The Commercial Appeal: John Mellencamp's Nights In The Sun: Singer Adds a Memphis Beat To New Record

The Commercial Appeal By Mark Jordan - The article includes several photos from the Sun Studio recording session.

As he craned his neck up toward the single bullet microphone that hovered in the middle of the room, John Mellencamp resembled another singer who had stood on the exact spot at 706 Union more than 50 years earlier.

Sure, the Indiana-bred Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is shorter than Elvis Presley, and, at 57, his face showed the wear of 15 years that "The King" of rock and roll never lived to see. But there was a suggestion of Elvis in the sweep of Mellencamp's thick, greasy black hair. And when he and his band launched into the bouncy, mid-tempo rockabilly number "Coming Down the Road," the sound was so instantly familiar you half expected to see Sam and Scotty and Bill in the room as well.

It was not planned that way. In July 2009, Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett, a team of technicians and musicians, and a documentary film crew packed into Memphis' tiny Sun Studio, where, when it was called Memphis Recording Service, Presley all but invented rock and roll in 1954.

"We didn't know what we'd end up with," Mellencamp says of the session at Sun, one of three recording locations for his 25th album, No Better Than This, which hit stores Tuesday.

"Did we go down there to create the Memphis sound? No. We just went there to record in a historic place. The fact that the minute you hit an upright bass where Sam Phillips says put the upright bass and it sounds the same shouldn't have been any surprise. But we were surprised."

Coming more than 20 years after Mellencamp's hit-making heyday ("Jack and Diane," "Pink Houses"), the new record finds the singer-songwriter mining the same Americana sound he was pioneering back then, but in the more relaxed, unforced manner of recent critical triumphs like 2008's Life, Death, Love and Freedom.

"I'm in it for the music and the fun now," Mellencamp says of his motivation to keep making music. "T-Bone, in one of our early meetings, said, 'John, you had the luxury or the misfortune of being a rock star. We've got to get rid of that.' And I said I agree. There's no place for that anymore. I look foolish trying to be a rock star at 58 years old."

Mellencamp's more laid-back attitude about his career shows in his writing. No Better Than This grew out of a single song, "Save Some Time To Dream," the album's opening track about letting go and enjoying the little things.

"I just sat down, and I didn't try to guide these songs," he says of the collection of 13 originals, written, incredibly, in as many days. "As a songwriter you can direct songs: 'No, I don't want to take a song this way. I want to go this way.' But with these songs I didn't try to guide them. I just let the songs present themselves."

Sitting down with Burnett, who had also produced Life, Death, Love and Freedom, the pair decided to extend the natural, unforced concept to the actual recording, turning back the dial on the studio process to a simpler, less-complicated day. They sought out historic venues where the mood was more important than the acoustics. And they opted to use antiquated gear — a single microphone and an Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder they bought on eBay — to capture the magic.

Mellencamp eventually settled on three locations for the sessions: the historic First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., near where Mellencamp has homes on the resort islands of Tybee, Ga., and Daufuskie, S.C.; room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where bluesman Robert Johnson cut his first recordings; and Sun, launching pad for a long list of legends, including Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash.

"The Sun sessions were more lively, more jovial," Mellencamp says of the two days spent in Memphis, the only ones to feature a full band. "We recorded all night long because we couldn't get in there during the day because they have tours and stuff."

Sandwiched between dates on Mellencamp's tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, the sessions were rushed as much by necessity as by design. Burnett assembled a band that included guitarists Andy York and Marc Ribot, drummer Jay Bellerose and David Roe, who was Cash's bass player in his final years. With little-to-no rehearsal, they knocked out 13 songs in two nights, taking breaks only for a late barbecue or fried chicken dinner or to listen to playback in the construction trailer out back where, in the humid July night, the sensitive Ampex was set up "underneath a bare bulb and the mosquitoes that found us."

The setup reminded Mellencamp of one of his earliest records, 1983's Uh-Huh.

"I recorded that in a little teeny house in the hills of Indiana," he recalls. "We couldn't bring the equipment in the house really, so we had to go outside to hear playback."

With little time to figure out how to record in Sun's small white room, Burnett was helped tremendously by the studio's founder, the late Sam Phillips.

"Phillips made it easy for us because he had left the X's (of tape on the floor) where he would set his band up," Mellencamp says. "Most people, if you're not from Memphis, you don't know this. T-Bone and I didn't know it till we walked in the room. But it was like, hell, here's where the drums go. This is where the microphone goes. So he made it real easy for us. And the minute we started to play and heard the playback, it was like, well, there's that sound. There's that sound we're familiar with."

Mellencamp recorded versions of all 13 No Better Than This songs at Sun, though only nine made it onto the record. With Bellerose's slapping bass particularly prominent, these tracks have an undeniable Sun feel, something fans will get to experience this fall when Mellencamp takes the album on the road, complete with a "Sun" set, an acoustic set, and a showing of photographer Kurt Markus' "making-of" documentary.

There are no plans for a Memphis date. The closest show is Nov. 3 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

More lasting than the actual sounds made in Memphis, Savannah and San Antonio might be Mellencamp's rediscovery of the organic nature of making music. There's a reason the recordings of Johnson and Sun endure to this day: Despite the primitive conditions, or perhaps because of them, they speak to something intimate and real and true. "When we were in Memphis, I looked at T-Bone and said, 'What the (expletive) were we doing in the '80s?'" said Mellencamp. "I made a record once that took almost a year to make. And I look back on it, and I think I spent millions of dollars (messing) around with these songs, making sure every note was in place, using the most sophisticated equipment to make it sound a certain way."

In contrast, he says, No Better Than This was made with a lot less fuss, and the results are just as good if not better.

"The songs all just presented themselves to me in a very honest, sincere fashion," he says. "They were written that way, and that's part of the thought process of recording them that way."