While some artists move toward the future, John Mellencamp seems to travel back in time — at least in terms of trumpeting his Middle American origins and blue-collar credo. It's a transformation that could scarcely have been imagined when glam rocker wannabe Johnny Cougar reinvented himself decades ago as journeyman troubadour John Mellencamp, taking his cue from Springsteen, Fogerty, and Guthrie. The full extent of that evolution is evidenced on the recent retrospective, On the Rural Route 9609, a four-disc compilation that chronicles his entire rootsy regimen.
Mellencamp's journey culminates with the release of No Better Than This, a new effort intended to serve as a bellwether for his archival fascination. Recorded in a variety of historic locales — the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, a historic church in Atlanta, and the San Antonio hotel where blues man Robert Johnson produced his first recordings — it used a vintage Ampex tape recorder and a single old-fashioned microphone to re-create an authentic ambiance.
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Rave reviews and the coverage of his confrontations with the religious right — and earlier, the McCain campaign — over the unapproved appropriation of his songs keep him in the headlines. A feisty insurgent eager to tap tradition? In this case, a welcome contradiction.