Mellencamp in 2001
|Also known as||Johnny Cougar
John Cougar Mellencamp
October 7, 1951 |
Seymour, Indiana, United States
|Genres||Rock, heartland rock, roots rock, folk rock, hard rock, folk|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, harmonica|
Little Big Town
John Mellencamp, also known as John Cougar Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951), is an American rock singer-songwriter, musician, painter and occasional actor known for his catchy, populist brand of heartland rock which emphasizes traditional instrumentation. Mellencamp rose to superstardom in the 1980s while "honing an almost startlingly plainspoken writing style that, starting in 1982, yielded a string of Top 10 singles," including "Hurts So Good," "Jack & Diane," "Crumblin' Down," “Pink Houses,” "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Paper in Fire," and "Cherry Bomb." He has sold over 40 million albums worldwide and has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States. In addition, he holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit number-one on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with seven, and has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one. In the fall of 2014, Mellencamp will release Plain Spoken, his 20th album of original material and the follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2010 album No Better Than This.
Mellencamp is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Illinois to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. The Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 29 years, and as of 2014 the organization has raised over $45 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.
Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008. His biggest musical influences are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Said longtime Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis: "Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience. His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music."
- 1 Early life
- 2 Music career
- 3 Visual art
- 4 Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
- 5 Movie career
- 6 Personal life
- 7 Collaboration with George Green
- 8 Politics and activism
- 9 Honors and awards
- 10 Discography
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Mellencamp is of German ancestry. He was born with spina bifida, for which he had corrective surgery as an infant. He formed his first band, Crepe Soul, at the age of 14 and later played in the local bands Trash, Snakepit Banana Barn and the Mason Brothers.
He eloped with his pregnant girlfriend Priscilla Esterline at the age of 18 and became a father in December 1970, six months after he graduated from high school. His daughter Michelle became a mother at age 19, making Mellencamp a grandfather at 37.
Mellencamp attended Vincennes University, a two-year college in Vincennes, Indiana, starting in 1972. During this time he experimented with drugs and alcohol, stating in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, "When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn't get off the couch. I would lie there, listening to Roxy Music, right next to the record player so I wouldn't have to get up to flip the record over. I'd listen to this record, that record. There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone."
Upon graduating from Vincennes University in 1974, Mellencamp played in a couple of local bands, including the aforementioned glitter-band Trash, which was named after a New York Dolls song, and he later got a job in Seymour installing telephones. At this time, Mellencamp, who had given up drugs and alcohol for good before graduating from Vincennes University, decided to pursue a career in music and traveled to New York City in an attempt to land a record contract.
Performing as Johnny Cougar and John Cougar (1976–1982)
After about 18 months of traveling back and forth from Indiana to New York City in 1974 and 1975, Mellencamp finally found someone receptive to his music and image in Tony DeFries of MainMan Management. DeFries insisted that Mellencamp's first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and a handful of original songs, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, suggesting that the bumpy German name "Mellencamp" was too hard to market. Mellencamp reluctantly agreed, but the album was a complete failure, selling only 12,000 copies. Mellencamp confessed in a 2005 interview: "That (name) was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, 'You sound like a hillbilly.' And I said, 'Well, I am.' So that's where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected it to it, he said, 'Well, either you're going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.' So that was what I had to do... but I thought the name was pretty silly."
Mellencamp recorded The Kid Inside, the follow-up to Chestnut Street Incident, in 1977, but DeFries eventually decided against releasing the album and Mellencamp was dropped from MCA records (DeFries finally released The Kid Inside in early 1983, after Mellencamp broke through to stardom). Mellencamp drew interest from Rod Stewart's manager, Billy Gaff, after parting ways with DeFries and was signed to the tiny Riva Records label. At Gaff's request, Mellencamp moved to London, England for nearly a year to record, promote and tour behind 1978's A Biography. The record wasn't released in the United States, but it yielded a hit in Australia with "I Need a Lover." Riva Records added "I Need a Lover" to Mellencamp's next album released in the United States, 1979's John Cougar, where the song became a No. 28 single in late 1979. Pat Benatar recorded "I Need a Lover" on her debut album In the Heat of the Night.
