To record his latest album, “No Better Than This” (Rounder), John Mellencamp hatched a plan with producer T Bone Burnett. They would set up a mono tape recorder and a single microphone and knock out a bunch of new songs with a small band.
It was old-fashioned recording in the extreme, with an added twist: The “recording studios” were the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., a sanctuary for runaway slaves before emancipation; Sun Studios in Memphis, one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n’ roll; and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded.
It all might sound like a gimmick, but the music’s rambunctious charm and playful spirit argue otherwise. It adds up to one of Mellencamp’s best albums, in a career that has seen the former John Cougar move from a Springsteen-lite phase (“I Need a Lover”), find his niche as a small-town storyteller (“Jack & Diane”), become the unofficial voice of Farm Aid (“Rain on the Scarecrow”) and reinvent himself as a folk-oriented singer-songwriter. In 2006, he dropped his long-standing opposition to licensing his songs for use in TV commercials; his song “Our Country” appeared in a car ad and then anchored his final album for a major label, “Freedom’s Road.” But now he’s an independent artist, and he says his days of listening to record company executives’ advice about how best to sell and market his music are over. In a recent interview, Mellencamp discussed his life as a “recovering” rock star.