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USA Today: John Mellencamp Re-Creates The Past On No Better Than This
08.17.2010 - USA Today By Edna Gundersen

After selling 40 million albums and racking up 22 top 40 hits over 35 years, John Mellencamp has left the record business for the record playground.
"I'm not selling anything anymore," says the iconic Hoosier. "I see my records as calling cards now. If people can discover my songs without having them shoved down their throats, it makes me feel good. And what's the point of being in the rat race if it's not fun anymore?"

At 58, Mellencamp has downsized his commercial ambitions and promotional zeal but not the creative standards and heartland vision that shaped such classics as Pink Houses and Small Town.

LISTEN UP: * * * 1/2 review of 'No Better Than This'

No Better Than This, his 21st studio album, arrives today on Rounder with 13 rustic Americana originals produced by roots kingfish T Bone Burnett and recorded at historic locations in the South. Armed with vintage reel-to-reel recorders and a single 1940s microphone, Mellencamp captured the tunes live, often in one take.

"We played music as opposed to piecemealing a record in a studio. Some of the lyrics I sang were not the ones I wrote, but there was no going back. What you hear is the way it went down."

Southern exposure

Studying the itinerary for his 2009 tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, Mellencamp pinpointed three compelling landmarks for recording detours.

They started in the basement of the First African Baptist Church in downtown Savannah, Ga., billed as the nation's oldest black church and a former sanctuary for escaped slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. Between recording sessions, Mellencamp and wife Elaine were baptized at the church altar.

Memphis' musical mecca Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin' Wolf crafted classics, was the second stop. Thanks to the untouched '50s floor, little prep was required. "X's marked where everything went: the vocalist, the drums, the guitar," Mellencamp says. "We recorded at night because there were tours during the day."

They wrapped up in San Antonio at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel, Suite 414, where Delta blues giant Robert Johnson first recorded in 1936.

"When I walked in, my engineers had everything set up wrong," says Mellencamp, who insisted on a precise re-creation of the Johnson blueprint. "Johnson was in a corner facing the street. The equipment was in the bedroom. The hotel had carpet, which was sucking up the sound. There wasn't carpet when Johnson recorded, so we brought in parquet. The room just came alive. That is the coolest-sounding corner in the world!"

Slow roll-out


Unwilling to jump on the TV promotional circuit and unlikely to get big radio support, Mellencamp knows the album may be off to a slow start. It's getting an assist from critics. Rolling Stone dubs No Better Than This "musical storytelling for hard times: far-fetched, violent, sexy, played for laughs. It doesn't get more timeless, or American, than that." And The New Yorker raves that Mellencamp's "wise, charming album is ... a highly personal testimonial on the order of Bob Dylan's Good As I Been to You."

Mellencamp, on the road with Dylan this month, kicks off his No Better Than This tour Oct. 29 in hometown Bloomington, Ind., showcasing acoustic blues, folk and full-band rock in separate sets. The theater shows will open with Kurt Markus' documentary, It's About You, a chronicle of the new album's evolution.

The singer left major label Columbia after 2003's Trouble No More and says he doesn't miss industry machinery that obsesses on chart heights. "With every album, the question was, 'How many hits do you have on this record?' It's not a very fun road to travel."

Rock is dead?

Besides, Mellencamp argues, the rock 'n' roll highway has reached a dead end.

"Oh, it's over, and it's not coming back," he says. "The music is now fifth or sixth generation, and the farther you get away from the original, the worse it gets.

"Let's face it, the best records were made a long time ago. Those first five Rolling Stones records, when they were covering black artists, were great. Dylan's Highway 61 is the best record ever. Who's going to make a better record? Nobody. Who's going to make better pop records than The Beatles? I hear the radio today and it sounds like Saturday morning cartoons to me."

He likens the fading rock era to the big-band boom from the 1920s to the 1940s, when hundreds of bandleaders and groups were popular.

"Now you can't name five," Mellencamp says. "When they talk about rock 'n' roll in a couple generations, they're not going to talk about me. They're going to talk about The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, maybe Jimi Hendrix.

"When I came to that realization, it was really freeing."

 


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