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Genre: heartland rock

Quotable: --

Born: John Mellencamp

When: October 7, 1951

Where: Seymour, Indiana

The Studio Albums:

Hover over an album cover for the name and year of release. Click on album to see album’s DMDB page.

Chestnut Street Incident (1976) The Kid Inside (1977) A Biography (1978) John Cougar (1979) Nothin’ Matters and What if It Did (1980) American Fool (1982) Uh-Huh (1983) Scarecrow (1985) The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) Big Daddy (1989) Whenever We Wanted (1991) Human Wheels (1993) Dance Naked (1994) Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996) John Mellencamp (1998) Cuttin’ Heads (2001) Trouble No More (covers: 2003) Freedom’s Road (2007) Life, Death, Love & Freedom (2008) No Better Than This (2010)


(Organized by dates of recording, not release)

The Best That I Could Do (1978-1988) Rough Harvest (archives: 1985-1997) Words and Music: Greatest Hits (1978-2004) On the Rural Route 7609 (box set: 1982-2009)

Key Tracks:

  • I Need a Lover (1978)
  • This Time (1980)
  • Ain’t Even Done with the Night (1981)
  • Hurts So Good (1982)
  • Jack and Diane (1982)
  • Hand to Hold Onto (1982)
  • Crumblin’ Down (1983)
  • Pink Houses (1983)
  • Authority Song (1984)
  • Lonely Ol’ Night (1985)
  • Small Town (1985)
  • R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (1985)
  • Paper in Fire (1987)
  • Cherry Bomb (1987)
  • Check It Out (1988)
  • Pop Singer (1989)
  • Jackie Brown (1989)
  • Get a Leg Up (1991)
  • Again Tonight (1992)
  • What if I Came Knocking (1993)
  • Human Wheels (1993)
  • Wild Night (1994)
  • Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First) (1996)
  • Your Life Is Now (1998)
  • I’m Not Running Anymore (1999)
  • Peaceful World (2001)
  • Stones in My Passway (2002)
  • To Washington (2003)
  • Teardrops Will Fall (2003)
  • Walk Tall (2004)
  • Our Country (2006)
  • Jena (2007)
  • My Sweet Love (2008)

Album Sales:

sales in U.S. only 40 million
sales worldwide - estimated 40 million

Singles Sales:

sales in U.S. only 1 million
sales worldwide - estimated 1 million



One of my personal top 100 acts of all time. Click to learn more. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee

“Throughout his career, John Mellencamp has had to fight, whether it was for the right to record under his own name or for respect as an artist. Of course, he never made it easy on himself. Mellencamp began his career in the late ‘70s as a Bruce Springsteen clone called Johnny Cougar. As his career progressed,” STE he “became an authoritative rocker and adroit storyteller,” RH “developing into a Stonesy blend of hard rock and folk-rock…By…1982, Mellencamp had created his own variation of the heartland rock of Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger” STE with a sound “fundamentally rooted in American music, especially the feisty garage-rock, raw-voiced soul and impassioned folk-rock of the Sixties.” RH “His best songs…symbolize the hopes, fears and basic decency of America’s heartland.” RH “He also has captured rock’s feisty, independent spirit and dogged pursuit of good times.” RH

“While he had the record sales, it took several years before rock critics took him seriously. For some artists, this would be easy to ignore, but Mellencamp had the desire to be a serious social commentator, chronicling the times and trials of Midwestern baby boomers. Scarecrow, released in 1985, fulfilled his wish of being taken serious, and every record he released after it was greeted warmly by critics. Furthermore, he sustained his popularity into the late ‘90s, only occasionally experiencing dips in record sales.” STE

The Early Years (1951-1974):
“A prolonged, acclaimed career seemed an impossibility when Mellencamp released his first album under the name Johnny Cougar in 1976. As a child in Seymour, IN, Mellencamp had suffered a number of setbacks, including being born with a neural tube defect called spina bifida that necessitated a lengthy hospitalization as a baby. As a teenager, he was rebellious, often getting in trouble with the law.” STE “Frustrated and looking for somewhere to fit in, he found salvation in music.” RH “He formed his first band at the age of 14,” STE performing “R&B and rock and roll material with a cover band called Crepe Soul;” RH he “continued to play throughout his teens.” STE

