Sun Studio: 3 Musicians and a Microphone

I read about this postcard from Memphis created by John Mellencamp almost a year ago. I waited patiently for many long months for the release of this T Bone Burnett – Produced, Sun Studio bequeathed gem with none other than  Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Dwight Yoakum) on Bass.  

It could have gone either way. His previous efforts with T Bone Burnett left me kind of underwhelmed. I got my email newsletter from Grimey’s this week with a new CD from John Mellencamp. It was there in the store and now it is pay day. I couldn’t find the dang thing. Oh, with a little help from the staff we found it, i n big letters NO BETTER THAN THIS, then in small caps, Thirteen New Songs by John Mellencamp.

The liner notes tell the whole story of this masterful idea, recorded at Sun with nothing but an Ampex 601 1/4 inch reel to reel fed by a RCA 44 ribbon microphone. One Microphone like the old Elvis and Johnny Cash recordings. There were a few others recorded at some other historic locations added to this southern stew. I always know when it is T Bone at the helm. He seems to have studied an Old 56 tube Seeburg Jukebox tone with its slowly expanded bass response feeling the room and decided that was his line in the sand. Sometimes it is brilliant such as the Robert Plant – Allison Krauss, “Raising Sand” or the “Crazy Heart” Soundtrack other times it doesn’t seem to work right like the last Robert Randolph and Jakob Dylan discs.

This disc is in the Premier Group. It sounds great. There are going to be plenty of Classic country and Rockabilly artists, I think, that will clamor to try this. As the CD slid out of a cover that looks like an old 78 rpm book that would hold 4 or 5 records well-worn and hid away, the disc started out a little guarded, “Save Some Time To Dream” sounds like the next track on the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack but with an easily recognizable John Mellencamp penned song.

Things start to get more interesting on track 3, “Right Behind Me” recorded at The Gunter Hotel, Room 414, San Antonio, Texas where Robert Johnson recorded his first 2 sides “Terraplane Blues” and “Dust My Broom”. It has a haunting feel to it with a violin that sounds like it just got dusted off from 1929 walking around the room in a couple of positions.  This is getting good.

It only gets better. Lyrically, it is introspective and reminiscing,  “For my whole life, I’ve lived down on West End, But it sure has changed here, Since I was a kid, It’s worse now, Look what progress did, Someone lined their pockets, I don’t know who that is”- The West End, John Mellencamp.  In “Thinking About You” the first lines, “It’s not my nature to be nostalgic at all, I sat by the phone last night, Waiting for you to call, It’s been decades since I spoke to you.” Set a mood that is not just nostalgic in sound but looking back into the dust of those who came before.

It had to be life changing to not only record in those spots but to try to use the same methods and sonics. Dave Roe was the perfect pick. He was recently interviewed by Rolling Stone after the Nashville Flood where he disclosed he lost 300 Basses at the Soundcheck Facility to the surging water. This was recorded well before that . For all I know the Bass he used on this recording may have been lost at that time.

go to Daveroe.net to see some shots from the session

Dave has a couple of stand out tracks with the Johnny Cash style arrangement of “Thinking About You” and the boogie woogie of “Each Day of Sorrow”. Two of my favorites. When it really gets into the trio with a little drum sound that was Johnny and the Tennessee Two or, Elvis, Scotty and Bill, it totally works. Where was DJ Fontana? T Bone you should have called him up.  T Bone you did well, easily John’s best album in years. It’s not perfect. It drags in a couple of spots when it sounds like a late 60’s guitar and vocal demo in search of some Artist or Producer.

If you like this one, check out “Kitty, Daisy and Lewis”. This was recorded by an English family with Lewis overseeing vintage gear and cutting it to a 78 lathe.   

Job well done, 8 out of 10.  Let’s hope this inspires some more of cutting everything analog before it goes to digital so it has some sound waves that are pleasant to the ear.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN

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