After thirty-some years in the public eye, and 40 million in album sales, John Mellencamp just isn't interested in greasing the rock ‘n' roll machine any more.
His earliest hits, "Hurts So Good," "Ain't Even Done With the Night" and "Jack and Diane," were textbook rock radio tunes - catchy choruses, big production, lots of swagger and attitude.
The Indiana native soon deep-sixed that stuff for a more honest, organic style, with songs like "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Pink Houses" and "Small Town."
That's been his m.o. virtually ever since - a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, bass and drums, the occasional Appalachian fiddle or banjo. All capped by that brusque, sandpaper voice, singing pointed lyrics that, over the years, have focused on everything from the plight of the American family farmer to the country's myriad social and racial inequities.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. The next year, he performed "Pink Houses" at President Obama's inaugural celebration.
Next week, Mellencamp releases his 25th album, No Better Than This. He wrote all 13 songs in as many days, and cut them on breaks from his summer 2009 cross-country tour with Bob Dylan.
No Better Than This is the antithesis of Mellencamp in his "Jack and Diane" days. He and his band - along with producer Henry "T-Bone" Burnett - recorded the songs live, on primitive equipment, in three non-traditional venues.
Including the First African Baptist Church in Savannah.
Mellencamp bought his first house in the area, on Hilton Head Island, in 1994. Today, he and his wife Elaine own a home on Tybee Island's Officers' Row (and no, it's not pink) and a spread on hard-to-reach Daufuskie Island.
It was during a downtown history tour that Elaine Mellencamp first learned about First African Baptist, home of the nation's oldest black congregation, and its place in history as a safe haven for runaway slaves during the Civil War.
Worked continued on No Better Than This at the old Sun Records facility in Memphis (the very studio that turned out the first Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash records), and in a San Antonio, Texas motel room where blues legend Robert Johnston had laid down some of his most immortal tracks in the 1930s.
No Better Than This is Americana, pure, direct, sonically honest and brilliantly basic, inhabited by ghosts and imbued with hope for a future generations.
Three of the 13 new songs were recorded at First African Baptist, the musician grouped around a single, 1940s-vintage microphone in the heart of the historic sanctuary, including the ephemeral, Dylanesque ballad "Thinking About You."
"I don't mean to insult anybody's town, but Savannah is absolutely the most beautiful town in America," Mellencamp says. "There's no question in my mind, I've been everywhere, and the most beautiful town in America is Savannah, Georgia."
The recording sessions, in Savannah and the other locations, were filmed by photographer Kurt Markus and his son Ian for a documentary on Mellencamp. The plan is for It's About You to be screened at every Mellencamp concert, before the band takes the stage, on the upcoming cross-country No Better Than This tour.
What was the genesis of the No Better Than This project?
John Mellencamp: I think the first song I wrote for this record was "Save Some Time to Dream." I knew when I wrote it that it was a really beautiful song. And I thought "Man, I hate wasting this song." That's how the whole thing started.
At the same time, I got the tour schedule from Bob Dylan, and I looked at it and went "Well, I got days off here, days off there ..." I knew that I was going to go to Savannah because I was going to spend the 4th of July on Daufuskie Island. So I knew that I had a couple of days there.
So why didn't you just go into a studio and cut this cool new tune?
John Mellencamp: Just releasing a song by itself would mean less or nothing. You know, these records that we make now, for guys like myself, they're just calling cards. I don't really intend to sell any of ‘em. Where you gonna sell ‘em at? You can sell ‘em at your concerts. I was in Indianapolis last week, and I went to a mall. It turned out to be kind of a mistake, but I went anyway, and I was looking for the record store. There's no record store! The Apple store has tuned into the record store - there were people waiting in a long line.
Dylan said to me, "The first 10 records I made, I didn't think anybody was going to buy them. They were just reasons to go out on tour."
OK, but why not go to a studio?
John Mellencamp: Well, I had made 25 albums, and I'd say three-quarters of them had been at Belmont Mall Studios in Indiana. And it's kind of like going to the same house every day. I've done that. And I don't want to go to a traditional recording studio.
Oh, there's a thousand reasons why. Another reason is, I did not want to make a record that sounded like everybody else's record. If you listen to what they call AAA Radio today, it's the same sounds - it's different guys singing, but it's the same drum sound, it's the same organ sound, it's the same guitar sound. The farther we got away from the original, the worse it got. Technology brought us to a place where it gentrified everybody and everything.
So, it was like "Well, if we're going to go into these historic locations, let's not drag a great big truck in there, let's just take the kind the kind of equipment ... let's use a microphone, and an old reel-to-reel tape machine.' Just like they did.
So we found a bunch of early ‘50s Ampex portable machines that people recorded on, a couple of ‘40s microphones. And it became very exciting to be able to play music and know, as it's going on, "I can't fix this part."
But if the guitar player blows a solo, don't you have to go back to the beginning and do the whole thing again?
John Mellencamp: The guitar player didn't blow no solos! The guy is fantastic. We did one song, and he said "That lead wasn't that great. Let me listen back to what we just did and then I'll nail it." It was the first time he'd heard the song. There wasn't one inch of bragging or anything like that. We played the song two times, and I'll be damned, he played a lead that we could've dicked around with in a recording studio for hours and hours and he could never have played a better lead.
You and your wife wound up getting baptized at First African Baptist. How did that come about?
John Mellencamp: I was playing a song, and the lyric was "I ain't been baptized/I ain't got no church/No friend in Jesus/And what makes matters worse." And one of the women goes "You're not baptized?" I said "No," and she says "Well, we'll baptize you." So Elaine and I got baptized in that church. We might be the first white people ever to be baptized in that church.