“Still, as with every aspect of his life, nothing came easily. He was a mediocre high-school student, and a two-year degree from Vincennes University and a day job with the phone company seemed pointless exercises for someone as bitten by the musical bug as Mellencamp.” RH “When he was 17, he eloped with Pricilla Esterline, his pregnant girlfriend [they had a daughter Michelle], and proceeded to try to support his family by working a series of blue-collar jobs. By the time he was 24, he had decided to move to New York City to attempt to break into the music industry.” STE

“Johnny Cougar” (1975-1978):
“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.” WK Defries, was “well-known for representing David Bowie, one of Mellencamp’s musical idols at the time,” WK but “miscast [Mellencamp] …as a corn-fed glam-rocker” RH on his “first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and derivative originals…released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, a move Mellencamp claims was made without his knowledge and against his wishes. The album was a failure, selling just 12,000 copies.” WK “The fiasco of his first album was enough to sour Mellencamp toward the industry for the remainder of his career.” STE

“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 worked with Rod Stewart’s manager Billy Gaff…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 No. 1 hit in Australia with I Need a Lover.” WK

From Johnny to John (1979-1981):
“Next he became a journeyman rock and roller – his first name now shortened to ‘John’ – who was at least moving in the right direction.” RH “Riva Records added ‘I Need a Lover’ to Mellencamp’s next album, 1979’s John Cougar (which was released domestically); and it became a Number 28 single in the United States in late 1979. Rocker Pat Benatar recorded ‘I Need a Lover’ on her debut album In the Heat of the Night, and her version garnered a good deal of FM radio airplay even though it was not issued as a single in the United States.” WK

“In 1980, Mellencamp returned with the Steve Cropper-produced Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did,” WK an album title which “reflected his basic disenchantment” RH and “still had a checkered outlook on life.” RH The album “yielded two Top 40 singles – This Time (Number 27) and Ain’t Even Done With The Night (No. 17) – and showed continued improvement in both his songwriting and singing. However, Mellencamp was not particularly fond of the album or its two hit singles.” WK

The Breakthrough – American Fool (1982):
1981 marked the end of two eras – his marriage to Esterline ended and he married Victoria Granucci and the sort-of-on-the-radar Mellencamp vanished in favor of the megastar Mellencamp when, in 1982, he released American Fool, “his breakthrough, both commercially and musically.” STE “More focused than his earlier records,” STE “the album had a rootsy, garage-rock vibe and spawned…Hurts So Good, which spent four weeks at No. 2” STE and won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Performance – he’s since been nominated 12 more times – “and Jack and Diane, which stayed at Number One for four weeks” (Wikipedia], his only chart-topper to date. Both “were supported by videos that became MTV favorites” STE and helped send “American Fool to the top of the charts. A third single, Hand to Hold Onto, made it to Number 19 and was a staple in his concerts throughout the 1980s. Additionally, ‘Hurts So Good’ spent 16 weeks in the Top Ten (more than any other single in the 1980s)…[and] went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.” WK “Despite the fact that American Fool made Mellencamp a superstar, he doesn’t consider it anywhere close to a masterpiece.” WK

Restoring the Family Name (1983):
“By this time, Mellencamp had a much firmer handle on who he was, how he wanted to sound, and what he wanted to write about.” RH In addition, now that he had “enough commercial success to give him some clout, Mellencamp forced the record company to add his real surname to his stage moniker.” WK “He was now a songwriter to be reckoned with, and years of accumulated angst erupted in songs that spoke for the passions and frustrations of the average person trying to make a go of it in hard times.” RH

“The first album he recorded as John Cougar Mellencamp was 1983’s Uh-Huh, a top-10 hit that spawned the hit singles Pink Houses, Crumblin’ Down (both of which made the top 10) and Authority Song, which Mellencamp called ‘our new version of ‘I Fought The Law’.’ 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.’” WK

His Bid for Artistic Cred (1983-1988):
“While he had commercial success, Mellencamp made his bid for critical acclaim with his next album, 1985’s Scarecrow.” STE The album “marked the true beginning of Mellencamp as a serious social commentator” WK and “displayed a greater social conscious and musical eclecticism, resulting in his best-reviewed…album to date” STE and what “is now considered a classic American rock album.” WK It was “an organic record…focusing on the plight of the American family farmer, small-town life, and the state of the nation.” WKScarecrow was an enormous success, peaking 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. all became Top 10 hits.” WKScarecrow was also the first album Mellencamp recorded at his own recording studio, located in Belmont, Indiana and built in 1984. All of his subsequent albums…have also been recorded there.” WK

