Lost in all the hoopla about how these songs were recorded is just how good they actually are. Mellencamp went on a wild writing spree and wrote 13 songs in 13 days then, during a break from last summer’s minor league ballpark tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, took off with producer T-Bone Burnett to find the heart of America.
First he went to the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, set up his 1955 AMPEX 601 tape recorder and vintage RCA ribbon microphone, and recorded in glorious mono. Then he hit Memphis’s Sun Records, where Presley, Perkins, Cash and Lewis recorded their early rockabilly. Finally, in a small San Antonio, Texas hotel room, where 70 years ago Robert Johnson, fearing hellhounds on his trail, sat on a chair facing a corner of the room to lay down some of the most sacred of profane blues songs, Mellencamp sat in the same corner and sang his heart out.
You could consider this Mellencamp’s Nebraska, but unlike that Bruce classic, these songs resonate with old-time jaunty strutting rhythms, the kind of slap back bass Bill Black once provided for Elvis, and a more uplifting demeanor. Still, it’s bare-bones raw, one man singing his own songs of hope, redemption and hard-boiled reality while strumming guitar.
Are these songs modern classics? Only time will tell. If schoolchildren learn them 50 years from now like they do Woody Guthrie songs now, then yeah, sure. For now, though, they’re just catchy, hummable, quirky, humorous and uniquely American.