In 1980, Mellencamp returned with the Steve Cropper-produced Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, which yielded two Top 40 singles — "This Time" (No. 27) and "Ain't Even Done With the Night" (No. 17). "The singles were stupid little pop songs," he told Record Magazine in 1983. "I take no credit for that record. It wasn't like the title was made up — it wasn't supposed to be punky or cocky like some people thought. Toward the end, I didn't even go to the studio. Me and the guys in the band thought we were finished, anyway. It was the most expensive record I ever made. It cost $280,000, do you believe that? The worst thing was that I could have gone on making records like that for hundreds of years. Hell, as long as you sell a few records and the record company isn't putting a lot of money into promotion, you're making money for 'em and that's all they care about. PolyGram loved Nothin' Matters. They thought I was going to turn into the next Neil Diamond."
In 1982, Mellencamp released his breakthrough album, American Fool, which contained the singles "Hurts So Good," an uptempo rock tune that spent four weeks at No. 2 and 16 weeks in the top 10, and "Jack & Diane," which was a No. 1 hit for four weeks. A third single, "Hand to Hold On To", made it to No. 19. "Hurts So Good" went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 25th Grammys. "To be real honest, there's three good songs on that record, and the rest is just sort of filler," Mellencamp told Creem Magazine of American Fool in 1984. "It was too labored over, too thought about, and it wasn't organic enough. The record company thought it would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was – not that the songs were better than my others – but people liked the sound of it, the 'bam-bam-bam' drums. It was a different sound."
Performing as John Cougar Mellencamp (1983–1990)
With some commercial success under his belt, Mellencamp had enough clout to force the record company to add his real surname, Mellencamp, to his stage moniker. The first album recorded under his new name John Cougar Mellencamp was 1983's Uh-Huh, a Top-10 album that spawned the Top 10 singles "Pink Houses", and "Crumblin' Down" as well as the No. 14 hit "Authority Song", which he said is "our version of "I Fought the Law'." During the recording of Uh-Huh, Mellencamp's backing band settled on the lineup it would retain for the next several albums: Kenny Aronoff on drums and percussion, Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, Toby Myers on bass and John Cascella on keyboards. In 1988, Rolling Stone magazine called this version of Mellencamp's band "one of the most powerful and versatile live bands ever assembled." On the 1984 Uh-Huh Tour, Mellencamp opened his shows with cover versions of songs he admired growing up, including Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" and the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina,"
Since college, Mellencamp has, with the exception of his continuing addiction to nicotine, lived a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle. In 1984, when asked about his views on drugs, he told Bill Holdship of Creem magazine, "If you want to stick needles in your arms, go ahead and fucking do it. You're the one that's going to pay the consequences. I don't think it's a good idea, and I sure don't advocate it, but I'm not going to judge people. Hell, if that was the case, you wouldn't like anyone in the music business because everyone's blowing cocaine."
In 1985, Mellencamp released Scarecrow, which peaked at No. 2 in the fall of '85 and spawned five Top 40 singles: "Lonely Ol' Night" (No. 6), "Small Town" (No. 6), and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to '60s Rock)" (No. 2), "Rain on the Scarecrow" (No. 21) and "Rumbleseat" (No. 28). According to the February 1986 edition of Creem Magazine, Mellencamp wanted to incorporate the sound of classic '60s rock into Scarecrow, and he gave his band close to a hundred old singles to learn "almost mathematically verbatim" prior to recording the album.
"Learning those songs did a lot of positive things," Mellencamp explained to Creem writer Bill Holdship. "We realized more than ever what a big melting pot of all different types of music the '60s were. Take an old Rascals song for example – there's everything from marching band beats to soul music to country sounds in one song. Learning those opened the band's vision to try new things on my songs. It wasn't let's go back and try to make this part fit into my song, but I wanted to capture the same feeling – the way those songs used to make you feel. After a while, we didn't even have to talk about it anymore. If you listen to the lead Larry [Crane] plays on 'Face The Nation', he never would have played that 'cause he didn't really know who the Animals were. He's young, and he grew up on Grand Funk Railroad. You hear it, and it's like 'where did that come from?' It had to be from hearing those old records."
