John Mellencamp fought authority, authority usually won.
Still, Mellencamp was one of the few truly popular musical artists to protest George W. Bush’s appointment to the presidency and the (then) gathering clouds of war with Iraq. “To Washington”, a song Mellencamp made available for free download from his website earlier this year, is a recasting of a song done at various times by Charlie Poole, the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie. It’s the lone tune credited to Mellencamp on Trouble No More, the singer’s 21st album.
The other eleven cuts are covers of folk, blues, country, and rock ‘n’ roll songs that have shaped Mellencamp’s musical sensibilities, or that he has come to discover in recent times. As roots moves go, it’s a credible one, since he has long incorporated into his work stripped-down arrangements featuring fiddle, accordion and acoustic guitars, and lyrics addressing concerns of the common man.
Comparable in some ways to 1999′s Rough Harvest, on which Mellencamp rearranged some of his own songs and covered Bob Dylan, the Drifters, and Van Morrison, Trouble No More goes deeper into the history of popular music, and features songs written or popularized by the likes of Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael and Son House. Though some of the tunes date back to the early part of the 20th century, they more accurately reflect America’s current climate of desperation, mistrust and betrayal than do the false portraits of the country drawn by Washington and much of the mainstream media.
Perhaps the best thing about the disc is that Mellencamp’s reach doesn’t exceed his grasp. Instead of attempting to present wholly “authentic”-sounding versions of songs such as Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway”, Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole”, Willie Dixon’s “Down In The Bottom”, and the traditional numbers “John The Revelator” and “Diamond Joe”, Mellencamp and his band — including slide guitarist Andy York, who performs admirably throughout — remade the tunes in a contemporary context, though the lyrics still retain their full impact.
There are some nice surprises, too, including a plaintive version of the Skeeter Davis hit “The End Of The World”, and a rendition of the Dickie Do & the Don’ts tune “Teardrops Will Fall” that sounds of a piece with many other Mellencamp singles.
In many ways, Trouble No More represents what Mellencamp’s version of “heartland rock” was supposed to sound like in the first place.