John Cougar Mellencamp is an American singer who was gigging in local bars and fronting a soul band by the time he was 14. His professional music career began in earnest in 1976 when MCA Records released his first album, The Chestnut Street Incident. This was followed by more albums until he broke out in 1979 with his first hit, “I Need A Lover”. In 1982 his fifth album American Fool was the year’s best-selling album on the strength of two huge hits, “Hurts So Good,” and the number 1 single “Jack & Diane,” The albums that followed in the 80’s, Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee, and Big Daddy, were released under the name John Cougar Mellencamp. Hit singles during this period included “Crumblin Down,” “The Authority Song,” “Small Town,” “Rain On The Scarecrow,” “Lonely Ol Night,” “”R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.,” “Paper In Fire,” “Check It Out,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Pop Singer,” and “Jackie Brown.”
Born October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana, John Mellencamp fell in love with music at an early age and was gigging in local bars and fronting a soul band by the time he was 14. His professional music career began in earnest in 1976 when MCA Records released his first album, The Chestnut Street Incident. His manager dubbed him Johnny Cougar out of his belief that nobody would buy a record by anybody named Mellencamp. John protested but was overruled and eventually, of course, reclaimed his birth name as his public name.
Mellencamp took the music on the road with a band that many considered the best in the business, playing approximately 1,000 shows around the globe during the decade. In 1985, John’s concern for the plight of the American farmer, which had been voiced in the Scarecrow album, brought him together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in launching Farm Aid. It became an annual event and has helped make people aware of the issues farmers face and how they affect on the entire nation.
By the early 1990’s “Cougar” was finally gone from John’s name and a string of successful albums as John Mellencamp–Whenever We Wanted, Human Wheels and Dance Naked (including the number 2 single “Wild Night”)–were released. In 1991 John made his film debut, starring in and directing Falling From Grace, a modest box office success that was well received by critics.
John suffered a mild heart attack while touring in 1994 in support of Dance Naked. This forced him to take a break from his music career, but he returned strong in 1996 and released Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which featured the hit “Key West Intermezzo” (I Saw You First). Healthier and happier, he returned to touring in 1997 and continued to write and record frequently. Releases included 1998’s John Mellencamp, 1999’s Rough Harvest, 2001’s Cuttin Heads, and 2003’s Trouble No More . Hit singles during that time ranged from “Your Life Is Now” to “I’m Not Running Anymore” to “Peaceful World.” John continued to tour throughout 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006.
He received the 2001 Billboard Century award in recognition of all that he had accomplished over the course of his career and was honored with the Woody Guthrie Award in 2004. Previously, he was awarded a Grammy and had been nominated a total of 11 times. In 2007 the ASCAP Foundation honored John Mellencamp with its Champion Award in recognition of his outstanding use of music in service to humanity. Other recipients of this prestigious award have included Tony Bennett, Billy Joel and Arlo Guthrie. He was honored by The Americana Music Association with it’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting three years later with the award presented in Nashville by Rosanne Cash. He was recognized with the John Steinbeck Award by San Jose State University’s Steinbeck Center. The award, subtitled “In The Souls of the People,” is given to individuals who have contributed to society in the spirit of the author John Steinbeck. Other recipients have included Arthur Miller, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Ken Burns, Joan Baez, and Studs Terkel. John was presented with the award at a program of song and conversation at San Jose’s historic California Theatre in July of 2012. In 2016, John received ASCAP’s highest honor, The Founders Award, for his exceptional contributions to music and will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 14, 2018.
Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits was released in 2005. It was his first career-spanning collection and featured 35 of his biggest hits plus two new songs, one of which, “Walk Tall,” was backed with an award-winning video that condemned discrimination. It was followed in January of 2007 by a new studio album, Freedom’s Road. It featured the hit song “Our Country.” Bowing at number 5, it was the highest debuting album of his career and led to a Grammy nomination for “Our Country” in the best Solo Rock Performance category. By that summer, he had already begun working on his next album. His first collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett, Life, Death, Love, and Freedom was released in July 2008, with John and the Mellencamp band commencing on a corresponding summer tour that included a stop in Australia in the fall.
A career landmark occurred on March 10, 2008, when John was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by Billy Joel at the annual induction ceremony in New York City. He hardly rested on his laurels with the release of Life, Death, Live and Freedom (an acclaimed live disc containing most of the songs from Life, Death, Love, and Freedom), and John’s participation in a 2009 summer-long tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.