Scarecrow was the first album Mellencamp recorded at his own recording studio, "Belmont Mall," located in Belmont, Indiana and built in 1984. Mellencamp sees Scarecrow as the start of the alternative country genre: "I think I invented that whole 'No Depression' thing with the Scarecrow album, though I don’t get the credit," he told Classic Rock magazine in October 2008.
Shortly after finishing Scarecrow, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in Champaign, Illinois on September 22, 1985. The Farm Aid concerts remain an annual event and have raised over $43 million for struggling family farmers as of 2013.
Prior to the 1985–86 Scarecrow Tour, during which he covered some of the same 1960s rock and soul songs he and his band rehearsed prior to the recording of Scarecrow, Mellencamp added fiddle player Lisa Germano to his band. Germano would remain in Mellencamp's band until 1994, when she left to pursue a solo career.
Mellencamp's next LP, 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, included the singles "Paper in Fire," (No. 9) "Cherry Bomb," (No. 8), "Check It Out," (No. 14) and "Rooty Toot Toot" (No. 61) along with the popular album tracks "Hard Times for an Honest Man" and "The Real Life," both of which garnered significant radio airplay even though they didn't achieve any chart position. "We were on the road for a long time after Scarecrow, so we were together a lot as a band," Mellencamp said in a 1987 Creem Magazine feature. "For the first time ever, we talked about the record before we started. We had a very distinct vision of what should be happening here. At one point, The Lonesome Jubilee was supposed to be a double album, but at least 10 of the songs I'd written just didn't stick together with the idea and the sound we had in mind. So I just put those songs on a shelf, and cut it back down to a single record. Now, in the past, it was always 'Let's make it up as we go along' – and we did make some of The Lonesome Jubilee up as we went along. But we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to sound like, even before it was written, right through to the day it was mastered."
As Frank DiGiacomo of Vanity Fair wrote in 2007, "The Lonesome Jubilee was the album in which Mellencamp defined his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp."
During the 1987–88 Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp was joined onstage by surprise guest Bruce Springsteen at the end of his May 26, 1988 gig in Irvine, California, for a duet of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," which Mellencamp performed as the penultimate song during each show on that tour.
After the Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp divorced his second wife, Vicki.
In 1989, Mellencamp released the personal album Big Daddy, with the key tracks "Jackie Brown," "Big Daddy of Them All," and "Void in My Heart" accompanying the Top 15 single "Pop Singer." The album, which Mellencamp called at the time the most "earthy" record he'd ever made, is also the last to feature the "Cougar" moniker.
Mellencamp was heavily involved in painting at this time in his life and decided not to tour behind Big Daddy, stating: "What's the point?... This other step that people keep wanting me to take to become another level of recording artist – to be Madonna? To sell out? To bend over? To kiss somebody's ass? I ain't gonna do it." In his second painting exhibition, at the Churchman-Fehsenfeld Gallery in Indianapolis in 1990, Mellencamp's portraits were described as always having sad facial expressions and conveying "the same disillusionment found in his musical anthems about the nation's heartland and farm crisis."
Performing as John Mellencamp (1991–1997)
Mellencamp's 1991 album, Whenever We Wanted, was the first with a cover billed to John Mellencamp—the Cougar was now gone forever. Whenever We Wanted yielded the Top 40 hits "Get a Leg Up" and "Again Tonight," but "Last Chance," "Love and Happiness" and "Now More Than Ever" all garnered significant airplay on rock radio. "It's very rock 'n' roll," Mellencamp said of Whenever We Wanted. "I just wanted to get back to the basics."
In 1993, he released Human Wheels, and the title track peaked at No. 48 on the Billboard singles chart. "To me, this record is very urban," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine of Human Wheels in the summer of '93. "We had a lot of discussions about the rhythm and blues music of the day. We explored what a lot of these (current) bands are doing — these young black bands that are doing more than just sampling."