“A man with a conscience, Mellencamp used his visibility and influence to advocate an issue that hit close to home” RH and “helped give voice and raise money to redress an American tragedy – disappearing farmlands, dispossessed farm families – that might otherwise been overlooked.” RH Along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, “Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert…in Champaign, Illinois on September 22, 1985. The Farm Aid concerts remain an annual event and have raised over $30 million for struggling family farmers through 2008.” WK Mellencamp “also became known for his anti-corporate stance, refusing to accept tour sponsorship offers from beer and tobacco companies.” STE

“Prior to the 1985-86 Scarecrow Tour, …Mellencamp added fiddle player Lisa Germano to his band to accent and deepen his overall sound. Germano would remain in Mellencamp’s band until 1994, when she left to pursue a solo career.” WK

“Germano played a big role in Mellencamp’s next LP, 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee, which was departure from his earlier material” WK with its “distinct Appalachian folk and country influence.” STE “Mellencamp continued to explore social commentary and new musical avenues” STE with his “melancholy elegy for the forgotten middle America.” STE “While it was more adventurous than its predecessors, it was another hit, peaking at number six and generating the hits Paper in Fire, Cherry Bomb, and Check It Out.” STE

The End of the Eighties – and Cougar (1989-1991):
As one musical era ended for Mellencamp, so did another marriage. “After The Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp went through an acrimonious divorce from his second wife, Vicki [the couple had daughters Teddi Jo and Justice], and entered a somewhat dark period in his life, although he is not known to drink or take drugs. Those who have been with Mellencamp since the beginning of his career say they’ve never seen him touch a drug or drink a drop of alcohol. ‘John is a complete teetotaller and always has been,’ Mike Wanchic, who has been Mellencamp’s rhythm guitar player since 1976, told in 2002…Mellencamp’s only vice is his four-pack-a-day cigarette habit.” WK

“Mellencamp continued to explore American roots music on Big Daddy (1989),” STE “a quieter, mostly acoustic venture filled with introspective songs reflecting his mood of the time. However somber, Big Daddy still contained standout tunes like Jackie Brown… and…the top 15 single Pop SingerWK and was “his fifth consecutive Top Ten album.” RH “The album, which Mellencamp called at the time the most ‘earthy’ record he’d ever made, is also the last to feature both the ‘Cougar’ moniker and the innovative, fiddle-based Appalachian sound he first tried with The Lonesome Jubilee. Mellencamp was heavily involved in painting at this time in his life, and decided not to tour behind Big Daddy so that he could fully explore his newfound passion. It would be two years before he was heard from again.” WK

Cougar No More (1991-1993):
“Mellencamp’s 1991 album, the hard-rocking Whenever We Wanted, was the first whose cover was billed to just John Mellencamp” WK and was his “first self-produced album.” RH He was now “a man who had banished all traces of artifice from his name and work.” RH “‘It’s very rock ‘n’ roll,’ Mellencamp said of Whenever We Wanted. ‘I just wanted to get back to the basics.’” WK The album produced two Top 40 hits – Get a Leg Up and Again Tonight.

On September 5, 1992, Mellencamp married supermodel Elaine Irwin, who he met at a video shoot for “Get a Leg Up.” The union was his third and gave him his fourth and fifth children – sons Hud and Speck. In 1992, Mellencamp also directed and starred in the movie Falling from Grace.

“Having defined his core sound by this time, he subsequently broadened his musical palette with the stripped-down, spontaneous songcraft of Human WheelsRH in 1993. “The title track peaked at a disappointing No. 48 on the Billboard singles charts, a fact that Mellencamp directly attributes to his label’s refusal to spend another $30,000 on promotion for the song.” WK It was “Mellencamp’s first album without a hit since his 1976 debut.” RH “Still, Human Wheels has widely been regarded as one of his strongest works.” WK

“‘To me, this record is very urban,’ Mellencamp told Billboard magazine…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.’” WK

The Last of the Hits? (1994-1996):
“Mellencamp returned to the upper reaches of the charts in 1994, when his quickly-recorded, 29-minute Dance Naked album yielded his biggest hit since ‘R.O.C.K in the USA’ in 1986 with a cover of Van Morrison’s Wild Night as a duet with Me’Shell NdegeOcello, an avowed Mellencamp fan.” WK

“Mellencamp planned to support the album with an extensive tour, but he suffered a major heart attack in late 1994 that necessitated its cancellation.” STE He “cut down his cigarette intake considerably and changed his diet overnight, helping him regain his health.” WK

