Orange County Register: John Reflects On His Work At Grammy Museum Show

Orange County Register By Robert Kinsler

John Mellencamp isn’t one to sing his own praises. “I had to learn to write songs while I was making records,” he admitted during a special Evening with John Mellencamp program Tuesday night at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

The discussion-plus-mini-concert, another in a series of such events held here, helped mark the arrival of the celebrated Hoosier’s new album, No Better Than This, just a couple days before he will appear with another Hall of Famer, Bob Dylan, Thursday night at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

Mellencamp, 58, noted that when he got signed to his first record deal in the ’70s, he was emerging at the same time as talented artists such as Tom Petty and Steve Forbert. “I was the low-hanging fruit,” he mused.

Much has changed since he was forced to go by the moniker Johnny Cougar with the release of his ’76 debut Chestnut Street Incident. Of course, by the time he was scoring hits with “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane,” he was on his way to reverting back to his given name, while issuing acclaimed albums such as Scarecrow (1985), The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), Whenever We Wanted (1991), Human Wheels (1993) and Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008), all of them recognized as some of the best albums of the modern rock era.

No Better Than This marks another high mark in Mellencamp’s continuing journey to document his own life and that of the world around him — particularly those hit hardest by economic hardship, isolation and racial discrimination.

“I’m 58 — almost 59. I am not the guy who wrote ‘Hurts So Good’ (off 1982’s American Fool). It would be folly for me to do that (song now),” he told interviewer Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum.

Like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp has been able to mature through life and make music that reflects that passage — and No Better Than This is surely another leap forward.

For starters, it was recorded in three historic locations in the South: Savannah’s First African Baptist Church, Sun Studio in Memphis (famously used by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley in the ’50s) and Room 414 of San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, where Robert Johnson recorded seminal blues tracks in the ’30s.

The T Bone Burnett-produced sessions were preserved using a single vintage microphone and a 55-year-old AMPEX 601 mono tape recorder. Yet No Better Than This explodes with original Mellencamp songs incorporating country-blues, early folk and tinges of rockabilly and gospel. It isn’t music for the masses, but it is truly music that matters.

“The problem with music today is there is no moment to capture anymore,” Mellencamp said of the retro approach of his new album, noting this was a project on the opposite side of the “fix it in the mix” mentality. “Everybody was in the moment … it was a real joy to create the music.”

Musicians joining Mellencamp on the recording include Michael Wanchic (guitar), Miriam Sturm (violin), John Gunnell (bass), Dane Clark (drums), Troye Kinnett (accordion, keyboards) and guitarist Andy York, who joined Mellencamp at the Grammy Museum. “It was fun to be a musician playing music once again,” Mellencamp said of the 13 songs recorded in a mere 13 days.

After more than an hour of discussion and a few questions from the 200-member audience seated inside the intimate Clive Davis Theater, Mellencamp ran through a brief acoustic set.

Opening with the first track on his new disc, the uplifting “Save Some Time to Dream,” he was cheered on when he briefly struggled to find the right chords on his acoustic guitar. But the rest of his set was flawless, including a stirring a cappella version of “Cherry Bomb” as well as the tender ballad “Thinking about You,” one of the highlights on his new album. He closed with a reflective “Small Town,” a song that showcases Mellencamp’s lifelong love of his native rural Indiana.

He also promised to those coming to see him open for Dylan Thursday night that they would see a performance stretching more than an hour.

Setlist: John Mellencamp at the Grammy Museum, Los Angeles, Aug. 17, 2010
Save Some Time to Dream / Cherry Bomb / Don’t Need This Body / Thinking about You / Small Town