Mellencamp's 1994 Dance Naked album included a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" as a duet with Meshell Ndegeocello. "Wild Night" became Mellencamp's biggest hit in years, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album also contained two protest songs in "L.U.V." and "Another Sunny Day 12/25," in addition to the title track, which hit No. 41 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1994. "This is as naked a rock record as you're going to hear," Mellencamp said of Dance Naked in a 1994 Billboard magazine interview. "All the vocals are first or second takes, and half the songs don't even have bass parts. Others have just one guitar, bass, and drums, which I haven't done since American Fool."
With guitarist Andy York now on board as Larry Crane's full-time replacement, Mellencamp launched his Dance Naked Tour in the summer of 1994, but a minor heart attack suffered after a show at Jones Beach in New York on August 8 of that year eventually forced him to cancel the last few weeks of the tour. "I was up to 80 cigarettes a day," Mellencamp told the Boston Herald in September 1996 about the habits that led to his heart malfunction two years prior. "We'd finish a show and I'd go out and have steak and french fries and eggs at 4 in the morning and then go to sleep with all that in my gut. It was just a terrible lifestyle."
He returned to the concert stage in early 1995 by playing a series of dates in small Midwestern clubs under the pseudonym Pearl Doggy.
In September 1996, the experimental album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which was produced by Junior Vasquez, was released to critical acclaim. "It's been fascinating to me how urban records use rhythm and electronics, and it's terribly challenging to make that work in the context of a rock band," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine in 1996. "But we took it further than an urban record. The arrangements are more ambitious, with programs and loops going right along with real drums and guitars."
Mr. Happy Go Lucky spawned the No. 14 single "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" (Mellencamp's last Top 40 hit) and "Just Another Day," which peaked at No. 46.
Recording for Columbia (1998–2003)
After the release of Mr. Happy Go Lucky and a subsequent four-month tour from March–July 1997 to promote it, Mellencamp signed a four-album deal with Columbia Records, although he wound up making only three albums for the label.
Issued a day before his 47th birthday in 1998, his self-titled debut for Columbia Records included the singles "Your Life is Now" and "I'm Not Running Anymore", along with standout album tracks such as "Eden Is Burning", "Miss Missy", "It All Comes True" and "Chance Meeting at the Tarantula". The switch in labels coincided with Dane Clark replacing Aronoff on drums. "On this record, we ended up quite a bit away from where we started," Mellencamp told Guitar World Acoustic in 1998. "Initially, I wanted to make a record that barely had drums on it. Donovan made a record (in 1966), Sunshine Superman, and I wanted to start with that same kind of vibe—Eastern, very grand stories, fairy tales."
He released a book of his early paintings, titled Paintings and Reflections, in 1998.
In 1999, Mellencamp covered his own songs as well as those by Bob Dylan and the Drifters for his album Rough Harvest (recorded in 1997), 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). In May 2000, he gave the Indiana University commencement address, in which he advised graduates to "play it like you feel it!" and that "you'll be all right." Following the delivery of his address, Indiana University bestowed upon him an honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts.
In August 2000, Mellencamp played a series of unannounced free concerts in major cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest as a way of giving back to fans who had supported him the previous 24 years. With a lo-fi setup that included portable amps and a battery-powered P.A. system, Mellencamp, armed with an acoustic guitar and accompanied only by an accordionist and a violist, dubbed the jaunt "Live in the Streets: The Good Samaritan Tour." At these dozen shows, which ranged in length from 45 to 60 minutes, Mellencamp covered a number of rock and folk classics and sprinkled in a few of his own songs. "Nobody's selling anything, there's no souvenirs—except what's in everybody's heart," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine. "Think about it: Isn't that where music started? To anybody who's said thank you to me, I say, 'You're very nice, but, really, thank you.'" 
The early 21st century also found Mellencamp teaming up with artists such as Chuck D and India.Arie to deliver his second Columbia album, Cuttin' Heads and the single "Peaceful World". Cuttin' Heads also included a duet with Trisha Yearwood on a love song called "Deep Blue Heart". "He played me this song," Yearwood told Country.com, "and he said, 'I kind of have an idea of like when Emmylou Harris sang on Bob Dylan's record, just kind of harmony all the way through.'"
Mellencamp embarked on the Cuttin' Heads Tour in the summer of 2001, before the album was even released. He opened each show on this tour with a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and also played a solo acoustic version of the Cuttin' Heads track "Women Seem" at each show.
