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John Mellencamp: Looking Back While Staying Timeless

John Mellencamp has gone out of his way to make his newest recordings sound old, by playing in historic locations with outdated technology in the hopes that the resulting music will be timeless.

By Morning Edition/NPR Music



With only one microphone to capture all of the band's music, sounds like the slap of an upright bass and the reverberations of the room give his new album, No Better Than This, a vintage sound. Mellencamp made a musical journey out of the record: He made some of it in Memphis' famous Sun Studios, where greats like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley once stood.

"There was an X on the floor where Elvis stood, there was an X where the drum kit was set up, there was an X where the upright bass was supposed to go, there was an X where the guitar was supposed to go, and the microphone goes in the middle," Mellencamp says. "When you hear it, there's no doubt where you're at: You're in Sun Studios."

The Indiana singer has been touring with Bob Dylan, which is enough to get a musician thinking about tradition. As old school as the music sounds, Mellencamp says he would have liked to have made it sound older.

"My original idea was to record on lathe, really," Mellencamp says. "I wanted to go straight to disc, but that became very problematic, because you couldn't find the material. So I said, 'Let's go to the next best thing. Let's find what they recorded on out in the field.' "

He's referring to the researchers who famously recorded old Southern musicians decades ago. Mellencamp traveled around with old reel-to-reel tape machines from the 1950s. He brought his band to the Texas hotel where the 1920s bluesman Robert Johnson once recorded. He even recorded at a historic black church in Savannah, Ga. Because of the simple recording, producer T-Bone Burnett had no way to mix the sound of different instruments, or different versions of a song. They just had to be right.

"There's no, 'Half of this song here and half of that song there,' " Mellencamp says. "Everything was one take. Every performance was the way it was played from beginning to end. T-Bone and I both laughed. I said, 'T-Bone, what the hell were we doing in the '80s? This is so much more musical and so much more fun.' Of course, we can play now, and that helps."

Explore John Mellencamp's full NPR Archive



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