John Mellencamp's doctor of music degree is only honorary, but he did so much research for his latest album, he might well have earned the real thing.
On "Trouble No More" (Columbia), Mellencamp offers his take on classic observations of the human condition as related by the likes of Son House, Willie Dixon, Lucinda Williams, Skeeter Davis, and fellow Indiana native Hoagy Carmichael.
He chose the mostly blues- and folk-based material after exploring hundreds of songs in an effort to understand what inspired his favorite songwriters: Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams. The idea, he said, was to discover how much great music Americans have created over the last 200 years.
"I actually went to school about it," says the onetime community college student. "I went out and studied history, the history of music, and found out [that] without [blackface minstrel singer] Emmett Miller, there's no Hank Williams."
Delving into the music archives at Indiana University in Bloomington - where he received that honorary sheepskin during his 2000 commencement address - the lifelong Hoosier got an education so complete and complex, he nearly scared himself off the project. Trying to learn everything about the history of blues and folk music was just too hard.
"Writing songs is easier than researching this record," he said during a recent phone interview. "You get into blues, and of course there's West Coast blues, there's Texas blues ... and of course, I didn't want to do any songs that use the word 'blues.' "
Though "Trouble" is a slide-guitar-drenched, blues-infused labor of love, it wasn't Mellencamp's idea. He was, in fact, quite stunned when a label vice president suggested it after hearing the singer perform a gritty, authentic-sounding version of Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" at a benefit for the family of his late friend, Billboard magazine editor Timothy White.
He jumped at the chance.
"This album was really fascinating to make and to research," says Mellencamp. Among his final 13 selections: Son House's "Dead Letter"; Dixon's "Down in the Bottom"; "Johnny Hart," a song attributed to Woody Guthrie; and Lucinda Williams' "Lafayette." Mellencamp also wrote new words to two traditional songs, "Diamond Joe" and "To Washington."
"These songs are very plain-spoken and as honest as I can make 'em," says Mellencamp.
While some follow his usual lyrical path in reflecting the lives and loves of everyday losers and heroes, they also have a relationship to our present-day zeitgeist. "To Washington" makes a flat-out political statement, one he updated from previous versions by Guthrie, the Carter Family, and Charlie Poole. The song dates back to 1902, but in this modern version Mellencamp targets the Bush administration and its hawkish attitude. Written months before the Iraqi invasion but released on the Internet as it was happening, the song was attacked as antiwar and therefore anti-American. "I wouldn't describe my song as an antiwar song," he says. "I've written songs that have taken a much dimmer view of things." No one complained - until 9/11 "changed everything."
Mellencamp defends his role as that of a troubadour, someone who writes songs "that tell the story of a time." When he penned his version, inspectors were heading to Baghdad. "What the song says is exactly what happened."
He points out that adapting the work of others is nothing new. The Rolling Stones initially took credit for Johnson's "Love in Vain," Guthrie and Hank Williams both borrowed heavily from a variety of sources, and everyone who recorded "To Washington" has claimed authorship.
"I'm not sure Woody ever wrote a song, really," Mellencamp says. The important point is that he and his band were able to make these songs their own, which Mellencamp considers the true measure of artistic merit.
By getting the music down before they went into the studio, and recording in eight days with no overdubs or computer tweaking, they delivered not a mere tribute album, but a living musical document that will stand its own test of time.