In 2003, he released Trouble No More, a quickly-recorded collection of folk and blues covers originally done by artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Lucinda Williams and Hoagie Carmichael. The album was also dedicated to Mellencamp's friend, Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White, who died from a heart attack in 2002. In October 2002, Mellencamp performed the Robert Johnson song "Stones in My Passway" at two benefit concerts for White. Columbia Records executives, who were in attendance at the benefit shows, were so impressed with Mellencamp's live renditions of "Stones in My Passway" that they convinced him to record an album of vintage American songs, which ultimately became Trouble No More. Mellencamp sang the gospel song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" at White's funeral on July 2, 2002. Trouble No More spent several weeks at #1 on Billboard's Blues Album charts.
Words and Music and Freedom's Road (2004–2007)
Mellencamp participated in the Vote for Change tour in October 2004 leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. That same month he released the two-disc career hits retrospective Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits, which contained 35 of his radio singles (including all 22 of his Top 40 hits) along with two new tunes, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You" — both produced by Babyface but written by Mellencamp.
In 2005, Mellencamp toured with Donovan and John Fogerty. The first leg of what was called the Words and Music Tour in the spring of '05 featured Donovan playing in the middle of Mellencamp's set. Mellencamp would play a handful of songs before introducing Donovan and then duetting with him on the 1966 hit "Sunshine Superman". Mellencamp would leave the stage as Donovan played seven or eight of his songs (backed by Mellencamp's band) and then return to finish off his own set after Donovan departed. On the second leg of the tour in the summer of '05, Fogerty co-headlined with Mellencamp at outdoor amphitheaters across the United States. Fogerty would join Mellencamp for duets on Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival hit "Green River" and Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow."
Mellencamp released Freedom's Road, his first album of original material in over five years, on January 23, 2007. He intended for Freedom's Road to have a 1960s rock sound while still remaining contemporary, and he feels that goal was achieved. "We wanted to make sure that it had the same feeling of some of the great songs from the '60s but also had the message of today and had the backbeat of today. I think we came up with a pretty timeless sounding album," Mellencamp told his online radio station in late 2006. "Our Country," the first single from Freedom's Road, was played as the opening song on Mellencamp's 2006 spring tour, and the band that opened for him on that tour, Little Big Town, was called on to record harmonies on the studio version of "Our Country," as well as seven other songs on Freedom's Road. Although Mellencamp had always been outspoken and adamant about not selling any of his songs to corporations to use in commercials, he changed his stance and let Chevrolet use "Our Country" in Chevy Silverado TV commercials that began airing in late September 2006.
"I agonized," Mellencamp told USA Today's Edna Gundersen in 2007 over his decision to license "Our Country" to Chevrolet. "I still don't think we should have to do it, but record companies can't spend money to promote records anymore, unless you're U2 or Madonna. I'm taking heat because no one's ever done this before. People have licensed songs that have already been hits, but nobody's licensed a brand-new song to a major company, and people don't know how to react."
Mellencamp sang "Our Country" to open Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, and the song was nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award in the category Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance but lost out to Bruce Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere." Freedom's Road peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart by selling 56,000 copies in its first week on the market.
The T-Bone Burnett era (2008–present)
On August 13, 2007, Mellencamp began recording his 18th album of original material, titled Life, Death, Love and Freedom. The album, which was released on July 15, 2008, was produced by acclaimed roots producer T-Bone Burnett. The first song with video, "Jena," was introduced on Mellencamp's website in October 2007. In an interview with the Bloomington Herald-Times in March 2008, Mellencamp dubbed Life, Death, Love and Freedom "The best record I've ever made." He signed with Starbucks' Hear Music label to distribute the album and said, "they think it's a fucking masterpiece." The album's first single was "My Sweet Love". A video for the song was filmed in Savannah, GA on June 9, 2008. Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town is featured in the video. She harmonizes with Mellencamp on "My Sweet Love" and provides background vocals to three other songs on Life, Death, Love and Freedom, which became the ninth Top 10 album of Mellencamp's career when it debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 the week of August 2, 2008. It sold 56,000 copies in its first week on the market. In its list of the 50 best albums of 2008, Rolling Stone magazine named Life, Death, Love and Freedom No. 5 overall and also dubbed "Troubled Land" No. 48 among the 100 best singles of the year.
