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 1 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 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 and has helped make people aware of the issues farmers face and how they affect 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--Whenever We Wanted, Human Wheels and Dance Naked (including the number 2 single "Wild Night")--were released. In 1991 John made his film debut, starring in and directing Falling From Grace, a modest box office success that was well received by critics.
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, but he returned strong in 1996 and released Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which featured the hit "Key West Intermezzo" (I Saw You First). Healthier and happier, he returned to touring in 1997 and continued to write and record frequently. Releases included 1998's John Mellencamp, 1999's Rough Harvest, 2001's Cuttin Heads, and 2003's Trouble No More . Hit singles during that time ranged from "Your Life Is Now" to "I'm Not Running Anymore" to "Peaceful World." John continued to tour throughout 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006.
He received the 2001 Billboard Century award in recognition of all that he had accomplished over the course of his career and was honored with the Woody Guthrie Award in 2004. Previously, he was awarded a Grammy and had been nominated a total of 11 times.
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. It featured the hit song "Our Country." Bowing at number 5, it was the highest debuting album of his career and led to a Grammy nomination for "Our Country" in the best Solo Rock Performance category. By that summer, he had already begun working on his next album. His first collaboration with producer T Bone Burnett, Life, Death, Love, and Freedom was released in July 2008, with John and the Mellencamp band commencing on a corresponding summer tour that included a stop in Australia in the fall.
A career landmark occurred on March 10, 2008, when John was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame by Billy Joel at the annual induction ceremony in New York City. He hardly rested on his laurels with the release of Life, Death, Live and Freedom (an acclaimed live disc containing most of the songs from Life, Death, Love, and Freedom), and John's participation in a 2009 summer-long tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.
During days off during that tour John recorded, No Better Than This, again produced by T Bone Burnett. He recorded at sequentially at historic facilities in the American South: The First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studio in Memphis, and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson, the enigmatic blues shaman has recorded more than 70 years earlier with Mellencamp's songs recorded on a 55 year old mono tape recorder using just one microphone. The album was released in August of 2010, and its production and the tour 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.
The release of No Better Than This was preceded by 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 other then the well known ones in general release. These included two particularly innovative tracks from two iconic individuals not generally associated with music recordings: 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 likewise provided an emotionally charged reading of the lyrics to "The Real Life."
Work continues on John's hugely ambitious “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” musical theater collaboration with Stephen King--a project that has been in the works for 10 years. To recap, the story, which involves domestic turmoil will reach the public in two forms. It will be released as an innovative three-disc package featuring a two-disc radio play style performance, a disc containing only performances of the songs and a book version of the script. The set is being produced by T Bone Burnett. The story also will be featured as a Broadway style stage production. The stage production is scheduled for April 4 through May 13th, 2012 at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, GA.
Meanwhile, John also continued his other career activity: painting. Having first come to New York with the intention of studying painting if his music career aspirations didn't pan out, he started painting in earnest in the 1980's as a way to be creative in a more self-contained manner. His style has evolved over the years as evidenced by several gallery shows and published portfolios, and in recent years he has increased his output by completing nearly over 100 new works.
John has said many times in interviews that you will never meet anyone luckier than John Mellencamp. He is grateful for the support of those who have enjoyed his work and career over the years. If he has any advice to offer, it is to be tenacious: John's found that far too many people quit too soon in the face of early disappointment. While his own early efforts may have been faltering, he stayed with it--and that tenacity has been rewarded with the successes that continue to the present.
John Mellencamp continues to live and work in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the father of two sons Hud and Speck and three daughters, Michelle, Teddi Jo and Justice.