Mellencamp began his career in the late '70s as a Bruce Springsteen clone called Johnny Cougar. As his career progressed, his music became more distinctive, developing into a Stonesy blend of hard rock and folk-rock.
John Mellencamp, previously known by the stage names Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, and John Cougar Mellencamp, (born October 7, 1951) is an American rock singer-songwriter, musician, painter and occasional actor. He has sold over 40 million albums worldwide and has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States. In addition, he holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit number-one on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with seven, and he has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one.
His songs are known for their populist themes. Mellencamp is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Illinois to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. The Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 25 years, and as of 2010 the organization has raised over $36 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.
Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008 by Billy Joel. His biggest musical influences are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and The Rolling Stones.
Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, with a mild form of spina bifida that necessitated a lengthy stay in the hospital as a baby. He is descended from German immigrant Johann Herman Möhlenkamp, who came to the White Creek area of Bartholomew County, Indiana in 1855.
He formed his first band, Crepe Soul, at the age of 14 and later played in the local bands Trash and Snakepit Banana Barn. He eloped with his pregnant girlfriend, Priscella at the age of 18 and had his first child in December 1970 six months after graduating from high school.
He attended Vincennes University, a two-year college in Vincennes, Indiana, starting in 1972. During this time he experimented with drugs and alcohol, stating in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, "When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn't get off the couch. I would lie there, listening to Roxy Music, right next to the record player so I wouldn't have to get up to flip the record over. I'd listen to this record, that record. There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone.
Upon graduating from Vincennes University, Mellencamp played in a couple of local bands, including the aforementioned glitter-band Trash, which was named after a New York Dolls song, and he later got a job in Seymour installing telephones. At this time, Mellencamp, who had given up drugs and alcohol for good prior to graduating from Vincennes University, decided to pursue a career in music.
Performing as John Cougar (1976–1982)
After about 18 months of traveling back and forth from Indiana to New York City in 1974 and '75, Mellencamp finally found someone receptive to his music and image in Tony DeFries of MainMan Management. DeFries insisted that Mellencamp's first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and a handful of original songs be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar. The album sold 12,000 copies.
Mellencamp recorded The Kid Inside in 1977, the follow-up to Chestnut Street Incident, but DeFries eventually decided against releasing the album and Mellencamp was dropped from MCA records. He drew interest from Rod Stewart's manager, Billy Gaff, after parting ways with DeFries and was signed to the tiny Riva Records label. At Gaff's request, Mellencamp moved to London, England for nearly a year to record, promote and tour behind 1978's A Biography. The record wasn't released in the United States, but yielded a hit in Australia with "I Need a Lover. Riva Records added "I Need a Lover" to Mellencamp's next album released in the United States, 1979's John Cougar, where the song became a Number 28 single in late 1979. Pat Benatar recorded "I Need a Lover" on her debut album In the Heat of the Night. In 1980, Mellencamp returned with the Steve Cropper-produced Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, which yielded two Top 40 singles — "This Time" (No. 27) and "Ain't Even Done With the Night" (No. 17). "The singles were stupid little pop songs," he told Record Magazine in 1983. "I take no credit for that record. It wasn't like the title was made up — it wasn't supposed to be punky or cocky like some people thought. Toward the end, I didn't even go to the studio. Me and the guys in the band thought we were finished, anyway. It was the most expensive record I ever made. It cost $280,000, do you believe that? The worst thing was that I could have gone on making records like that for hundreds of years. Hell, as long as you sell a few records and the record company isn't putting lot of money into promotion, you're making money for 'em and that's all they care about. PolyGram loved Nothin' Matters. They thought I was going to turn into the next Neil Diamond. In 1982, Mellencamp released his album, American Fool which containted the singles "Hurts So Good," which spent four weeks at No. 2 and 16 weeks in the top 10, and "Jack & Diane," which was a No. 1 hit for four weeks. A third single, "Hand to Hold On To," made it to No. 19. "Hurts So Good" went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 25th Grammys. "To be real honest, there's three good songs on that record, and the rest is just sort of filler," Mellencamp told Creem Magazine in 1984. "It was too labored over, too thought about, and it wasn't organic enough. The record company thought it would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was – not that the songs were better than my others – but people liked the sound of it, the 'bam-bam-bam' drums. It was a different sound. Performing as John Cougar Mellencamp (1983–1990)
