I mention that he's touring behind his greatest-hits collection, Words & Music, and Mellencamp corrects me on the whole notion of releasing an album and then touring. "Listen, let me enlighten you on a couple of things," he says. "The old model of putting a record out and touring is over. Anything that has existed in the rock 'n' roll business in the prior 40 years is over." In fact, Mellencamp asserts, that whole releasing albums thing may be entirely behind him. His last collection of new material was 2003's covers album Trouble No More, although Words & Music features two new tracks.
"I don't know that I'll ever make another new record in the traditional fashion that records have been made," Mellencamp says. In addition to the tour with Fogerty, he's collaborating on a musical with author Stephen King and has "an open-door policy with Polygram to make records if I want to." Mellencamp was on Polygram for years, but jumped to Columbia with his 1998 self-titled album. The relationship did not last. "I couldn't stand it anymore," he says bluntly. The casual, no-contract deal with Polygram seems to suit him well. Even though he spent years getting knocked around by critics, accused of being a rip-off of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp has evolved into a respected and even revered artist, and a well-regarded chronicler of the American heartland in which he grew up and still makes his home.
Much of that reputation comes from his tireless activism on behalf of small-town America. Twenty years ago, Mellencamp and Willie Nelson founded Farm Aid, an annual concert to benefit family farms in the U.S. The event is still going strong, with this year's edition scheduled for September 18 outside of Chicago. Mellencamp also spent a few weeks this past October on the Vote for Change Tour, an extensive effort by a broad cross section of musicians to drum up support for John Kerry's presidential bid. Obviously, it wasn't enough to put Kerry in office but Mellencamp is adamant that the tour was a success. "Not only do I think we had a positive effect," he says. "I also think we're right. I still think we're right."
Although he speaks in a languid, semi-Southern drawl, Mellencamp clearly has strong convictions. He asserts that conditions for small farmers have only gotten worse since the inception of Farm Aid, but refuses to give an inch when I suggest that maybe it's discouraging that all his effort has seemingly been for naught. "I don't know about anybody that accomplishes too much of anything, and they sit back and say, 'Well, I've done what I wanted to do with my life, so I quit,'" he says, and he's not wrong. He's still got plenty to teach, and plenty to do. "I'm John Mellencamp," he says. "I get myself in all kinds of trouble by saying what's on my mind, and it's my responsibility."