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, "No Better Than This," which is due out Aug. 3 -- seven weeks after he releases a retrospective box set, "On the Rural Route 7609."
Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett recorded the 13 mono, unoverdubbed tracks for "No Better Than This" during the summer of 2009, while the Indiana Rock and Roll Hall of Famer 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 explains to 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?' " recalls 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 adds, 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 notes. "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. "I was in a zone for 10, 15 days. I didn't even question it," he remembers. 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"). Mellencamp previewed some of the tunes last summer, while the Dali Lama used the opening track, "Save Some time to Dream," as the impromptu inspiration for a sermon after Mellencamp performed it during a May 20 luncheon at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind.
"I didn't even know what...he was saying because I was behind the PA system," Mellencamp says with a laugh. "I was very flattered that the holiest man maybe on Earth had critiqued one of my songs."
Filmmaker Kurt Marcus documented the "No Better Than This" 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," says 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 handsomely packaged 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 explains. "I had this idea of discovery. I think all of those songs (on 'On the Rural Route 7609') were overlooked...I thought this was just a good way to say, 'OK, so this isn't about hit records. This is about what the rest of these albums were about...Here's really what I do.' "
Mellencamp is also moving forward on "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," his stage musical collaboration with Stephen King. The two recently hired a new director, award-winning actress Liv Ullman, who plans to start revising the script with King in January and work through 2011 on the production. Meanwhile, Burnett has been recording an album of Mellencamp's songs for the project with Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Ryan Bingham and the Blasters' Phil and Dave Alvin voicing the characters -- but not Mellencamp. "I got fired," he says with a laugh. "I'm spotty at best."
No release dates have been determined for any of the "Ghost Brothers..." projects.