Billboard.com: Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett Take Rural Route To 'Better' Album
05.24.2010 - A 55-year-old reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder, a single microphone and three
historic recording sites were John Mellencamp's tools for making his new album,
"No Better Than This," which is due out Aug. 17 -- seven weeks after he releases
a retrospective box set, "On the Rural Route 7609."
Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett recorded the 13 mono, unoverdubbed tracks
for "No Better Than This" during the summer of 2009, while the Indiana Rock and
Roll Hall of Famer was on the road with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Using
members of Mellencamp's band and guests like guitarist Marc Ribot and former
Johnny Cash upright bassist Dave Roe, they set up shop at Sun Studios in
Memphis, Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio -- where Robert Johnson
made his first recordings in November of 1936 -- and in the First African
Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., the inaugural black church in America and a
stop on the underground railroad during the Civil War.
"This is my 25th album," Mellencamp explains to Billboard.com. "I liked the idea
that there was a story behind the record other than, 'OK, here's just another
John Mellencamp record. So the fact there is a back story of the Savannah church
and Sun Studios and Room 414...I thought those are all places I would want to
visit anyway, wouldn't it be great to just record there?"
Mellencamp says Burnett, who produced his 2008 album "Life Death Love and
Freedom," was enthusiastic about the idea. "He went, 'Wow, why didn't I think of
that?' " recalls Mellencamp, who bought the Amex recorder for $175 on eBay and
refurbished it for the sessions. "The one microphone, everything, he was on
board and he was excited. We had a lot of fun making this record."
The lo-fi recording process, Mellencamp adds, was "just trying to go 180 degrees
away from the prefabbed place where pop music is now," capturing the live,
present energy of a performance rather than a polished studio production. "All
the records that we loved, that we grew up loving, were made that way -- James
Brown's records, those first five Rolling Stones records, those early Dylan
records," he notes. "You felt like you were sitting next to them and they were
playing those songs. That's the quality that music has lost, that technology has
taken away from us...so we got them back on this record. It sounds authentic."
The songs on "No Better Than This" were culled from a set of more than 30 that
Mellencamp wrote before the summer tour. "I was in a zone for 10, 15 days. I
didn't even question it," he remembers. They range from rockabilly shuffles
("Each Day of Sorrow," the title track) to brooding, folky pieces ("Thinking
About You," "Clumsy Ol' World"), rural blues ("Right Behind Me") and
country-western ("A Graceful Fall," "Coming Down the Road," "No One Cares About
Me," "Don't Forget About Me"). Mellencamp previewed some of the tunes last
summer, while the Dali Lama used the opening track, "Save Some time to Dream,"
as the impromptu inspiration for a sermon after Mellencamp performed it during a
May 20 luncheon at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind.
"I didn't even know what...he was saying because I was behind the PA system,"
Mellencamp says with a laugh. "I was very flattered that the holiest man maybe
on Earth had critiqued one of my songs."
Filmmaker Kurt Markus documented the "No Better Than This" sessions for a movie
that Mellencamp plans to use to open a run of theater shows that's slated to
begin in October. The concerts will also include a stripped-down acoustic set
with his band, a solo segment and then a fully electrified rock set. "You'll get
three different types of John Mellencamp, and you'll get a movie," says
Mellencamp, who's playing four shows in July and is also planning some more
minor league baseball stadium dates with Dylan later this summer.
"No Better Than This" will add to the story Mellencamp details in "On the Rural
Route 7609," a handsomely packaged four-CD set that includes 12 unreleased
tracks -- including writing demos of "Jack and Diane," "Authority Song" and
"Cherry Bomb" -- as well as poetic readings of "The Real Life" by actress Joanne
Woodward and "Jim Crow" by Cornell West. What the set is missing, by design, is
many of Mellencamp's biggest hits, such as "Hurts So Good," "Paper in Fire" and
"R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."
"I have no interest in going back and putting together a bunch of hits,"
Mellencamp explains. "I had this idea of discovery. I think all of those songs
(on 'On the Rural Route 7609') were overlooked...I thought this was just a good
way to say, 'OK, so this isn't about hit records. This is about what the rest of
these albums were about...Here's really what I do.' "
Mellencamp is also moving forward on "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," his
stage musical collaboration with Stephen King. The two recently hired a new
director, award-winning actress Liv Ullman, who plans to start revising the
script with King in January and work through 2011 on the production. Meanwhile,
Burnett has been recording an album of Mellencamp's songs for the project with
Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Ryan Bingham and the Blasters'
Phil and Dave Alvin voicing the characters -- but not Mellencamp. "I got fired,"
he says with a laugh. "I'm spotty at best."
No release dates have been determined for any of the "Ghost Brothers..."
Click HERE to read the article on the Billboard.com website.