Reporting Brian Ives
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at John Mellencamp‘s ‘Trouble No More,” an album of covers, originally released June 3, 2003.
Three years before Bruce Springsteen covered Americana classics on his We Shall Overcome album, John Mellencamp tackled iconic (mostly) pre-rock and roll songs on his Trouble No More album. The album was born, more or less, at tribute concert to Billboard Magazine’s beloved editor Timothy White, where Mellencamp covered Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway.” That song, appropriately, opens the album, and if it weren’t for Mellencamp’s distinctive voice, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was recorded at Chess Records in the late ’50s.
Mellencamp wasn’t trying to out-Clapton anyone with a blues schtick. He may have mined the blues for the album, but he notably avoided any songs with “blues” in the title. Hus aim was to get at the essence of blues rather than the cliches of it. As Entertainment Weekly mentioned in their review of the album (they gave it a B+), “Modern blues albums rarely get the rackety drums and slippery slide guitar just right. But this CD of American blues and folk bursts with old-time voodoo bluster.” Rolling Stone, meanwhile, gave it three stars, saying “Here’s the real surprise: This album doesn’t sound that distant from the grass-roots rock of Mellencamp albums such as Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubilee.” Americana magazine No Depression added, “Mellencamp and his band remade the tunes in a contemporary context, though the lyrics still retain their full impact.” Nearly all the reviews of the album noted Mellencamp’s excellent vocal performance.
He didn’t take the same approach to each song. His cover of Son House’s “Death Letter” sounded like a John Mellencamp record from the late ’80s, specifically the Lonesome Jubilee/Big Daddy era (most of the album veered somewhere between those two points). Mellencamp was swinging for the fences: Besides covering Johnson and House, he also took on songs by Woody Guthrie (“Johnny Hart”), Hoagy Carmichael (“Baltimore Oriole”) and Willie Dixon (“Down In The Bottom”), as well as a couple of traditional songs, including “John The Revelator” and “Diamond Joe.” He also included one rock and roll song (“Teardrops Will Fall,” by obscure band Dickey Doo And The Don’ts) and one modern classic (Lucinda Williams’ “Lafayette”).
But it was his new take — with then-current lyrics — on a traditional song that got Mellencamp the most attention (not all of it welcome) for his album. Mellencamp used “To Washington,” a song that both the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie sang with their own lyrics,” as a critique of the Bush administration. The lyrics referenced “A new man in the White House/With a familiar name/Said he had some fresh ideas/But it’s worse now since he came/From Texas to Washington.” And that “new man” in the White House “Wants to fight with many/And he says, ‘It’s not for oil’/He sent out the National Guard/To police the world/From Baghdad to Washington.”
Predictably, those on the right wing took issue with Mellencamp’s commentary. In an interview with Salon, Mellencamp said that his record label – Columbia Records, who had already weathered this particular PR storm with the Dixie Chicks — asked him not to include the song on the album. He said in the interview, that his response to anyone who accused him of being “un-American” (not an uncommon occurrence during that era) was, “Look, I’m John Mellencamp, I’ve been doing this 25 years. For anybody to say I’m un-American is laughable.”
Politics aside, it was unfortunate that a great album by a legendary artist was overshadowed by one song. However, the album seemingly pointed him in the direction that he would go down for the next decade. The “To Washington” controversy was likely the inspiration behind Mellencamp’s “Walk Tall,” a song recorded for his 2004 collection Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits. While that song took him in a more pop-oriented direction (it was produced by R&B superstar Babyface), from there he returned to the roots-rock turf of Trouble No More on his next album, Freedom’s Road. His next two efforts went further down that path, with Americana star T-Bone Burnett producing both 2008′s Life, Death, Love And Freedom and 2010′s No Better Than This. This week (June 4), Burnett and Mellencamp release their latest collaboration, the soundtrack to Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County, which features songs written by Mellencamp and sung by other artists including Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello. While his new album casts Mellencamp as a songwriter for other voices, Trouble No More showed him in a nearly opposite role, as a formidable interpreter of classic songs.