Columbus Dispatch: Mellencamp On The Move - No Better Than This Feature

The Columbus Dispatch By Gary Graff

Small Town guy John Mellencamp has big plans this year.

The singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member is dealing with his past, present and future, all at the same time.

Two months ago, he unveiled On the Rural Route 7609 - a four-disc boxed set culled from his 35-year recording career and featuring a dozen previously unreleased tracks.

And, last week, No Better Than This - an album of new material recorded with a single microphone and a reel-to-reel recorder at three historic sites in the South - reached store shelves.

Meanwhile, Mellencamp and novelist Stephen King continue to work on a stage musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, for which they recently brought in a new director, Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.

About all that Mellencamp hasn't done is quit smoking, despite a 1994 heart attack and a recent campaign by son Speck to get 1 million people to sign a Facebook page urging his father to scrap the cigarettes.

"That whole thing was a family conversation at Thanksgiving that got way out of hand," Mellencamp, 58, said with a laugh. "He ended up getting, like, 700,000 names, but then he lost interest in it.

"Besides," he added, "don't you think I'm too polluted already?"

No Better Than This, Mellencamp's 21st studio album, is among his most distinct - not only for the low-fi recording process but also for the locales where it was made: Sun Studio in Memphis; Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson made his first recordings in November 1936; and First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., the first black church in America and a stop on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.

"I liked the idea that there was a story behind the record other than, 'OK, here's just another John Mellencamp record,'" he said.

"So the fact that there is a back story of the Savannah church and Sun Studio and Room 414 ... I thought: 'Those are all places I would want to visit anyway. Wouldn't it be great to just record there?'"

As for the 55-year-old Ampex reel-to-reel recorder: It cost him $175 on eBay.

"I loved the whole idea of just trying to go 180 degrees away from where pop music is now - where it's just prefabbed musicians, and they just wrap them up in plastic and send them out," he said.

"Here, we are back to the lowest common denominator: one microphone and a band with no overdubs, no echo, no tweaking, anything. I just liked the whole idea of it."

No Better Than This stays sonically true to those environments, with sparse, spacious arrangements and a stark, intimate ambience.

It's certainly not the stuff of which hit singles or platinum records are made, but, after having sold more than 40million albums and scored 22 Top 40 hits, Mellencamp said that such success is no longer a priority for him.

"I've come to the conclusion that any record I put out now is really just a calling card. I don't really anticipate selling a bunch of them, because people don't buy them anymore. They're calling cards to let people know that I'm still writing songs and I'm still current and ... I'm not an oldies act."

Mellencamp's upcoming tour in support of No Better Than This will offer an unorthodox response to the problem of selling a live performance of songs whose point was in part where they were recorded.

Marcus' film footage will be shown to start the evening. It will be followed by an acoustic set with Mellencamp and 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," he said. "I've never done anything like that before."

As for On the Rural Route 7609, Mellencamp acknowledged that he initially resisted a retrospective project.

"It was part of my record deal," he said, "but I had no intention of going back and putting together a box set with one CD that's full of hits and then, as time goes on, the hits dwindle. I have no interest in going backward like that. I don't care about it."

In producing the collection with his longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic, however, he lit on the idea of spotlighting more-obscure material from his catalog and even exposing songwriting demos for tracks such as Jack & Diane (1982), Authority Song (1983) and Cherry Bomb (1987).

The album even includes poetic readings of his lyrics by actress Joanne Woodward and scholar Cornel West.

"I had this idea of discovery," Mellencamp said. "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.'"