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.
After releasing a few albums, 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 one 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.”
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 that has helped make people aware of the issues farmers face and how they effect 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. In 1992 John made his film debut, starring in and directing Falling from Grace. “Mellencamp turns out to have a real filmmaking gift. His film is perceptive and subtle, and doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that because something is real, it makes good fiction…,” wrote Roger Ebert.
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. Healthier and happier following the release of Mr. Happy Go Lucky, he returned to touring in 1997, releasing a series of well-received LPs and embarking on numerous successful tours over the succeeding years. Releases included 1998’s John Mellencamp, 1999’s Rough Fall Harvest, 2001’s Cuttin’ Heads, and 2003’s Trouble No More. Hit singles during that time included “Your Life Is Now,” “I’m Not Running Anymore,” and “Peaceful World.” John continued to tour throughout 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006.
Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s a Grammy winner and the recipient of numerous awards including the Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck Awards; ASCAP Foundation’s Champion Award and their highest honor, the Founders Award; the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting; and the Billboard Century Award, among a host of other honors.
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, which featured the hit song “Our Country.”
By the summer of 2005, he had already begun working on his next album—a collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett, Life, Death, Love, and Freedom— which was released in July 2008. No Better Than This was also produced by T Bone Burnett and was recorded at historic facilities in the American South: the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studio in Memphis, and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Robert Johnson had recorded more than 70 years earlier. For the album, Mellencamp’s songs were recorded on a 55-year-old mono tape recorder using just one microphone. The record was released in August of 2010 and the 2009 summer tour of minor league baseball parks with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson 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. That summer, John coheadlined shows with Bob Dylan and then started his No Better Than This theater tour in his hometown of Bloomington, IN, showing It’s About You each night as the opening act.
The release of No Better Than This was preceded 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. These included two tracks from iconic individuals: 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 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, and in July, 2014 Mercury/UME released John Mellencamp Performs Trouble No More Live At Town Hall, a live album that 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.
In May 2014, Republic Records announced an unprecedented “lifetime” recording contract with John. Mellencamp continued to evolve artistically with Plain Spoken, his 22nd full length album executive produced by T Bone Burnett, first release on Republic Records, and his first new music since 2010’s critically acclaimed No Better Than This. John went on to complete an 80 city North American Tour in 2016.
John’s 2017 full-length album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, featuring Carlene Carter, is his 23rd over the course of a remarkable career. The album was followed by a tour with Carlene and marked a return to the musical eclecticism that is a reflection of John’s wide-ranging musings on life, showcasing a poet who has wisely used the years between youth and the present day to become an absolute master of songwriting and interpretation.
John’s self-narrated musical journey, Plain Spoken: From The Chicago Theatre, premiered on Netflix in February 2018, and was released on DVD+CD and Blu-Ray+CD. The film presents John and his full band performing at the Chicago Theatre in October 2016, and blends performance footage with personal commentary from Mellencamp himself.
In 2018, a compilation album consisting of various handpicked cover songs titled Other People’s Stuff was released on Republic Records. The album landed Mellencamp at #1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums Chart.
In 2019 John embarked on a tour of “The John Mellencamp Show,” which featured the icon’s classics plus new material.
The Good Samaritan Tour, a new live album and documentary, was released in July 2021. The documentary, which is narrated by Academy Award-winner Matthew McConaughey, chronicles Mellencamp’s historic free tour in 2000 when he performed on street corners and in public parks across the country.
John recently confirmed a landmark collaboration with Turner Classic Movies, taking on the celebrated role of guest programmer for two nights on the network. He is continuing to work with TCM on numerous projects together, including a tour sponsorship—the first sponsorship in all John’s years of touring.
A new, hardcover biography written by seasoned music writer Paul Rees, titled Mellencamp, was released this September and features exclusive interviews and never-before-told stories.
In the fall of 2021, John came together with Bruce Springsteen to duet for the first time on the single and video “Wasted Days,” the first single from John’s forthcoming 2022 LP. The single was heralded by critics with NPR Music describing the song as “an implicit message about making the most of the years, months and minutes we’ve got left.”
John also continues to focus on another facet of his artistic expression: painting. His style has progressed over the years as evidenced by several museums, gallery exhibits, and published portfolios, and in recent years he has increased his output by completing over 300 new works.
He has had exhibitions with Miles Davis in L.A., solo exhibitions at the famed Butler Museum in Youngstown, Ohio, and several at ACA Galleries in New York City, including Binding Wires, the two-man exhibition featuring works by John and Robert Rauschenberg. John’s most recent exhibition, “John Mellencamp Paintings and Assemblages,” was just completed at the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center in Jasper, Indiana this past March. Currently, John’s Gibson guitar with “Fuck Fascism” written on the front is on loan to the Woody Guthrie Museum for their exhibit “Folk the Vote, Music and Politics.”
The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical with music and lyrics by John Mellencamp and a libretto by author Stephen King. The musical saw two national tours and has now partnered with Broadway Licensing.
Mellencamp is resuming production and rehearsals of his original play, Small Town Play, directed by Kathleen Marshall, written by Naomi Wallace and produced by Scott Landis and Federal Films.
The unique instrumentation of John’s 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. Mellencamp continues his journey as the walking embodiment of heartland rock: passionate, plain-spoken and a self-proclaimed rebel.
John Mellencamp continues to live and work in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the father of three daughters, Michelle, Teddi Jo, and Justice, and two sons, Hud and Speck.