Mellencamp had the record company add his real surname to his stage moniker. The first album he recorded as John Cougar Mellencamp was 1983's Uh-Huh, a top-10 album that spawned the top 10 singles "Pink Houses," "Crumblin' Down" as well as "Authority Song". During the recording of Uh-Huh, Mellencamp's backing band settled on the lineup it would retain for the next several albums: Kenny Aronoff on drums and percussion, Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, Toby Myers on bass and John Cascella on keyboards. In 1988, Rolling Stone magazine called this version of Mellencamp's band "one of the most powerful and versatile live bands ever assembled." On the 1984 Uh-Huh Tour, Mellencamp opened his shows with cover versions of songs including Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," and the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina. "If you want to stick needles in your arms, go ahead and fucking do it," Mellencamp told Bill Holdship of Creem Magazine in 1984, when asked about his views on drugs. "You're the one that's going to pay the consequences. I don't think it's a good idea, and I sure don't advocate it, but I'm not going to judge people. Hell, if that was the case, you wouldn't like anyone in the music business because everyone's blowing cocaine." In 1985, Mellencamp released Scarecrow which peaked at No. 2 in the fall of '85 and spawning five Top 40 singles. "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town," and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to '60s Rock)" all became Top 10 hits, and "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Rumbleseat" cracked the Top 40. Scarecrow was also the first album Mellencamp recorded at his own recording studio "Belmont Mall", located in Belmont, Indiana and built in 1984. Mellencamp sees Scarecrow as the start of the alternative country genre: "I think I invented that whole 'No Depression' thing with the Scarecrow album, though I don’t get the credit," he told Classic Rock magazine in October 2008. Shortly after finishing Scarecrow, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in Champaign, Illinois on September 22, 1985. The Farm Aid concerts remain an annual event and have raised over $36 million for struggling family farmers as of 2010. Prior to the 1985–86 Scarecrow Tour, during which he covered a bunch of those same 1960s rock and soul songs he and his band rehearsed prior to the recording of Scarecrow, Mellencamp added fiddle player Lisa Germano to his band. Germano would remain in Mellencamp's band until 1994, when she left to pursue a solo career. Mellencamp's next LP, 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee included the singles "Paper in Fire," "Cherry Bomb," and "Check It Out," and album tracks "Hard Times for an Honest Man" and "The Real Life". "We were on the road for a long time after Scarecrow, so we were together a lot as a band," Mellencamp said in a 1987 Creem magazine feature. "For the first time ever, we talked about the record before we started. We had a very distinct vision of what should be happening here. At one point, The Lonesome Jubilee was supposed to be a double album, but at least 10 of the songs I'd written just didn't stick together with the idea and the sound we had in mind. So I just put those songs on a shelf, and cut it back down to a single record. Now, in the past, it was always 'Let's make it up as we go along' – and we did make some of The Lonesome Jubilee up as we went along. But we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to sound like, even before it was written, right through to the day it was mastered. Frank DiGiacomo of Vanity Fair wrote in 2007, The Lonesome Jubilee was the album in which Mellencamp defined his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp." During the 1987–88 Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp was joined onstage by surprise guest Bruce Springsteen at the end of his May 26, 1988 gig in Irvine, California for a duet of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," which Mellencamp performed as the penultimate song during each show on that tour. After the Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp divorced his second wife, Vicki. In 1989, Mellencamp released Big Daddy, with the tracks "Jackie Brown," "Big Daddy of Them All" and "Void in My Heart," and the top 15 single "Pop Singer." The album, which Mellencamp called at the time the most "earthy" record he'd ever made, is also the last to feature the "Cougar" moniker. Mellencamp was heavily involved in painting at this time in his life, and decided not to tour behind Big Daddy, stating "Whats the point?... This other step that people keep wanting me to take to become another level of recording artist - to be Madonna? To sell out? To bend over? To kiss somebody's ass? I ain't gonna do it. In his second painting exhibition, at the Churchman-Fehsenfeld Gallery in Indianapolis in 1990, the portraits were described as always having sad facial expressions and conveying "the same disillusionment found in