On September 3, 2008, Mellencamp made available on his website a home-video recording of his solo acoustic cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" as a sign that the 2008 Presidential Election is going to bring about change in America.
On September 23, 2008, Mellencamp filmed a concert at the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana for a new A&E Biography series called "Homeward Bound". The show features performers returning to small venues they performed at during the early stages of their careers. Mellencamp had last played at the Crump Theatre on October 4, 1976. The program aired on December 11, 2008 and also featured an in-depth documentary tracing Mellencamp's roots.
For the first time since 1992, Mellencamp toured Australia and New Zealand with opening act Sheryl Crow from November 15 – December 7, 2008. Crow joined Mellencamp on stage to duet on "My Sweet Love" during the last seven shows.
Mellencamp participated in a tribute concert for Pete Seeger's 90th birthday on May 3, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City which raised funds for an environmental organization founded by Seeger to preserve and protect the Hudson River. Mellencamp performed solo acoustic renditions of Seeger and Lee Hays' "If I Had a Hammer" and his own "A Ride Back Home."
In the summer of 2009, Mellencamp embarked on a tour of minor league ballparks with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson that ran from July 2 – August 15.
While he was on tour, Mellencamp recorded a new album, titled No Better Than This, that was again produced by T-Bone Burnett. The tracks for the album were recorded at historic locations, such as the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia as well as at the Sun Studio in Memphis and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Crossroad Blues." Mellencamp recorded the album using a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone, requiring all the musicians to gather together around the mic. The album was recorded in mono. Mellencamp wrote over 30 songs for the record (only 13 made the final cut), and he wrote one song specifically for Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel. "It's called 'Right Behind Me'. I wrote it just for this room," Mellencamp told the San Antonio Express-News. "I could have done this in my studio. But I want to do it this way, and if I can't do what I want at this point, I'm not going to do it. If it's not fun, I'm not going to do it. I'm through digging a ditch." No Better Than This was released on August 17, 2010 and peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200, becoming the 10th Top 10 album of his career. No Better Than This is the first mono-only release to make the top 10 since James Brown's Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal, which peaked at #10 in April 1964.
On December 6, 2009, Mellencamp performed "Born in the U.S.A." as a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, who was one of the honorees at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. "I was very proud and humbled to have been able to play 'Born in the U.S.A.' in a different fashion that I think was true to the feelings that Bruce had when he wrote it," Mellencamp said. He performed "Down by the River" on January 29, 2010 in Los Angeles in tribute to Neil Young, who was honored at the 20th annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala. Mellencamp sang the hymn "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" at "In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement" on February 9, 2010.
A career-spanning box set of album tracks and demos titled On the Rural Route 7609 was released on June 15, 2010, nine weeks before No Better Than This hit stores. "If you didn’t get deeper into the original albums and know these songs, it will be like discovering new material," Mellencamp said about On the Rural Route 7609.
Mellencamp, who co-headlined 11 shows in the summer of 2010 with Bob Dylan, launched the No Better Than This theater tour on October 29, 2010 in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. On this tour, which ran through the summer of 2012 and covered the entire United States and Canada and much of Europe, Mellencamp opened each concert with a showing of a Kurt Markus documentary about the making of No Better Than This called "It's About You" before hitting the stage to play three different sets: a stripped-down acoustic set with his band, a solo acoustic set, and a fully electrified rock set. "It'll be like Alan Freed, like the old Moondog shows," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine prior to the tour. "When you went to see his shows, there was a movie, like 'The Girl Can't Help It' or something, and then three or four bands played. I'm gonna come out and play with upright bass and cocktail [drum] kits and a lot of acoustic instruments. I'll play for, like, 40 minutes that way. Then the band will leave and it'll just be me with an acoustic guitar for 40 minutes, and then there'll be 40 minutes of rock 'n' roll. You'll get three different types of John Mellencamp, and you'll get a movie." Mellencamp played for over two hours and included 24 songs in his setlist on the tour. He brought the No Better Than This tour to Europe in the summer of 2011, opening in Copenhagen on June 24. One reviewer called the opening gig of the European leg of the tour "maybe the best rock-performance ever in Denmark." The No Better Than This Tour returned to the U.S. for one final round of shows from Oct. 25-Nov. 19, 2011. The tour finally concluded with a tour of Canada in the summer of 2012.
