San Antonio Express News: Getting Back To Basics No Better Than This Feature

San Antonio Express News By Jim Beal Jr.

John Mellencamp says he wrote Right Behind Me specifically for recording at the Gunter Hotel.

A year ago, John Mellencamp was holed up in Room 414 of the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio.

Accompanied by fiddler Miriam Sturm and guitarist Andy York and surrounded by a crew that included sound engineers, photographer Kurt Marcus and record producer T-Bone Burnett, Mellencamp sat in a chair atop a piece of borrowed ballroom dance floor. He hit chords on an acoustic guitar while singing Right Behind Me into a vintage RCA microphone in the place where, in November 1936, Robert Johnson recorded what became 16 legendary blues songs.

Last summer, while touring with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, Mellencamp and his troupe did something similar across the country. They also set up the vintage recording gear in Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., and in the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.

The result is No Better Than This, 13 new songs released today, in mono, on the Rounder label.

"I've made 25 albums, three-quarters of them at Belmont (Mellencamp's home studio, Belmont Mall in Bloomington, Ind.). I've done that. I didn't want to go to a traditional studio, and I didn't want to make a record that sounds like every other record," Mellencamp said. "I listen to Triple A radio, and it's all the same sound, different people but the same sound. So I said, 'Let's use a mike and a reel-to-reel tape recorder.' We found a bunch of early ' 50s Ampex tape machines and ' 40s microphones, and it became very exciting."

The Americana-music godfather studied his tour schedule and found days off near historical locations.

"I knew we had a couple days off in Savannah, I knew we had to go to Memphis, and I knew we had to go to San Antonio," he said. "We also looked at Dallas (where Robert Johnson also recorded), but they wouldn't let us record in that building, the Brunswick Building. We kept trying, but the answer was no."

During a break in the Gunter session, Burnett, a Fort Worth native, talked about the allure of recording in historic rooms.

"John is a really great singer, and I'm always happy working with him in any environment," he said. "The fact he chose these historic locations is a big plus. The stories that have come out of the sessions are extraordinary. The First African Baptist Church was started in 1775. It was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and central to the civil rights movement. Sun Studio, from a completely different angle, was also important to the civil rights movement and, from another angle, so were Robert Johnson's recordings at the Gunter."

Since his career started more than three decades ago, Mellencamp has racked up millions of album sales, earned shelves full of awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the 58-year-old singing songwriter is nothing if not realistic about the business end of music.

"These records by guys like me are just calling cards," he said. "I don't intend to sell any of them. I was at a mall recently. There's no record stores at malls anymore. There's Barnes & Nobles. The Apple store is the new record store. The place was packed. The records I make are just calling cards. But that's the way I started."

The 13 tracks on No Better Than This range from rockabilly to folk-rock to haunting heartland folk, but Mellencamp wrote Right Behind Me specifically for the Gunter.

"It just seemed like it should have been recorded in San Antonio," he said. "In Savannah, I was playing where they preach from and below where they baptize people. My wife, Elaine, and I got baptized there during the sessions.

"We went down to Memphis and recorded with a trio at Sun. We didn't really know what to expect from that room, but Sam Phillips had made it easy. He left Xs on the floor. We stood on the Xs. The minute we started to play and heard the playback, we said, 'There's that sound.' "

Mellencamp didn't set out to write a bunch of songs for an album.

"I wasn't in the songwriting mood, but sometimes songs are like monkeys on your back," he said. "Finally I wrote the first song, Save Some Time to Dream. It was simple and to the point and had a beautiful melody. After that, I had to get busy.

"With these songs, I just let them write themselves. I let the songs present themselves and present themselves in an honest, sincere fashion. So I wanted to record them in an honest fashion, and quickly."

The No Better Than This tour, featuring a Kurt Marcus documentary, It's About You, as an opener, kicks off in October and is expected to run through spring 2011. No Texas dates have been announced.

"I'm in it for the music and the fun now," Mellencamp said. "I missed that when I was a kid. I was climbing the mountain when I was a kid. I didn't care about money, but I wanted to get paid. I didn't care about radio, but I loved to hear my songs on the radio. As a grown man, I'm happy and proud to have been part of that era, but it's over, and we're all waiting for what's next."