his musical ems about the nation's heartland and farm crisis." Performing as John Mellencamp (1991–1997) Mellencamp's 1991 album, Whenever We Wanted, was the first whose cover was billed to just John Mellencamp. Whenever We Wanted yielded the Top 40 hits "Get a Leg Up" and "Again Tonight," along with "Last Chance," "Love and Happiness" and "Now More Than Ever." "It's very rock 'n' roll," Mellencamp said of Whenever We Wanted. "I just wanted to get back to the basics. In 1993, he released Human Wheels whos title track peaked at No. 48 on the Billboard singles chart. "To me, this record is very urban," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine of Human Wheels in the summer of '93. "We had a lot of discussions about the rhythm and blues music of the day. We explored what a lot of these (current) bands are doing — these young black bands that are doing more than just sampling. Mellencamp's 1994 Dance Naked album included a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" as a duet with Me'Shell NdegeOcello. The album also contained two protest songs in "L.U.V." and "Another Sunny Day 12/25," in addition to the title track, which hit No. 41 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of '94. "This is as naked a rock record as you're going to hear," Mellencamp said of Dance Naked in a 1994 Billboard magazine interview. "All the vocals are first or second takes, and half the songs don't even have bass parts. Others have just one guitar, bass, and drums, which I haven't done since 'American Fool.' With guitarist Andy York now on board as Larry Crane's full-time replacement, Mellencamp launched his Dance Naked Tour in the summer of '94, but a minor heart attack suffered after a show at Jones Beach in New York on Aug. 8 of that year forced him to cancel the last few weeks of the tour. He returned to the concert stage in early 1995 by playing a series of dates in small Midwestern clubs under the pseudonym Pearl Doggy. In September 1996 the album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, with production by Junior Vasquez, was released. "It's been fascinating to me how urban records use rhythm and electronics, and it's terribly challenging to make that work in the context of a rock band," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine in 1996. "But we took it further than an urban record. The arrangements are more ambitious, with programs and loops going right along with real drums and guitars. Mr. Happy Go Lucky spawned the No. 14 single "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" which reached the Top 40 and "Just Another Day," which peaked at No. 46. Recording for Columbia (1998–2003) After the release of Mr. Happy Go Lucky, Mellencamp signed a four-album deal with Columbia Records, although he wound up only making three albums for the label. Issued a day before his 47th birthday in 1998, his self-titled debut for Columbia Records included the singles "Your Life is Now" and "I'm Not Running Anymore," along with album tracks such as "Eden Is Burning", "Miss Missy," "It All Comes True" and "Chance Meeting At The Tarantula." The switch in labels coincided with Dane Clark replacing Aronoff on drums. "On this record, we ended up quite a-bit away from where we started," Mellencamp told Guitar World Acoustic in 1998. "Initially, I wanted to make a record that barely had drums on it. Donovan made a record (in 1966), Sunshine Superman, and I wanted to start with that same kind of vibe—Eastern, very grand stories, fairy tales." He released a book of his early paintings, titled Paintings and Reflections, in 1998. In 1999, Mellencamp covered his own songs as well as those by Bob Dylan and the Drifters for his album Rough Harvest (recorded in 1997), one of two albums he owed Mercury Records to fulfill his contract (the other was The Best That I Could Do, a best-of collection). The early 21st century found Mellencamp teaming up with artists such as Chuck D and India.Arie to deliver his second Columbia album, Cuttin' Heads and the single "Peaceful World" — a duet with Arie (a live acoustic version of the tune sung solo by Mellencamp was included on the benefit album God Bless America). Cuttin' Heads also included a duet with Trisha Yearwood on "Deep Blue Heart." "He played me this song," Yearwood told Country.com, "and he said, 'I kind of have an idea of like when Emmylou Harris sang on Bob Dylan's record, just kind of harmony all the way through.' Mellencamp embarked on the Cuttin' Heads Tour in the summer of 2001, before the album was even released. He opened each show on this tour with a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and also played a solo acoustic version of the Cuttin' Heads track "Women Seem" at each show. In 2003, he released Trouble No More, a quickly-recorded collection of folk and blues covers originally done by artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Lucinda Williams and Hoagie Carmichael. The album was also dedicated to Mellencamp's friend, Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White, who died from a heart attack in 2002. In October 2002, Mellencamp performed the Robert Johnson song "Stones In My Passway" at two benefit concerts for White. Columbia Records engaged him to record an album of vintage American songs. Mellencamp sang the gospel song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" at White's funeral on July 2, 2002. The album spent several weeks at #1 on Billboard's Blues Album charts.
