John Mellencamp fittingly commemorated Tuesday’s release of his new album No Better Than This with An Evening With John Mellencamp at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live in Los Angeles.
But he backed away from the museum’s executive director/host Robert Santelli’s observation that the album, which was produced using vintage recording equipment in historic blues locations to achieve the sound of the old folk and country bluesmen whose work inspired his new songs, was a “throwback.”
“The purpose was to go out and not so much imitate but go where it began, and what came out, came out,” said Mellencamp. He noted that the stripped-down production eschewed overdubs and the “fix-in-the-mix mentality” of modern recording techniques in order to “capture the moment.”
“The problem with music today is that there’s no moment to capture,” he continued. “We were able to capture the moment, and everybody [in the band] in the moment.”
Mellencamp recorded No Better Than This in Savannah at the First African Baptist Church, in Memphis at Sun Studio, and in San Antonio in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel—where Robert Johnson cut his seminal blues sides.
The first African-American church in North America, the First African Baptist Church was also an Underground Railroad stop that still bore Civil War era bullet holes, said Mellencamp. He said that a member of the congregation, upon hearing the opening line of album track “Each Day Of Sorrow” (“Well, I ain’t been baptized”), encouraged Mellencamp and wife Elaine to actually be baptized in the church–and added that a baptismal font just happened to be situated beneath the area in the church where the recording equipment was being set up.
“For half an hour I really felt uplifted!” he maintained.
Sun Studio is still in use, and Mellencamp and his session musicians utilized the floor markings laid down decades ago by legendary owner Sam Phillips for achieving optimal results. But the Gunter Hotel room required some modification for the recording sessions there.
The room had been carpeted in the intervening years, so a hardwood floor was placed over the carpet to better approximate the sonic ambience of the Johnson recordings, with Mellencamp facing the corner of the room as Johnson had almost 74 years earlier.
“[Producer] T-Bone Burnett said, ‘That’s one hell of a good-sounding corner!’” said Mellencamp, who spent much of the rest of the evening reflecting back on his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.
The Indiana native said that he was greatly influenced musically by his parents, who exposed him to the folk recordings of Woody Guthrie and Odetta. He also listened to rock ‘n’ roll and country music, though he wanted to be a boxer or football player—or singer.
“I always got beat up, and I was too small for a football player–so here I am!” he told the intimate Museum audience of 200. He said he had been “a bar-room singer” since he was 14, singing rock, folk, soul, “all kinds of songs…to entertain people when they wanted to get drunk.”
In his early twenties, he journeyed to New York for the first time and considered enrolling in the Arts Students League, having also taken up painting (his mother was a painter, and Mellencamp still paints). But he did bring along a song demo.
“But I didn’t really fit in New York,” he related. “An a&r guy said, ‘You talk funny,’ and I said to myself, ‘No, you talk funny.’ I had no interest in fitting in.”
When he signed his first record deal, New York’s CBGBs punk-rock scene was just starting “and I couldn’t be more farther away from it,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about writing songs and had to learn as I was making records.”
He had noted how he always had “a rough relationship” with record companies, and said that he labored under “a binding record contract for 20 years” and that some of his recordings “weren’t fun to make.”
“I knew I had to have hit records that were so big [in order] to continue, because [otherwise] nobody wanted Johnny Cougar!” he said, making reference to his original artist name, which was forced upon him by his first manager.
“Nobody came farther than me to get to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” he added. “When I started out [there were] Tom Petty, Willy Deville, Steve Forbert. I was the lone hanging fruit, [who had] only written 12 songs. I didn’t know you could play music where your shoes didn’t stick to the floor because of so much beer and vomit!”
He recalled Burnett telling him, “You had the misfortune of being a rock star,” then noted that as he now nears 59, he’s “not the guy who wrote ‘Hurt So Good’ at 28.” The challenge for him now, he proposed, is “How am I going to continue writing music with dignity?”
Early reviews of No Better Than This, and a five-song acoustic set that capped the evening and included the new album’s “Save Some Time To Dream” and “Thinking About You,” indicate that he has for now at least, found the answer.
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(The National Highway Transportation Safety Association advises that law enforcement is cracking down on drunk driving over the Labor Day weekend. Plan ahead and have a designated sober driver, take a taxi, or utilize public transportation).