In October 2013, Mellencamp revealed that he was working on a new album, and he offered this update on the project to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “I’ve had a couple rehearsals with the band, and T Bone [Burnett] and I go in the studio in January. I’m not part of the music business. I want to write my songs, do some little shows.” A short time later, Mellencamp told Rolling Stone: "I just signed with Universal. So I'm back on a major label. I've got a notebook with 85 new songs that I've written for my next record. T Bone Burnett is going to come out to Indiana sometime in early January and we're gonna go into the studio for however long it takes to make a new album. I haven't done one in five years."
In 2014, Mellencamp signed a lifetime recording contract with Universal Music Group's Republic Records label, and his first project after signing the deal is the new studio album he first alluded to in the fall of 2013. The album is officially titled Plain Spoken. Mellencamp began recording Plain Spoken, his 20th album of original material and 22nd studio album overall, in January 2014, with a release set for the fall of 2014. As Mellencamp mentioned, T Bone Burnett is once again serving as the producer of the project, marking the third straight Mellencamp studio album that Burnett has produced.
Mellencamp plans to promote Plain Spoken with an extensive world tour that will begin in early 2015. "I want to do 100 shows in the United States and Canada," Mellencamp said. "Then I'll deal with the rest of the world later. I want to play places I haven't played since the 1980s. I want to go to Hays, Kansas and Youngstown, Ohio. In the 1990s I kept playing these same fuckin' sheds and arenas. It was a drag. I'd walk in and realize I'd been in the dressing room fifty times before."
Mellencamp hopes to play many types of venues on the Plain Spoken Tour. "I'm going to devise a show that works in arenas and theaters so I can go back and forth," he says. "Like anything else, if you do too much of one or the other you get burned out. I will probably never play outside again though. I really have a terrible taste in my mouth from playing outside. . . But I might though. I don't want to say never, but in my mind now I don't wanna play outside."
Mellencamp is heading out on a brief 10-show tour in the summer of 2014. At the first show of the tour on June 20 in Thackerville, Oklahoma, Mellencamp gave the first taste of Plain Spoken by playing "Troubled Man," a new song that is expected to be included on the new album's final track listing.
Prior to the release of Plain Spoken, Mellencamp dropped a new live album, Trouble No More Live at Town Hall, on July 8, 2014. The album captures his live performance at Town Hall in New York City on July 31, 2003, in which he performed every track from his 2003 Trouble No More covers album in addition to a rendition of "Highway 61 Revisited" by Bob Dylan and reworked versions of three of his own songs. Two songs performed at the 2003 Town Hall concert, the 1962 Skeeter Davis hit "The End of the World" and the traditional folk song "House of the Rising Sun," did not make the final track list despite the album's official press release stating that the CD and digital versions "feature the complete 15-song concert."
Mellencamp has been called "a natural storyteller."[by whom?] Known over the course of his successful four-decade music career for his acutely observed songs about the American landscape and its cast of characters, Mellencamp has been equally productive as a painter mining similar terrain. Mellencamp’s interest in painting began in early life, but was superseded in the 1980s by his skyrocketing musical career. However, throughout his life, Mellencamp has continued to seriously explore painting.
Mellencamp's late mother, Marilyn, loved to paint landscapes and ﬂowers and her son fell in love with both art and music at an early age. “I started messing around with oil paints when I was about ten but, you know, without instruction," he remembers.
Mellencamp came to New York in the mid-70s with the intention of studying painting if his music-career aspirations didn’t pan out. In 1988, he joined the Art Students League and had his first formal training with portrait painter David Leffel, who taught him the technique of painting dark to light in the manner of Rembrandt and other old masters. His discovery of early 20th-century modernists including Chaim Soutine, Walt Kuhn, and particularly the German Expressionists Otto Dix and Max Beckmann pointed the way toward a visceral, pared down approach to portraiture. He later studied with Jan Royce from the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis.
