Seymour, Indiana, a blue collar town about forty minutes from Bloomington, is populated by about 20,000, mostly electronics industry workers. But it also produced at least one musician, celebrated son, John Mellencamp. Bucking the rock star tradition of leaving the hometown for more glamorous pastures, Mellencamp remains a resident of Indiana. Known for his unpretentious manner and brutal honesty, Mellencamp wishes to be taken seriously on his own terms, without losing sight of where he comes from, which granted, is hard when you’ve never really left.
John Mellencamp, with his two sisters and two brothers, was raised strictly. His father, vice president of Robbins Electric in Seymour, pushed Mellencamp to excel at school and sports, neither of which the boy took to heart. As a teenager, Mellencamp had few interests other than hanging out, getting high, and listening to rock n’ roll. At the age of eighteen, Mellencamp took off to Kentucky and married his twenty-three year old girlfriend, Priscilla. In Rolling Stone, Mellencamp recalled, “You could get married there at eighteen without your parents’ permission.” The couple were in love and Priscilla was pregnant. With the intent of making a living for themselves, the newlyweds moved into Priscilla’s parents’ house with their newborn daughter Michelle. Attending junior college, studying communications, and barely holding down a job for more than a few months, Mellencamp reverted to his old partying ways. At that time, the only productive thing Mellencamp did was play music in local bar bands, using the guitar skills he started building at the age of fourteen. Considering the fact that he had a wife and daughter to support, his in-laws did not see guitar playing as a stable occupation. They kicked the young couple out with the typical “you’ll never go any where with this silly rock and roll business.”
After being kicked out, the Mellencamps stayed together for another ten years. Gradually growing apart from his first wife, Mellencamp had started to record demos of his own songs and take music as a career more seriously, much to the derision of seemingly everyone he knew. Mellencamp told Edwin Miller of Seventeen, “Everybody said, ’John, you’re dumb. People from Seymour don’t make records. They work in the fields, and they work in the factory, and if you’re lucky, you can be like your old man. Get a good job by the time you’re fifty, and that’s that.’ That’s what made me want to get out and do it—everyone saying you can’t!”
Around this time Mellencamp decided to go to New York City to try to sell himself as a rock star. The demo tape
For the Record…
Born October 7, 1951, in Seymour, IN; son of Richard and Marilyn Mellencamp; married Priscilla Esterline, 1969 (marriage ended, 1981); married Vicki Granucci, 1981 (marriage ended, 1989); married Elaine Irwin, 1992; children: Michelle (first marriage), Teddi Jo, Justice Renee (second marriage), Hud, Speck (third marriage).
Formed a “glam-rock” band called Trash, 1971; signed with MainMan in 1975, name changed to John Cougar; scored first top 40 hit in 1978 with “I Need a Lover”; widespread fame achieved with American Fool in 1982; Uh-Huh released in 1982, under the name John Cougar Mellencamp. Debuted as an actor and director in 1992’s Falling from Grace.Participant and co-organizer of Farm Aid concerts, 1987—.
Addresses: Home —Bloomington, IN. Record company —Mercury/Polygram Records, 825 8th Avenue. New York, NY 10019.
he had been hustling around had not aroused much enthusiasm until it fell into the hands of Tony DeFries, head of MainMan Management, whose most notable client was David Bowie. DeFries saw the future in young Mellencamp. In Esquire, DeFries’s associate Jamie Andrews explained it like this, “We felt there was a whole revival of small-town Americanism going on.” As De-Fries himself hyped it up, “He’s so American, the most American artist I’ve seen since Bob Dylan, and I think he will capture the same kind of thing Dylan did.” The one problem DeFries foresaw was that no one would want to buy an album by a guy with a name like Mellencamp. Andrews explained in Seventeen, “We wanted something uniquely American, something hot and wild. Johnny Indiana was one of our choices, Puma, Mustang—but nothing was as hot as Cougar!” Johnny Cougar it was, a name that made Mellencamp absolutely ill. He recalls in Rolling Stone, “I didn’t realize it when I started, but when I thought about it—what a… stupid name. I didn’t want to be anybody but John Mellencamp.”
The newly christened Johnny Cougar’s first album, Chestnut Street Incident, was released on MCA in 1976. Met with widespread apathy, the album quickly fell out of print and a second album was never released by MCA, who duly dropped him. Mellencamp was soon dropped by MainMan as well. His live shows received terrible reviews, the most predominant view being that of a third rate Springsteen or Seger imitator. Given another chance to redeem himself, he was signed to PolyGram where he released three more albums and had a minor U.S. hit with “I Need a Lover” in 1978, which incidentally went to number one in Australia.
