Mellencamp, Tape Recorder, Mic – History.

August 17th, 2010, by

When legendary rocker John Mellencamp recorded his latest (and 25th) album, “No Better Than This,” he decided to keep it simple.

(To see Mellencamp perform live, click here.)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and his producer, T-Bone Burnett, recorded in mono, went straight to tape with a 1950s Ampex reel-to-reel recorder and used one microphone.

They also set up the recording sessions at three historic locations: Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX, where Robert Johnson recorded his blues album in November 1936; Sun Studio in Memphis, TN, where a host of music legends (read: Elvis) have recorded; and First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA, one of the oldest African American Baptist churches in the country and a part of the Underground Railroad.

In his recent conversation with Tavis, Mellencamp shared the backstory of the decision:

Bob Dylan and I were on tour together and I had written this song called ‘Save Some Time to Dream,’ and I thought, well, this is an awfully good song for me; I’ll just play it live. But I played it, and I thought, I’m going to be in this location and that location, and I started looking geographically that I’m going to be in Savannah, Georgia, where the First African Baptist Church is, where the Underground Railroad started and people went through.

I’m going to be in Memphis, where Sun Studios is located and where Sam Phillips recorded “Howling Wolf” and Johnny Cash, and I’m also going to be close to San Antonio, which is where Robert Johnson recorded back in the ’30s at the Gunter Hotel.

So I started thinking, and things get on your back. So I thought, well, if we’re going to record in these historic locations then we should use that type of gear. Now, those guys, like Johnson, when they recorded him, they recorded straight to disc, straight to the record, so I thought that’s what we’ll do.

But that turned out to be really problematic in this day since nobody does it anymore, so then we went with I think it’s a 1954 mono Ampex field recording machine and an RCA microphone, and recorded in those three locations with the band the old fashioned way — set a microphone up, everybody kind of gathers around it, and you play…the minute we started playing, it was just like well, this sounds like the Sun sessions. It sounds just like Johnny Cash.

And those production choices made for a 13-song album that was released today, but could have been released 50 or 60 years ago. From “Don’t Forget About Me” to “Pink Houses,” the sound is timeless.

But don’t take our word for it!

Watch performances online and tune in each night this week; Mellencamp closes each show with an exclusive, live performance of tracks from the album.

We’re calling it the “week of rock” with John Mellencamp. We know. We know. It truly gets no better than this.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 11:18 am