At age 24, Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951, in Seymour, Indiana) determined to break into the music business, moved to New York City and signed on with agent Tony DeFries (at the time well-known for representing David Bowie). DeFries insisted that Mellencamp’s first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and derivative originals, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, a move Mellencamp claims was made without his knowledge and against his will. The album was a failure, and Mellencamp lost his contract with MCA Records.
He signed to the tiny Riva Records label and recorded 1978’s A Biography, unreleased in the US, but which yielded a hit in Australia (“I Need a Lover”). Riva added this song to the next album, John Cougar (1979) to minor success. Female rocker Pat Benatar recorded “I Need a Lover” and released the song as a single from her debut album In the Heat of the Night.
After one more album with Riva, Mellencamp signed with Mercury Records and released his breakthrough album, American Fool, in 1982. The hit singles “Hurt So Good” and “Jack and Diane” sent the album to the top of the charts.
With a major hit under his belt, Mellencamp insisted on changing his billing to John Cougar Mellencamp (compromising by keeping the stage name as well as his true last name) for the 1983 follow-up, Uh-Huh, which was another top-10 hit and spawned several hit singles, including the vivid Americana of “Pink Houses”. Despite his popular success, Mellencamp fared less well with critics who tended to view him as a derivative heartland rocker in the mold of Bob Seger.
He rectified this in some quarters with the release of Scarecrow in 1985. The album’s lyrics were socially aware, with several songs focusing on the plight of the American family farmer, and Mellencamp soon helped organize Farm Aid with Willie Nelson. Mellencamp, now fully asserting his power as a hitmaker, changed his billing to simply John Mellencamp and made waves by refusing to allow alcohol or tobacco companies to sponsor his tours.
His following LP, 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee was departure from his earlier material; it incorporated country and folk influences. It included several more hit singles, including “Paper in Fire” and "Cherry Bomb”. By 1993’s Human Wheels, Mellencamp’s critical reception was solid and Dance Naked spawned his biggest hit in years, “Wild Night” (a cover of Van Morrison’s song, in the form of a duet with Me’Shell NdegeOcello).
After a 1994 heart attack, Mellencamp returned with Mr. Happy Go Lucky which blended heavier dance rhythms with his now signature folk-rock style with the aid of dance producer Junior Vasquez.
Mellencamp left Mercury after the 1996 disc. Issued a day before his 47th birthday in 1998, his self-titled debut for Columbia Records included the songs “Your Life is Now” and “I’m Not Running Anymore”.
In 1999 Mellencamp covered his own tunes as well as those by Bob Dylan and the Drifters for his album Rough Harvest, 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 a more laid back record with Cuttin' Heads, spawning the single “Peaceful World”. Audiences would associate this song with the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, although it had been written beforehand.
Trouble No More followed in mid-2003, a quickly-recorded collection of rootsy bluesy covers of artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Lucinda Williams.
After Freedom’s Road, his first album in five years, John Mellencamp made it clear why he had such loyal fans. He’s made a career out of making himself vulnerable, with lyrics that undeniably come from the heart, and aided by his guitar, he generates a mood that’s more Americana melancholy than pop. After a year of being somewhat of a recluse, the man who has been called “the Poet Laureate of the Interstate” has reached deep into his soul, bringing forth an album of unparalleled maturity powered by a piercing musical vision. Life Death Love and Freedom’s fourteen tracks are filled with anguish, pain, resentment, and frustration. In songs like “If I Die Sudden”, “Don’t Need This Body”, and “Troubled Land”, the singer-songwriter seems to be more like the Americana equivalent to Damien Rice rather than Bob Dylan, to whom he’s been compared to before. It’s a disc that you can listen to while kicking a can and walking the streets.
In an age of auto-tuned, computerized recordings, John Mellencamp’s approach on his Rounder debut, No Better Than This (2010), is refreshing. The entire album was recorded with Mellencamp and his band all playing live in one room using a 55-year-old Ampex tape recorder and just one vintage microphone. Legendary producer T-Bone Burnett captured the stunning thirteen new Mellencamp originals at three historically important locations - Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee (where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis all first recorded); the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia (the oldest Black church in North America, dating to 1775); and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas (where Robert Johnson made his first recordings in 1936). The songs on No Better Than This reflect classic American musical traditions including blues, folk, gospel, rockabilly, and country, while addressing such themes as the need for hope, the nature of relationships, and narratives that recount extraordinary occurrences in everyday life. Mellencamp says of the album, “It was absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had making a record in my life. It was about making music - organic music made by real musicians - that’s heartfelt and written from the best place it can come from.”