By the early 1980s, the musical climate had shifted from polished disco music and glitter rock and it seemed that DeFries might just be right in his all-American visions. Springsteen had released The Riverand had his first top ten hit with “Hungry Heart” and Bob Seger had moved from down home Michigan boy to superstar. Looking back, it seems natural that Mellencamp’s fifth album, 1982’s American Fool would strike such a nerve. With two top ten singles, “Jack and Diane” and “Hurts So Good,” American Fool would go on to sell several million copies and propel Mellencamp to established fame. Despite his successes, John Cougar would receive little respect from critics until his next few albums. Greil Marcus wrote in ArtForum, “As sounds they were solid but one-dimensional, and as sentiments they were shallow when they weren’t dumb.… Still, the performances had heart—you heard the voice of someone who wanted desperately to tell you what he had to say but didn’t know what it was, or the voice of someone who wanted desperately to have something to say. But who cared what?”
1983’s Uh-Huh marked the first time that Mellencamp went by the name “John Cougar Mellencamp” and contained three more hit singles, “Pink Houses,” “Crum-blin’ Down,” and “Authority Song.” By this time, Mellencamp was starting to be seen as somewhat of a spokesperson for small town America. Speaking in Life, Mellencamp said, “For me to pretend I’m the keeper of the small town mentality or that’s all I’m interested in is wrong. When I wrote ’Pink Houses’ nobody was talking about that, right? The next thing I know you can’t see the TV without hearing commercials with ’Listen to the heartbeat of America, ’ or’ Born the American way.’ That whole America thing now—I hate it.”
As much as Mellencamp hated jingoism, his next album, 1985’s Scarecrow, seemed full of patriotism, especially considering titles like “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Justice and Independence ’85,” and “Small Town.” Critically the LP was his first to really be taken seriously. In ArtForum Greil Marcus wrote, “[O]ne morning I heard the songs from Scarecrow along side the best of Aretha, Dylan, and the others and Mellencamp’s songs stood up to them—carried the same charge.” The album was also a massive hit yielding five hit singles. Around the same time Mellencamp started organizing the Farm Aid concerts to benefit struggling farmers and their families in the midwest. With help from the likes of Willie Nelson and Neil Young, four annual shows were held that raised millions.
The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987’s entry, brought in a new sound for Mellencamp. Previous Mellencamp albums contained standard issue guitar rock, but this album featured fiddles and accordions to give it a strange folk/country feel. Just as successful as Scarecrow critically and commercially, the singles “Paper in Fire” and “Cherry Bomb” garnered much airplay on radio and MTV. In such a fickle pop world, Mellencamp’s music provided him longevity.
Somewhat of a womanizer, he started seeing Vicky Granucci while still married to his first wife. Mellencamp admitted in Life, “I was out of control. I was on the road all the time and hard to pin down. But I’ve pretty much curbed chasing women the last few years, man. You feel guilty. You get isolated from your spouse.” Unfortunately, while his career was coming together, his second marriage was falling apart. Efforts to save his marriage to Vicky, who he married in 1981, were futile. Relapses occurred and she stuck it out through two more children, Teddi Jo and Justice, yet they divorced in 1989.
Mellencamp worked through his feelings over the divorce in his album Big Daddy. The album includes the songs “Void In My Heart,” and the bitter “Big Daddy of them All.” Critics considered this album one of Mellencamp’s darkest. Mellencamp told Rolling Stone’s Elysa Gardner, “I’ve heard the word dark used to describe it, but I think sober is more like it. That record was based very firmly in my reality—if reality is dark, then I’m sorry.”
By the 1990s, Mellencamp had moved into the realm occupied by contemporaries like Springsteen and Seg-er. No longer a top forty MTV darling and no longer using “Cougar” as a middle name, his music had become increasingly more adult in nature. Talking with Rolling Stone’s Elysa Gardner about his guitar heavy 1991 album Whenever We Wanted, he said he wanted to address “the trouble between men and women.” In addition to his changing musical themes, Mellencamp also pursued non-musical projects such as painting, film directing and acting—making his debut in the latter two for the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp also married third wife, model Elaine Irwin (she appeared in the video for his song “Get a Leg Up”), with whom he has two sons, Hud and Speck.