Recent activity (2004–present)
Mellencamp participated in the Vote for Change tour in October 2004 leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. That same month he released the two-disc career hits retrospective Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits, which contained 35 of his radio singles (including all 22 of his Top 40 hits) along with two new tunes, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You" — both produced by Babyface but written by Mellencamp. "Small Town," which was John Edwards' official campaign song. Mellencamp was also a contributor to Edwards' campaign, contributing $2,000 to his effort in December 2003. Edwards was in the presidential race again in 2007, and during Mellencamp's November 9, 2007 concert in Des Moines, Iowa Edwards joined the rock star onstage in the middle of a solo acoustic rendition of "Small Town.
In 2005, Mellencamp toured with Donovan and John Fogerty. The first leg of what was called the Words and Music Tour in the spring of '05 featured Donovan playing in the middle of Mellencamp's set. Mellencamp would play a handful of songs before introducing Donovan and then duetting with him on the 1966 "Sunshine Superman." Mellencamp would leave the stage as Donovan played seven or eight of his songs (backed by Mellencamp's band) and then return to finish off his own set after Donovan departed. On the second leg of the tour in the summer of '05, Fogerty co-headlined with Mellencamp at outdoor amphitheaters across the United States. Fogerty would join Mellencamp for duets on the Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Green River," and Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow."
Mellencamp released Freedom's Road on January 23, 2007. "Our Country," the first single from the album was played as the opening song on Mellencamp's 2006 spring tour, and the band that opened for him on that tour, Little Big Town, was called on to record harmonies on the studio version of "Our Country," as well as seven other songs on Freedom's Road. "Our Country" began being featured in Chevy Silverado TV commercials in late September 2006. He sang the song to open Game 2 of the 2006 World Series. "Our Country" was nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award in the category Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance but lost out to Bruce Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere."
Mellencamp wrote and produced all 10 songs on Freedom's Road, and the record peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart by selling 56,000 copies in its first week on the market. Freedom's Road included "Jim Crow", a duet with Joan Baez, "Rural Route," and "Someday," which was the album's second single.
On August 13, 2007, Mellencamp began recording his 18th album of original material, titled Life, Death, Love and Freedom. The album, which was released on July 15, 2008, was produced by T Bone Burnett. The first song with video, "Jena," was introduced on Mellencamp's website in October 2007. In an interview with the Bloomington Herald-Times in March 2008, Mellencamp dubbed the album "The best record I've ever made." He signed with Starbucks' Hear Music label to distribute the album and said, "they think it's a fucking masterpiece." The album's first single was "My Sweet Love." A video for the song was filmed in Savannah, GA on June 9, 2008. Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town is featured in the video. She harmonizes with Mellencamp on "My Sweet Love" and provides background vocals to three other songs on Life, Death, Love and Freedom, which became the ninth Top 10 album of Mellencamp's career when it debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 the week of August 2, 2008. It sold 56,000 copies in its first week on the market. In its list of the 50 best albums of 2008, Rolling Stone magazine named Life, Death, Love and Freedom No. 5 overall and also dubbed "Troubled Land" No. 48 among the 100 best singles of the year.