I tell you what, you could not find a more accommodating, kinder, helpful bunch of people than those that run that church.
When Elaine and I got baptized there, these people actually took off work. And they had like a small congregation that came to witness the baptism. I thought I'd go over there like the last day, and the preacher'd show up, and me and Elaine would get baptized. No, they brought in people to sing, they brought in people to dress us. I'm 58 years old, I can dress myself, but there were two guys who helped me put on the robe and explained to me what was gonna happen. And two guys to escort me up to the pulpit. And Elaine had a woman to help her.
It was fantastic. If you're not baptized, go down there and do it. Because they do it in an old-fashioned, believable ... for about two or three hours, I really felt enlightened.
Right across from that church was the flogging square, which is where they flogged the slaves. In that square, no Spanish moss grows. And if you look at those trees, and you look closely - and you have a big imagination - you can see the marks on the trees.
T-Bone and I went out and looked, and it was like "Wow." In our eyes, maybe because we just wanted to see it, we saw it.
You've made four videos in Savannah over the years. Why do you like it here?
John Mellencamp: I discovered Savannah a long time ago, probably 1981 or 82, ‘round in there. And I've seen Savannah kind of grow up. Maybe not in the best way possible, but it's grown up. I love the history of it. And I remember when it used to smell like a paper mill - the first time I went to Savannah I was a kid, I was with a Savannahian, and I said "What's that smell?" And he goes "That's the smell of money, John." And I thought, oh, so that's what money smells like. It stinks.
I just love it down there. I love the people. I find it very obtuse to the way I was brought up, being brought up a Midwesterner.
And once you get on Daufuskie, you get on Daufuskie time. Time there is different than any time that I've ever experienced. I was talking to a woman there last week - there are only 125 people on the damn island - and she told me she never leaves. She said "I go into Hilton Head or Savannah once a month, maybe, and I'm there 40 minutes and I come straight back." And I totally get it. Because you actually are able to go to Daufuskie and live, not on somebody else's time, not on the man's time, not on the boss' time, but on your time. And you just create your own world. There's no cops there, there's a couple paved roads, and just can live. You get up when you want, you can eat when you want, you can walk into the ocean when you want. A watch is really no use to you on Daufuskie. On Daufuskie Island, only the sun matters. The sun's not gonna lie to you - it's gonna come up, and it's gonna go down. The rest of the time, it doesn't matter what time it is.
To me, after being in the music business for almost 40 years, it's such a relief to be able to go there and not worry. All the people that work for me know, "Let's not call John when he's on Daufuskie." My phone never rings.
I have a teenaged son, who's a fighter, who hates Daufuskie. He says "Daufuskie is a place for old people who don't like people. That's why you like it." There's nobody there. I was there last week and I saw one car. It was mine.
What about Savannah? Do people recognize you? Do you ever walk down River Street?
John Mellencamp: I very rarely go to River Street. Don't misunderstand me, I love the history of River Street. It was THE port, once upon a time ...
That's where the old cotton warehouses were ...
John Mellencamp: Well, yeah, you guys say the cotton warehouses, but it's actually where they brought the slaves in. They have steps where you can see where they sold the slaves. I saw the slave steps and I thought "Why are these steps so weird?" They built those steps so that when they brought the slaves in, they would line ‘em up - these steps are really high and really steep, and you can stand down at the bottom of ‘em - a prospective buyer could look at the size of the potential slave, and how much he wanted for pay for the guy, and does he have a family? Really interesting history about the way America operated.
That's not what keeps you away, is it?
John Mellencamp: No. There's just too many tourists down there.
What was T-Bone's input into this project?
John Mellencamp: Well, T-Bone and I met and became friends instantly. Almost like brothers. In one of our early meetings, he said "John, you had the luxury - or the misfortune - of being a rock star. We gotta get rid of that." And I said I agree, there's no place for that any more.
I'd look foolish trying to be a rock star at 58 years old. My contemporaries who continue to chase what they once were, will never achieve that goal. We have to make a change. We have to figure out how to grow old gracefully. I can't just keep doing the same thing.
That's what T-Bone brought to the party. He said "What kind of music are you gonna make from here on out? Because you know you're gonna keep making records. You gonna try and re-create ‘Hurts So Good'?"
In a very polite, intelligent way, Henry has become my conscience.
Since you're not interested in being a rock star any more, what are you in it for now?
John Mellencamp: I'm in it for what I missed as a young guy. I'm in it for the music and the fun now. I was so serious as a kid. I had a big hill to climb. I had a mountain I had to get on top of. I covered it in a song on my last record - I got up there, and I found that there's nothing up there anyway. Who cares?
A few years ago I thought "Well, I can just play for my legacy." There's no legacy. There's no fuckin' legacy! For anybody!
We all grew up at the end of 40 years of the Big Band era. Name five of the biggest bands. OK, you can name the Dorsey Brothers, you can name Duke Ellington, but hum me some of their songs! You can't!
The Big Band era lasted 40 years. The rock era lasted 40 years. So at the end of the day, the legacy for rock ‘n' roll goes like this:
There was a band called the Rolling Stones, there was a band called the Beatles. There was a guy named Bob Dylan. There was a guitar player named Jimi Hendrix. And the rest of us were just part of it.
And I personally, as a grown man, am happy and proud to have been part of that movement. Which is now over.
There's no question about it. There's nothing that's going to revive it, there's nothing that's going to come up and give us an extra little goose in the ass like punk music did, or grunge music did. It's done, it's over, we killed it, we ruined it, we outgrew it.
So now I'm kind of excited to see what's next. I'm going to keep doing what I always did. Just like old country music - John Cash would probably not really recognize what country music is today. I know Hank Williams wouldn't recognize it.