John Mellencamp, Christian Troubadour

In the 1980s John Mellencamp saw himself as as an American songwriter in the troubadour fashion. “It’s just that I happened to have a rock band behind me,” he said in a 2011 interview.

Over the next 25 or so years Mellencamp and his band amassed 22 Top 40 US hits. But in the 2000s, the music scene changed profoundly. “If you listen to what they call AAA radio today, it’s all the same sounds,” he said. “It’s different guys singing but it’s the same drum sound, the same guitar sound. The further we got away from original, the worse it got. Technology gentrified everybody.”

In 2007, Mellencamp began working closely with Americana roots producer T-Bone Burnett. “T-Bone, in one of our early meetings, said, ‘John, you had the luxury or the misfortune of being a rock star. So we gotta get rid of that.’ And I said, ‘I agree. There’s no place for that anymore.”

Mellencamp decided to leave behind forever his rock star image with the making of an album of original songs No Better Than This, released in 2010. It was made using a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone, which required all the musicians to gather together around the mic.  Interestingly, when the album reached number 10 on  the Billboard charts, it became the first mono-only release to make the top 10 since Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal by James Brown in April 1964.

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I bought my copy of No Better Than This around its release date, mainly drawn as a fan of Mellencamp’s since I heard Scarecrow as well as because of my curiosity about the low-fi recording approach he took on the project.

As it happened, at the time I bought it, my wife and I drove from New York City to Memphis—attending a wedding along the way—making a perfect occasion for repeated listenings of No Better Than This on the car CD player. I got to know it well on that road trip. The album influenced my own decision the following year to record my album American Hill on analog 2” reel-to-reel tape at The Maid’s Room studio in New York City.

Another unique aspect of the album is that Mellencamp and his band recorded it at three historic sites: Sun Studios in Memphis, Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded, and the First Baptist Church in Savannah.

Most of the album’s final tracks were recorded at Sun Studio. However, the rehearsal and charting phases took place at the First Baptist Church. During that stay, Mellencamp sang his new song, “Each Day of Sorrow” with its plaintive almost-suicidal plea:

“Well I ain’t been baptized / I aint got no church / No friend in Jesus / And what makes matter worse /  lost myself into the dark / Scared and alone with no love in my heart / Each day of sorrow brings me closer to the fire / If I wasn’t so afraid I’d lay down and die”

Congregation members were listening and were touched by the song. Interviewed by the Hilton Head Monthly in South Carolina, where Mellencamp has a second home, Mellencamp discussed what happened next: “One of the women said, ‘Have you been baptized?’ I said “No.’ “And she said, ‘Well, we’ll baptize you,’ and I said, ‘OK’ .  These people actually took off work and had a small congregation that came to witness. I was like, ‘Guys, I’m 58 years old, I can dress myself’ but there were two guys who helped me put on the robe, two guys to escort me to the pulpit . . . and there for about two or three hours, I felt enlightened.”

Mellencamp has said that he plans to record another album this fall.  His baptism may or may not influence the new songs we’ll hear on that album.  Mellencamp was raised in the Nazene Church—he stopped attending church at 16—and since the 1980s has kept a Christian sensibility in his lyrics. His songs occasionally invoke Jesus  as a spiritual image and sometimes invoke Jesus’ teaching to help the needy. On No Better Than This, the opener “Save Some Time to Dream” Mellencamp blends together side-by-side the spiritual with  the Golden Rule:

“Cast your eyes to heaven / Oh what does that mean to you / Try not to be too judgmental / So others will not judge you.”

Here is a Youtube video of Mellencamp’s beautiful spiritual song “Ride Back Home” performed at  Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday tribute at Madison Square Gardens.

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