ABC News: 'Nightline' Playlist: A Music Legend in His Own Right, Mellencamp Says Other Rock Icons Inspire Him
All it takes is a quick listen to John Mellencamp's latest album, "No Better Than This," to get a sense of who has influenced his music.
He started writing the album while he was on the road.
"I was going on tour with [Bob] Dylan and I looked at our schedule, and I noticed that we were passing by some pretty historic places," said Mellencamp in a recent interview with "Nightline" at famed gallery bar, Le Poisson Rouge in New York.
Mellencamp decided to make use of the stops he and Dylan were making on tour and weave them into his songs.
"I noticed that we were passing by Memphis," Mellencamp said. "I had a couple days off so I thought, 'Well, that's obvious: Let's go to Sun. Let's see if we can get into Sun."
Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET
"Sun" is Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., known as the "birthplace of rock and roll" because artists such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison all got their starts recording there.
Mellencamp ended up recording nine tracks at Sun.
He also recorded songs at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., where both he and his wife were baptized.
"We were playing on the place where they delivered the sermons and, you know, this is the first black church in America," he said.
"The real reason why I wanted to use it [is that] it was a very big part of the Underground Railroad," he said. "Underneath the church are all these tunnels where people would hide for six, seven days in unbearable heat."
Mellencamp also recorded at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded in the 1930s.
"I was actually able to sit in the exact same corner that Johnson had sang in," Mellencamp said. "I have to say it's the best sounding corner I ever sat in my life."
The rock legend also described how it wasn't just where he recorded this album that he paid such attention to, but also how he recorded it.
"I had the idea that I should record it in mono," he
said. "We found an old field Ampex recorder from like
1950 and recorded on a 1940s microphone, and the mic sat
right here in the middle of the room and everybody just
kind of stood around. And we all just kind of played to
that one microphone, and the effect of it was very
John Mellencamp Becomes 'Johnny Cougar'
As a result of the recording technique, the songs on Mellencamp's new album sound as if they came from another time. The simplicity of the music and melodies serve as a tribute to simpler times of the past.
Mellencamp admitted he has little time for modern music, and is still in love with the first voice he ever remembered hearing.
"My earliest musical memory, I was able to hear on a stereo in our living room -- a great big piece of furniture -- I was able to hear Woody Guthrie," Mellencamp said of one of his biggest musical influences. "Lucky for me, one of the first voices I ever heard come out of this stereo."
In addition to singing and songwriting, Mellencamp turns to painting as another form of artistic expression, saying he was originally inspired by his mother.
"My mom was a painter," he said. "I grew up in a house with five kids. She'd be able to, like, sit down for 15 minutes to paint. And then one of the kids would be somewhere raising Cain and she'd have to go take care of that. I always loved the smell of oil paint."
As he got older, his love for music grew as well.
"I'm a Bob Dylan fan," Mellencamp said. "'Like A Rolling Stone.' I was, like, a sophomore in high school and I was, like, 'Wow!' You know, you would pull your car over. Then finally, I got the $3.95 together and bought it. I didn't have to pull the car over anymore."
Mellencamp's carefree days didn't last as long as he had planned. His high school sweetheart gave birth to their daughter, Michelle, just six months after Mellencamp graduated from high school.
A few years later he got a record deal, and because his new manager didn't think anyone would buy an album from a guy named "Mellencamp," he was given his former stage name, "Johnny Cougar."
It was under that name that he released his first megahit: "Jack and Diane."
"Some guy who did some research on old tapes of mine found that originally Jack was black and Diane was white, and I forgot all about this," Mellencamp said.
Mellencamp recently rearranged the song and is playing it on his current tour. He said people may not even recognize his iconic ballad when they hear the new version.
"All of the pop silliness has been taken away and it's just been stripped down to the story," he said. "I was really surprised with what a sad story I had written at such a young age."
Mellencamp Says Most of His Duets Are Interracial for a Reason
Two years before dropping "Cougar" from his name, Mellencamp teamed up with fellow singing legends Willie Nelson and Neil Young to create Farm Aid, which has raised $37 million for family-owned American farms.
"Both Neil and Willie are terrific songwriters," Mellencamp said. "Neil in particular. I mean, his influence on any songwriter that cares about folk music and folk-rock music, Neil has to figure into it. And of course Willie has been an American classic songwriter from the first song he wrote."
Mellencamp has loved collaborating with other artists. In 1994, he and Me'Shell NdegeOcello had a hit when they recorded a remake of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" on Mellencamp's album, "Dance Naked."
When they were just messing around in the studio, he told her to play the bass part of "Wild Night." "She says, 'I don't know that song,'" Mellencamp remembered. "And I said to her, 'You don't know "Wild Night" by Van Morrison?' And my band started playing it, and she started playing along."
A couple of weeks later an engineer was listening to the recording.
"He goes 'Hey John, you might want to take a listen to 'Wild Night,'' I said, 'What are you smoking?'" Mellencamp said.
But Mellencamp asked NdegeOcello to come back to the studio to officially record the song together.
"That's how that record was made," he said. "It was an accident."
The conscious decision to team up with NdegeOcello was no accident.
"If you noticed, most of my duets are interracial and it was done for a reason," he said. "It was my way of saying, 'Look at what people could do if they don't judge each other.' We should be able to sing together, dance together, make love with each other, get married to each other, and become you know, human beings."
"No Better Than This" is in stores now. Visit John Mellencamp's website for tour and concert information.