During days off during that tour John recorded, No Better Than This, again produced by T Bone Burnett. He recorded at sequentially at historic facilities in the American South: The First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studio in Memphis, and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson, the enigmatic blues shaman has recorded more than 70 years earlier with Mellencamp’s songs recorded on a 55 year old mono tape recorder using just one microphone. The album was released in August of 2010, and its production and the tour that spawned it are documented in It’s About You, a documentary film by Kurt and Ian Markus that premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March of 2010.
The release of No Better Than This was preceded by a few weeks by the four-CD box set, On The Rural Route 7609 made up mainly of versions of some of his classic songs other then the well known ones in general release. These included two particularly innovative tracks from two iconic individuals not generally associated with music recordings: race relations expert Dr. Cornel West, who dramatically recited the lyrics to “Jim Crow,” and Academy Award-winning actress Joanne Woodward-John’s favorite actress-who likewise provided an emotionally charged reading of the lyrics to “The Real Life.” Universal issued John Mellencamp 1978 – 2012, a 17 CD set that encompasses all of the key albums of his career. On July 8, 2014 Mercury/UME released John Mellencamp Performs Trouble No More Live At Town Hall documents John performing material from his 2003 studio album Trouble No More, a collection of classic folk and blues songs that had been an inspiration to and influence on Mellencamp. The live album comes from a July 31, 2003 New York City show at Town Hall, one of only two shows performed upon the release of Trouble No More.On May 29, 2014 Republic Records announced an unprecedented “lifetime” recording contract with John. Mellencamp continues to evolve artistically with Plain Spoken—the first new music from the artist since 2010’s critically acclaimed No Better Than This. Plain Spoken John’s 22nd full length album and first release on Republic Records was released on September 23, 2014. John recently completed an 80 city North American Tour starting in January 2015 in South Bend, Indiana and concluded on August 4 in Indianapolis. On the strength of critical praise and high fan demand, John resumed the Plain Spoken Tour in April 2016. After a short hiatus, he resumed the final leg of The Plain Spoken tour, kicking off October 11th, in Worcester, CT ending November 4th in North Dakota.
John’s full-length album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, featuring Carlene Carter, is his 23rd over the course of a remarkable career. The album released on April 28, 2017 followed by an upcoming summer tour in major cities across the country. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies returns Mellencamp to the musical eclecticism that is, itself, a reflection of his wide-ranging musings on life and showcases a poet who has wisely used the years between youth and the present day to become an absolute master of songwriting and interpretation. That passion and experience resonates most beautifully in this showcase of his music. John also wrote the title song for the upcoming film, The Yellow Birds, an American war film directed by Alexandre Moors and based on the novel The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. The film stars Tye Sheridan, Jack Huston, Alden Ehrenreich, Jennifer Aniston, and Toni Collette.
John continues to focus on another facet of his artistic expression: painting. His style has progressed over the years as evidenced by several gallery shows and published portfolios, and in recent years he has increased his output by completing over 100 new works. His pieces were shown in 2012 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville under the title “Nothing Like I Planned: The Art Of John Mellencamp” and, more recently at the Butler Institute of American Art in an exhibition entitled “The Paintings Of John Mellencamp.” “The Paintings of John Mellencamp” traveled to the Museum of Art-DeLand, Florida and the latest exhibit of Mellencamp’s artwork, titled “John Mellencamp: The Isolation of Mister,” was showcased at the ACA Gallery in New York. The unique instrumentation of his band and his poignant songs about everyday life in the American heartland, are widely credited with being the forbearer of the Americana/No Depression genre of rural-inflected music. An extraordinary collaboration performed by an ensemble cast of 15 actors and a four-piece live band, comprised of members of John Mellencamp’s band is The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical with music and lyrics by John Mellencamp, a libretto by author Stephen King and production by T Bone Burnett. The show is being further developed in London, though King and Mellencamp are no longer as actively involved. Mellencamp continues his journey as the walking embodiment of heartland rock; passionate, plain-spoken, and a self-proclaimed rebel.
John has said many times in interviews that you will never meet anyone luckier than John Mellencamp. He is grateful for the support of those who have enjoyed his work and career over the years. If he has any advice to offer, it is to be tenacious: John’s found that far too many people quit too soon in the face of early disappointment. While his own early efforts may have been faltering, he stayed with it–and that tenacity has been rewarded with the successes that continue to the present.
John Mellencamp continues to live and work in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the father of two sons, Hud and Speck and three daughters, Michelle, Teddi Jo and Justice.