Mellencamp made a guest appearance at Billy Joel's July 16, 2008 concert at Shea Stadium in New York. Mellencamp sang "Pink Houses" in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 60,000 people.
John Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow perform Mellencamp's 2008 single "My Sweet Love" in Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia on Nov. 29, 2008.On September 3, 2008, Mellencamp made available on his website a home-video recording of his solo acoustic cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" as a sign that the 2008 Presidential Election is going to bring about change in America.
Mellencamp filmed a concert at the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana on September 23, 2008 for a new A&E Biography series called "Homeward Bound." The show, which features performers returning to small venues they performed at during the early stages of their careers. Mellencamp had last played at the Crump Theatre on Oct. 4, 1976. The program aired on Dec. 11, 2008 and also featured an in-depth documentary tracing Mellencamp's roots.
Mellencamp toured Australia and New Zealand with opening act Sheryl Crow from November 15 – December 7, 2008. Crow joined Mellencamp on stage to duet on "My Sweet Love" during the last seven shows.
Mellencamp participated in a tribute concert for Pete Seeger's 90th birthday on May 3, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City which raised funds for an environmental organization founded by Seeger to preserve and protect the Hudson River. Mellencamp performed solo acoustic renditions of Seeger and Lee Hays' "If I Had a Hammer" and his own "A Ride Back Home."
Mellencamp released an eight-track live album called Life, Death, Live and Freedom on June 23, 2009. The album captures live performances of eight Life, Death, Love and Freedom tracks This is the first official live album of Mellencamp's career.
Mellencamp embarked on a tour of minor league ballparks with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson in the summer of 2009 that ran from July 2 – August 15.
While he was on tour, Mellencamp recorded a new album, which is titled No Better Than This and was again produced by T Bone Burnett. The tracks for the album were recorded at historic locations, such as the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia as well as at the Sun Studio in Memphis and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Crossroad Blues.” Mellencamp recorded the album using a 1951 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone, requiring all the musicians to gather together around the mic. The album was recorded in mono. Mellencamp wrote over 30 songs for the record, and he wrote one song specifically for Room 414 at the Gunther Hotel. "It's called 'Right Behind Me' or 'Right Behind Us,' I haven't decided yet. I wrote it just for this room," Mellencamp told the San Antonio Express-News. "I could have done this in my studio. But I want to do it this way, and if I can't do what I want at this point, I'm not going to do it. If it's not fun, I'm not going to do it. I'm through digging a ditch." There are 14 new Mellencamp original songs on No Better Than This which is scheduled to be released in August 2010.
On May 17, 2009 Mellencamp performed at a political fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in Indianapolis and debuted a new song called "Save Some Time to Dream," which will be included on No Better Than This. "It's about individual freedom and thought—and controlling our own lives," Mellencamp said of the new tune. He debuted "Save Some Time to Dream" for a concert audience at his July 10, 2009 show in Dayton, Ohio.
On Dec. 6, 2009, Mellencamp performed "Born in the U.S.A." as a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, who was one of the honorees at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. “I was very proud and humbled to have been able to play ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ in a different fashion that I think was true to the feelings that Bruce had when he wrote it,” Mellencamp said. He performed "Down By The River" on Jan. 29, 2010 in Los Angeles in tribute to Neil Young, who was honored at the 20th annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala. Mellencamp sang the hymn “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” at “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement” on Feb. 9, 2010.
A career-spanning box set of album tracks and demos titled On the Rural Route 7609 is scheduled to be released on June 15, 2010. “If you didn’t get deeper into the original albums and know these songs, it will be like discovering new material,” Mellencamp said.