There's a curious lyric on John Mellencamp's latest album, 2010's "No Better Than This." On the lost-love track, "Thinking About You," he opens the song by singing, "It's not my nature to be nostalgic at all."
Mellencamp, not nostalgic? The southern Indiana native built his 35-year career as the patron saint of small towns, America's heartland and a simpler way of life.
The entirety of "No Better Than This" was recorded with one microphone in rooms chock-full of nostalgia: Savannah's First African Baptist Church (the first black congregation in America), the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where Robert Johnson laid down "Crossroad Blues") and standing on the very spot where Elvis sang in Memphis' Sun Studio.
"In making music, John is not nostalgic," says Miriam Sturm, his violinist for 15 years and one of three band members Charleston Scene spoke with about Mellencamp's ongoing influence on American music.
"One thing that's so marvelous about him, he keeps trying to plum the depths of what he's able to write now and what he wrote in the past, and reconfigure it into something that feels more gritty and visceral and genuine. Maybe even more dusty."
Mellencamp and his band arrive in Charleston on Wednesday at the tail end of a yearlong tour in support of the album, an event that marks the songwriter's first performance here ("Unless he snuck out and played without me," says Mike Wanchic, his guitarist of 34 years).
The show opens with a screening of "It's About You," a documentary of the "No Better Than This" recording process filmed entirely on Super 8 film, the grainy but vivid classic format rarely used in the digital age.
Then the concert begins with a blues/country set probing Mellencamp's rockabilly roots, followed by an acoustic segment.
"It's the most 'solo John' I've ever witnessed in my life," says Wanchic. "It's a great chance for the audience to actually hear how he wrote these songs. Sometimes the translation between initial writing and finished arrangements can be quite different.
"Sometimes that means taking all that big, loud arena rock out and getting to the sweet, sweet kernel of what that original song was."
Call it the T Bone Burnett effect. Known for taking rockers and stripping them down to their roots (Robert Plant's "Raising Sand," Gregg Allman's "Low Country Blues"), the famed producer's hand is evident in Mellencamp's most recent career shift.
Hiring Burnett to produce "No Better Than This" proved to be a smart move. By stripping his rig down and recording with one microphone in the style of the blues pioneers, Mellencamp remains relevant as a middle-America hero in 2011.
In 1982, when he broke through as John Cougar with "American Fool" and its hits, "Hurts So Good" and "Jack & Diane," his big rock sound fit the Bruce Springsteen motif of the hard-working everyman rocker.
Each release thereafter went platinum, including 1985's "Scarecrow" and 1994's "Dance Naked." Then in 1996, Mellencamp released "Mr. Happy Go Lucky." The album featured more production and hidden twists than anything he'd recorded prior.
Sturm made her studio debut on that album, composing an album-opening overture of the dozen tracks, including hits "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" and "Just Another Day."
Although subsequent albums continued to chart well, including his eponymous 1998 release and 2007's "Freedom's Road," nothing has garnered the sort of media attention "No Better Than This" has received, largely for its unorthodox recording method and back story.
"The whole point of longevity in music is evolution, being able to continue to develop yourself musically, not underestimating the audience and being able to offer fans something different and interesting," says Wanchic.
"This show is not about playing the hit records for John Q. Public. The whole point of this entire tour is to settle in on what we consider the great songs we've come up with over the years, being able to put people in a good environment and to play music for the sake of music."
Even in this digital age, where the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and New York shapes what people in the heartland consume, Mellencamp still seems to resound with small-town America in the same way he did three decades ago.
It's evident in his audiences and the response he receives, including at the annual Farm Aid concert, which he co-founded with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
"If you fly from Charleston to Los Angeles and look down below you on the plane, you'll see that virtually this entire country is rural, punctuated by cities," says Wanchic. "The press and critics might like you to think that L.A. and New York are this country. But they're not even remotely representative. We're a small-town nation. The human condition is universal, whether you're in L.A. or Bloomington (Indiana) or Beaufort, South Carolina, we're all struggling with the same stuff."
The band's other guitarist, Andy York, recalls playing in Boston three days after Sept. 11, 2001.
"The reaction to us being there was absolutely overwhelming. There was indescribable emotion," he recalls. "It was such a fine moment to be a part of, and we all felt united with this music, like we were one person with the audience. It was a way of moving forward that I'll never forget."
Of course, the entire nation was looking to connect in the days after that tragedy, but the honest American nature of Mellencamp's songwriting provided him a special opportunity and perspective.
"He values friendships and people he's known all his life. That's the reason he still lives in southern Indiana," says Sturm, who met and connected with Wanchic and the band after graduating from Indiana University.
"He still keeps people that he knew in grade school and high school near to him. It's not nostalgia so much as really valuing your roots."
Sturm says that the band collectively values traits like forgiveness and compassion, and that they generally agree with the motivations of the Occupy movement.
In October, their bus got caught in traffic because of Occupy Montreal protests after a show in the city. Discussion ensued about their general disdain for corporate America.
By keeping in touch with the rural America that bred him and supports him, Mellencamp, who turned 60 last month, continues to remain viable as a songwriter, even after spending half his life in the spotlight.
In the film "It's About You," we witness his full-immersion baptism at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah. His visit there wasn't just a run-in-and-record flyover, but a religious experience. (Interestingly, he did leave the lyric "I ain't been baptized/I ain't got no church" in the song "Each Day of Sorrow" from those recording sessions).
For fans concerned that the roots-inspired concert format might ignore their old favorites, there's no need to worry. The show begins with a small four-piece band, including banjo and mandolin.
Players are added progressively, leading up to Mellencamp's solo set, explains guitarist York.
"But then, the third set is just all out, blasting, burning rock 'n' roll."
In the final set, the guitars and bass switch from acoustic to electric, the drums from a cocktail kit to a full set, and the sound explodes into more of what classic Mellencamp fans are accustomed to.
"We play the hits, and people are singing along with them, but they won't sound exactly like they did in the '80s," says Sturm. "We're not just coming out with Marshall stacks and playing an arena rock show all night."
According to Wanchic, the adaptation of songs and constant reinvention is exactly the opposite of nostalgia.
"John continues to develop his craft and become a better artist all the time," says the guitarist. "There are risks when you put yourself out there like that. But if you're not risking failure, then you're really not pushing. Anybody who says that age takes you down is wrong, in terms of music."