John Mellencamp started as the walking embodiment of heartland rock — the passionate, plain-spoken, and extremely popular Eighties branch of singer-songwriters — scoring early hits that showcased a Hoosier mise en scene of pink houses, chili dogs, and bloodied plows. However, Mellencamp continued to grow artistically well beyond his commercial peak, earning praise from critics and racking up a formidable list of Top 40 hits along the way.
Mellencamp was born on October 7, 1951, in Seymour, Indiana, with a form of spina bifida, a potentially crippling neural tube defect that required surgery and a lengthy hospitalization. Coddled by his mother and encouraged by his father to excel, Mellencamp grew into a self-proclaimed rebel.
At 17 he eloped with his pregnant girlfriend, Priscilla Esterline, began attending community college and working a series of blue-collar jobs. He had written a number of songs before he moved to New York at age 24 to begin a music career. There he met David Bowie's manager, Tony DeFries, who christened Mellencamp "Johnny Cougar," helped get him what has been reported as a $1 million deal with the Mainman label, and oversaw the recording of his 1976 debut, Chestnut Street Incident. The album, which mostly consisted of cover tunes, failed to hit, and a second recording in 1977, The Kid Inside, wasn't even released initially. (Both were later reissued and summarily trashed by critics.)
MCA dropped Mellencamp, who, it has been reported, was not even aware that he had "adopted" the Cougar stage name until he saw the first album cover. That and other early experiences in the music business no doubt contributed to the sometimes jaundiced view of show business that Mellencamp has expressed repeatedly through the years.
Four years later Mellencamp signed (this time as the more mature-sounding John Cougar) with Riva Records and, working with Rod Stewart's manager, Billy Gaff, recorded two more albums, the latter of which, John Cougar (Number 64, 1979), included an original, "I Need a Lover," that had previously been a radio hit for Pat Benatar. The song also became a hit for Mellencamp, reaching Number 28 in the U.S. and topping the chart in Australia. Nothing Matters (Number 37, 1980), produced by Steve Cropper, sold 900,000 copies and contained the hits "This Time" (Number 27, 1980) and "Ain't Even Done with the Night" (Number 17, 1981). Cougar divorced his first wife in 1981, and that year married Vicky Granucci. (They would later divorce, too.)
Two years later came Mellencamp's commercial breakthrough, American Fool (Number One, 1982). The videos for its hit singles — the Grammy-winning "Hurts So Good" (Number Two, 1982), "Jack and Diane" (Number One, 1982) and "Hand To Hold On To" (Number 19, 1982) — quickly became MTV staples, and Cougar toured as an opening act for Heart.
The next year's Uh-Huh (Number Nine, 1983) came out with American Fool still on the charts and included "Crumblin' Down" (Number Nine, 1983), "Pink Houses" (Number Eight, 1983) and "Authority Song" (Number 15, 1984). That year Mellencamp, who by then had begun calling himself John "Cougar" Mellencamp, embarked on his first headlining tour.
With Scarecrow (Number Two, 1985) he stayed the hard-rock course, producing another string of hits: "Lonely Ol' Night" (Number Six, 1985), "Small Town" (Number Six, 1985), "R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A." (Number Two, 1986), and "Rumbleseat" (Number 28, 1986).
In 1985 Mellencamp, with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, was a co-organizer of Farm Aid. He appeared at Farm Aid concerts I through VI. Over the years, he also has given concerts to call attention to the American farmer's plight, and in 1987 he testified before a congressional subcommittee on the issue. In addition, he has been an outspoken critic of beer- and cigarette-company sponsorship of concert tours and refuses to allow his music to be used in commercials.
Mellencamp's style took a dramatic turn with The Lonesome Jubilee (Number Six, 1987), which blended traditional American folk instrumentation (for example, Lisa Germano's violin and acccordions) in a number of songs that lamented rather than celebrated contemporary Middle America. Its hits were "Paper in the Fire" (Number Nine, 1987), "Cherry Bomb" (Number Eight, 1987), and "Check It Out" (Number 14, 1988).
His next albums, more deeply introspective in some ways, each sold about a million copies, but the hits were fewer and farther between than in previous years. Big Daddy (Number Seven, 1989) included the somewhat cynical semiautobiographical "Pop Singer" (Number 15, 1989), and Whenever We Wanted (Number 17, 1991) — his first album as just John Mellencamp, without the "Cougar" — featured "Get a Leg Up" (Number Fourteen, 1991) and "Again Tonight" (Number 36, 1992). The "Get a Let Up" video featured model Elaine Irwin, who became his third wife.
Human Wheels (Number Seven, 1993) yielded no major hit singles. Dance Naked (Number 13, 1994) featured the Number Three hit cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," a duet with singer and bass player Meshell Ndeg éocello. Mellencamp's plans to embark on a large 1994 North American tour were scuttled after he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Although initial reports described Mellencamp's problem as an arterial blockage, he later admitted that he had suffered a heart attack.
As if to comment on his brush with mortality, Mellencamp titled his next album Mr. Happy Go Lucky (Number Nine, 1996) and sought out dance-mix specialist Junior Vasquez to put an urban spin on his signature heartland sound. Tony Toni Toné bassist Raphael Saadiq and North Mississippi diddley-bow player Lonnie Pitchford were among guest performers. "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" (Number 14, 1996) was a hit, and a second singel, "Just Another Day," reached Number 46. Not all was happy-go-lucky, however, as Mellencamp terminated his relationship with his label the following year.
Though he owed PolyGram/Mercury five albums, he was free to sign with Columbia after signing off on The Best That I Could Do: 1978-1988 (Number 33, 1997), a hits collection, and the acoustic Rough Harvest (Number 99, 1999). His emancipatory release was called John Mellencamp (Number 41, 1998), and featured guest appearances by ex-Guns n' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Stan Lynch of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
For his first album of the new millennium, Cuttin' Heads (Number 15, 2001), he enlisted Public Enemy front man Chuck D and acoustic soul singer India.Arie for a set of socially conscious songs including his duet with the latter on "Peaceful World," which reached Number 11 on the adult chart. He threw another curve ball with Trouble No More (Number 31, 2003), a gritty set of folk, blues and country covers including Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passageway" and Woody Guthrie's "Johnny Hart."
After spending much of 2003 and 2004 politicking against President Bush — participating in the Vote For Change tour alongside the Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen, Babyface and R.E.M., and actively supporting the John Edwards campaign — Mellencamp returned to the studio for Freedom's Road (Number Five, 2007). More typically Mellencamp, it included the rootsy, heartland anthem "Our Country" (Number 88), which found the singer going back on his anti-commercial stance when it appeared in a car advertisement. It also included a protest duet with Joan Baez, "Jim Crow."
Of all the left turns Mellencamp has made in his career, none could have been more radical than Life, Death, Love, Freedom (Number Seven, 2008), which stripped away the Mellencamp sheen and let the brooding songs about growing old float in a misty, atmospheric soundscape. It turned out to be one of the most critically acclaimed albums of his career. He followed it with a live album in 2009.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.