Critics for the most part praised Mellencamp’s next three albums. His 1993 release Human Wheels boast-ed, as with Whenever We Wanted, a very full hard-rocking group sound mixed in with some of the mandolins of his 1980s country forays. In talking about the album Rolling Stone’s Don McLeese opined, “Mellencamp may not know what it all means, but he knows exactly how it feels.” For his 1994 album Dance Naked, Mellencamp stripped away his longtime band and left the listener with a thirty minute collection of near-demos. The only pop relief was his duet with Me’shell Ndege-Ocello, Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” which made the top ten that same year. A tour followed which was cut short by a minor heart attack which Mellencamp didn’t even know that he had until being diagnosed later. He put it this way to Rolling Stone writer Mike Leonard, “It’s my fault. I’m a smoking machine.… The moral of my story is that 80 cigarettes a day and a cholesterol level of 300 is like a loaded gun.” His next album, 1996’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky, introduced funk to the mix with production by techno-dance type Junior Vasquez and bass by Tony! Toni! Tone! bassist Raphael Saadiq, while still retaining Mellencamp’s usual non-trendy rock sound. Critical response to Mr. Happy Go Lucky was positive. In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot extolled upon the album’s virtues, noting that it makes a “ripple with memorable melodies” and “crackles with new life.”
Having weathered criticism through his whole career for being himself, John Mellencamp has turned out to be one of the most consistent songwriters of the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to his music, he has also been known to have one of the biggest attitudes in rock. Talking about his career, Mellencamp remarked to Rolling Stone ’s Mike Leonard, “This cycle of make a record, tour has been going on for 20 years now. I don’t even know why I do it sometimes. Do I need more money? Do I need more platinum and gold records? The only thing I can think of is ego.”
Chestnut Street Incident, MCA, 1976.
A Biography, Riva, 1978.
John Cougar, Riva, 1979.
Nothin’ Matters and What if It Did?, Riva, 1980.
American Fool, Riva, 1982.
Uh-Huh, Riva, 1982.
Scarecrow, Mercury, 1985.
The Lonesome Jubilee, Mercury, 1987.
Big Daddy, Mercury, 1989.
(With others) Falling from Grace (soundtrack), Mercury, 1991.
Whenever We Wanted, Mercury, 1991.
Human Wheels, Mercury, 1993.
Dance Naked, Mercury, 1994.
Mr. Happy Go Lucky, Mercury, 1996.
ArtForum, January 1986.
Esquire, March 1992.
Journal of Popular Culture, Winter 1994.
Life, October 1987.
Rolling Stone, December 9, 1982; February 6, 1992; September 16, 1993; September 30, 1993; July 14-28, 1994; September 8, 1994; December 1, 1994; September 19, 1996; May 15, 1997.
Seventeen, March 1983.
Time, September 27, 1993.
"Mellencamp, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mellencamp-john
"Mellencamp, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mellencamp-john
Born: Seymour, Indiana, 7 October 1951
Genre: Rock, Folk
Best-selling album since 1990: The Best That I Could Do (1978–1988) (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "Wild Night," "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," "Peaceful World"
John Mellencamp is a musical ambassador of small-town America. His songbook is filled with hits that chronicle the voices of rural midwesterners. Until the 1990s he was mainly rooted in the classic guitar rock of 1960s bands like the Rolling Stones and Them as well as the American folk tradition of the Depression-era songwriter Woody Guthrie. Later Mellencamp branched out to experiment with electronic beats, hip-hop grooves, and work with younger performers from the rap and R&B world. Mellencamp has never strayed far from his midwestern roots. Southern Indiana remains his home base. He became an activist for the plight of family farms through the Farm Aid organization he formed with the singer/songwriters Willie Nelson and Neil Young. He also complemented his musical career through painting and directing films. By the close of the 1990s, Mellencamp had accumulated so many memorable songs that his live shows became a jukebox of career hits. He later acknowledged that his advancing age prevented him from getting the radio exposure he enjoyed in his early days, so he gave up worrying about writing hit singles. Instead, he explored folk music, connecting the politics of the day with the lives of average Americans.
Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, just south of the state university town of Bloomington. His childhood was marred by spina bifida, a neurological condition that cripples the spinal cord. Mellencamp survived, and by the end of his senior year of high school he had eloped with a girlfriend. He soon had a child and began a life of working odd jobs, playing in bands, and attending classes at Vincennes University. In 1975 he moved to New York in search of a record deal.
He soon met Tony DeFries, who then managed the British glam-rock icon David Bowie. DeFries helped Mellencamp get his first album released, but there was a catch. DeFries changed Mellencamp's last name to Cougar without him even knowing it. The stage name dogged Mellencamp until the early 1990s, when he was confident enough to shed it. Mellencamp's first four albums were mostly forgettable and did not sell well, though he did earn his first hit song in 1979 with "I Need a Lover."
Mellencamp was modeled as a hard-rocking rebel. His breakthrough was American Fool (1982). It featured three hit singles, including "Jack and Diane," which became his signature song. It told the story of two young kids from the Heartland with big dreams that were stalled by reality. The disillusionment became political with another signature hit, "Pink Houses," from Uh-Huh (1983). The song faced the same fate of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," released a year later. Both featured sweeping choruses that amounted to flag-waving or ironic detachment, based on the perspective of the listener. "Ain't that America / for you and me," Mellencamp sang, relating the poverty and resentment of his characters in the song's verses.