“Mellencamp spent 1995 recuperating, re-emerging in 1996 with Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Produced by Junior Vasquez and demonstrating a slight dance influence, Mr. Happy Go Lucky was greeted with positive reviews and featured the minor hit single "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," which helped the album go gold. The album was his last for longtime label Mercury.” STE

Columbia Records (1998-2003):
Mellencamp “signed a four-album deal with Columbia Records (he wound up making only 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…The switch in labels coincided with Dane Clark replacing Aronoff on drums, but the finished product wound up pretty far away from Mellencamp’s initial vision for the album.” WK

“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). Mellencamp put an acoustic spin on his re-recorded originals, but the song that got the most attention was his previously hard-to-find cover of the Drifters’ Under the Boardwalk, as Mercury released the song to radio in the summer of ‘99 and it got a fair amount of airplay – just as it did in 1986 when Mellencamp originally released it as the B-side to ‘R.O.C.K. in the USA’.” WK

Cuttin’ Heads, his second album for Columbia and 20th overall, followed in 2001 and spawned a radio hit with Peaceful World, featuring neo-soul singer India.Arie on backing vocals.” STE “A live acoustic version of the tune sung solo by Mellencamp was included on the benefit album God Bless America.” WKCuttin’ Heads also included a duet with Trisha Yearwood on the harmony-drenched love song Deep Blue Heart.” WK “Also in 2001, he won the Billboard Century Award for creative achievement.” STE

“Inspired by his performance of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passway at an October 2002 tribute concert for the late music journalist Timothy White, Mellencamp recorded…Trouble No MoreSTE “a quickly-recorded collection of folk and blues covers originally done by artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Lucinda Williams and Hoagie Carmichael.” WK The 2003 release “topped the Billboard blues chart.” STE That same year, he was given the Woody Guthrie Award.

Rocking for Freedom (2004-2008):
“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, the socially conscious, R&B-tinged single Walk Tall along with Thank You – both produced by Babyface but written by Mellencamp.” WK

“Mellencamp released the critically acclaimed Freedom’s Road on January 23, 2007. Our Country, the first single from the album, hit radio in the fall of 2006. The song…began being featured in Chevy Silverado TV commercials in late September of 2006, mostly during football games and big-time sporting events on major American televisions networks. Mellencamp hoped that including the song in the ads would bring it in front of a mass audience, since aging rockers such as himself get little, if any, radio airplay on their new material.” WK

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, marking his highest charting release since Scarecrow…Notable tunes on Freedom’s Road include Jim Crow – a duet with folk icon Joan Baez…and the opener Someday, which was the album’s second single.” WK

In 2007, “Mellencamp began recording his 18th album of original material, titled Life, Death, Love and FreedomWK. Released in 2008, it “became the ninth Top 10 album of Mellencamp’s career.” WK It “was produced by T Bone Burnett and has a very folksy, bluesy feel, as most of the songs deal with such topics as death and loneliness. The first song with video, Jena, was introduced on Mellencamp’s web site in October 2007. The song, about the Jena 6 trial in Jena, Louisiana, proved controversial; it was criticized by Jena’s mayor, Murphy R. McMillan, who said it unfairly characterized the town as a hotbed of racism.” WK

Career Honors:
“On October 6, 2008, Mellencamp won the prestigious Classic Songwriter Award at the 2008 Q Awards in London, England. Mellencamp has been nominated for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and will find out in February 2009 if he’s been selected.” WK

“Mellencamp’s biggest honor came when was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2008. The induction ceremony took place in New York City on March 10, and Mellencamp was inducted by good friend Billy Joel, who asked Mellencamp to induct him into the Rock Hall back in 1999 (Mellencamp had to opt out because of another commitment, so Ray Charles inducted Joel).” WK

A Couple Projects in 2010:
In 2010, Mellencamp celebrated his career with a box set called On the Rural Route 7609. Rather than simply repackage his hits, the four albums were carefully compiled to re-imagine some of Mellencamp’s lesser-known album cuts into new, thematic albums.

Months later, he released No Better Than This, continuing the American-style that dates back to his Trouble No More album. “Mellencamp says the album is ‘as American folk as I’ve ever been.’” “He told Rolling Stone in July 2009 that he’s not concerned whether or not there’s a large audience for such a raw, simple record. ‘I am done being a rock star…‘I have no interest in that, in having the biggest concerts. I have only one interest: to have fun while we’re doing this and maybe have something that somebody might discover.’” WK

Biography Source(s):

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Last updated August 5, 2010.