John Mellencamp takes history tour for new album

Wed May 26, 2010 2:22am EDT

Musician John Mellencamp performs during a concert celebrating the 90th birthday of musician Pete Seeger in New York May 3, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Musician John Mellencamp performs during a concert celebrating the 90th birthday of musician Pete Seeger in New York May 3, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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DETROIT (Billboard) - A 55-year-old reel-to-reel Amex tape recorder, a single microphone and three historic recording sites were John Mellencamp's tools for making his new album, which comes out on August 3 -- seven weeks after he releases a boxed set that omits many of his biggest hits.

Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett recorded the 13 mono, unoverdubbed tracks for "No Better Than This" last summer, while the Indiana rocker was on the road with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

Using members of Mellencamp's band and guests like guitarist Marc Ribot and former Johnny Cash upright bassist Dave Roe, they set up shop at Sun Studios in Memphis, Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio -- where Robert Johnson made his first recordings in November of 1936 -- and in the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., the inaugural black church in America and a stop on the underground railroad during the Civil War.

"This is my 25th album," Mellencamp told Billboard.com. "I liked the idea that there was a story behind the record other than, 'OK, here's just another John Mellencamp record. So the fact there is a back story of the Savannah church and Sun Studios and Room 414...I thought those are all places I would want to visit anyway, wouldn't it be great to just record there?"

Mellencamp says Burnett, who produced his 2008 album "Life Death Love and Freedom," was enthusiastic about the idea. "He went, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?'" recalled Mellencamp, who bought the Amex recorder for $175 on eBay and refurbished it for the sessions. "The one microphone, everything, he was on board and he was excited. We had a lot of fun making this record."

The lo-fi recording process, Mellencamp added, was "just trying to go 180 degrees away from the prefabbed place where pop music is now," capturing the live, present energy of a performance rather than a polished studio production. "All the records that we loved, that we grew up loving, were made that way -- James Brown's records, those first five Rolling Stones records, those early Dylan records," he noted. "You felt like you were sitting next to them and they were playing those songs. That's the quality that music has lost, that technology has taken away from us ... so we got them back on this record. It sounds authentic."

The songs on "No Better Than This" were culled from a set of more than 30 that Mellencamp wrote before the summer tour. They range from rockabilly shuffles ("Each Day of Sorrow," the title track) to brooding, folky pieces ("Thinking About You," "Clumsy Ol' World"), rural blues ("Right Behind Me") and country-western ("A Graceful Fall," "Coming Down the Road," "No One Cares About Me," "Don't Forget About Me").

Filmmaker Kurt Marcus documented the recording sessions for a movie that Mellencamp plans to use to open a run of theater shows that's slated to begin in October. The concerts will also include a stripped-down acoustic set with 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," said Mellencamp, who's playing four shows in July and is also planning some more minor league baseball stadium dates with Dylan later this summer.

"No Better Than This" will add to the story Mellencamp details in "On the Rural Route 7609," a four-CD set that includes 12 unreleased tracks -- including writing demos of "Jack and Diane," "Authority Song" and "Cherry Bomb" -- as well as poetic readings of "The Real Life" by actress Joanne Woodward and "Jim Crow" by Cornell West.

What the set is missing, by design, is many of Mellencamp's biggest hits, such as "Hurts So Good," "Paper in Fire" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."

"I have no interest in going back and putting together a bunch of hits," Mellencamp explained.

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