By the mid-1980s, Mellencamp had developed into a serious singer/songwriter. His album Scarecrow (1985) sympathized with family farmers and railed against the government-subsidized factory farms that were running them out of business. Under the Farm Aid organization he performed annual benefit concerts and telethons to raise money and awareness.
In his song "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," Mellencamp gives a shout out to his soul, funk, and rock influences from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. In 1987, with the career-changing album The Lonesome Jubilee, he took a new direction. Expanding his band with a fiddle player, backup singers, and accordion, Mellencamp creates pictures of contemporary small-town America and its poverty, joblessness, and vacated dreams. The bleak outlook is lifted by the musical ensemble. The songs are narratives more than testimonials, and the music swoons under the band's romantic folk-rock flourishes. A masterpiece of heartland rock, the album redefined Mellencamp's public persona.
After the quieter and more introspective album Big Daddy (1989), Mellencamp announced his retirement. He invested his time in painting and began production on "Falling from Grace," a feature film he directed and starred in. In it he plays a character similar to himself in Jackson County, Indiana, where he grew up. He also purchased a home in his hometown of Seymour and helped turn it into the Southern Indiana Center for the Arts.
He returned to music with Whenever We Wanted (1991), a straightforward rock album in the vein of his heroes the Rolling Stones. Void of social commentary, it was his first album without the name Cougar in the title. The cover art features his elaborate painting studio and Elaine Irwin, a former model who became his third wife.
In the 1990s Mellencamp became a veteran artist best appreciated for his earlier hits. His recording output was just as prolific as it had been in the preceding decade, but the sales curve showed a marked downturn. The new chapter gave him the chance to experiment and stray further from heartland rock.
Illness and Renewal
In 1994 Mellencamp suffered from a heart attack and took a year off recuperating. By 1996 he was back with Mr. Happy Go Lucky. The album features programmed beats supplied by the acclaimed New York DJ Junior Vasquez, best known for his work with the dance music divas Madonna, Donna Summer, and Cher. Mellencamp also added keyboardist and rapper Moe-Z, M.D., to his band. The result is a funky and more groove-oriented record. "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" became a hit, and Mellencamp's live shows became more like dance parties. He had already had a hit duet ("Wild Night") with the bassist and R&B vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello two years earlier, a recording that introduced him to a younger generation and helped to make Ndegeocello a household name. Mellencamp also performed a duet with the R&B singer India.Arie and collaborated with Chuck D of the hardcore hip-hop group Public Enemy. As a veteran rock artist playing to a core fan base, he drew praise for taking chances and exposing urban artists and new sounds to his audience.
Mellencamp jumped labels, from PolyGram/Mercury to Columbia Records, in 1999. His first-ever boxed set would come out later that year. He also made the unusual step of announcing he was co-writing a Broadway musical with the horror fiction writer Stephen King, based on an original ghost story. He was silent until early 2003, when he debuted a song on his Internet site, hinting at a new direction for his music. Featuring mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion, tambourine, and vocals, "To Washington" takes its melody and arrangement from Woody Guthrie, who borrowed it himself from the country music pioneers the Carter Family. Mellencamp rewrote the lyrics to reflect his dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush and his administration's campaign to wage war against Iraq in 2003. The singer told reporters the turbulent political climate prompted him to return to more stripped-down, socially conscious music.
Early in his career John Mellencamp was denounced by critics as yet another clone of American rock statesmen like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty. He proved, however, that he was a wholly original artist. Mellencamp's knack for combining catchy guitar hooks with snapshots of small-town America resulted in many hit songs. He turned several corners, exploring folk and country traditions and, later, the electronic beats of urban hip-hop, while never losing his connection with his midwestern roots.
Chestnut Street Incident (Mainman/MCA, 1976); American Fool (PolyGram/Mercury, 1982); Uh-Huh (PolyGram/Mercury, 1983); Scarecrow (PolyGram/Mercury, 1985); The Lonesome Jubilee (PolyGram/Mercury, 1987); Big Daddy (PolyGram/Mercury, 1989); Whenever We Wanted (PolyGram/Mercury, 1991); Mr. Happy Go Lucky (PolyGram/Mercury, 1996); The Best That I Could Do (1978–1988) (PolyGram/Mercury, 1997); John Mellencamp (Columbia, 1998); Cuttin' Heads (Columbia, 2001).
"Mellencamp, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mellencamp-john
"Mellencamp, John." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved May 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mellencamp-john