His portraiture evolved to a personal style that some critics describe as similar to the dark and shadowy paintings of the German Expressionists. They involve expressiveness by means of exaggeration and distortion of line and color, in favor of a simplified style intended to carry an emotional impact. According to Mellencamp, “German painting remains the basic foundation for what I do same as folk music is the foundation of my songs. Discovering Beckmann to me was like discovering Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan.”
Mellencamp’s paintings from the 1990s—of family and friends and many of himself—show lone figures isolated frontally against simple, shadowy backgrounds. They stare at the viewer or off into space with eyes both tough and vulnerable, projecting intensity akin to Beckmann’s self-portraits with his sad, glowering eyes.
Noted art writer Doug McClemont, in a review for Art Space, stated: “Mellencamp paints handsomely grotesque portraits in oil that are as solemn and stirring as his hit songs are catchy and inspirational. They depict existential scenes and human beings ridden with the angst of the everyday. There are no smiles on the faces of Mellencamp’s painted figures. His sad clowns, ex-girlfriends, creative heroes, imagined outliers, and hillbilly singers are often endowed with oversize hands and facial features and always with deadpan, proud stares. “I see sadness in the world,” Mellencamp says.
Mellencamp's art work has been the focus of a number of exhibitions. He had his first major museum exhibition, Nothing Like I Planned, at Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tennessee from April 12 through June 10, 2012. “He is a great American musician from an agricultural heartland, which is close to our own agrarian roots,” said Lois Riggins-Ezzell, the Tennessee State Museum's executive director. “In his painting, he speaks to the voice of the heartland which is about doing the right thing and about equality and humanity and about the dignity of the farmer and the laborer.”
An exhibition called The Paintings of John Mellencamp came to the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio from November 3, 2013 to January 12, 2014 and was Mellencamp’s first major exhibition in an art museum. According to Dr. Louis A. Zona, director and curator of the Butler Institute: “I was interested in the dialogue between Mellencamp’s work and the Butler’s more traditional collection of 19th- and 20th- century American art by masters including John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Raphael Soyer. John’s work is beautifully executed with incredibly fascinating studies.”
A full-color 48 page catalogue with an essay by Hilarie M. Sheets, a contributing editor to ARTnews who writes regularly for The New York Times, accompanied the exhibition. Writes Sheets, "While Mellencamp has never been interested in whether he captures a faithful likeness of his subjects; he is after a kind of emotional realism and does follow certain "rules" of painting. For Mellencamp, painting has always been a refuge, a solitary antidote to the hectic life of touring and performing. He doesn’t see it as a precious or rarified activity but rather about staying productive, keeping his mind engaged, making something out of nothing."
"Every day that I walk up in my art studio and I complete a painting, I have something to show for my time," says Mellencamp, who sees himself painting through old age. "I have millions of them in me."
Mellencamp has also honed his skills by his own self-education in art history, visiting museums across Europe and America whenever he was on tour and studying a broad spectrum of artists and the mechanics of their work and by looking at signs and billboards out the windows of cars and buses while crisscrossing the country. According to Sheets, "In recent years, Mellencamp has incorporated the looser, more jangly rhythms of street art into panoramic canvases that reflect his social and political activism also present in his music."
"The songwriting and the painting are very closely knitted together,” says Mellencamp, who often will pick up his guitar or start a canvas without premeditation and see what suggests itself to him. “Everything is a possible song. Everything is a possible painting."
Nationally known art writer Lilly Wei, who interviewed Mellencamp for Studio International, also wrote a brief essay, in which she points out, "Mellencamp is a writer and often uses words in his paintings, from the graffiti scribbled across earlier work inspired by what he saw in the streets and Jean-Michel Basquiat to his present versions of text painting, a genre that is increasingly commonplace in works by artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Richard Prince, Glenn Ligon and Christopher Wool. Mellencamp, who works in a very different, very personal idiom, makes plainspoken paintings, he says, because he’s a plainspoken man. If these works are any indication, plain painting can be extraordinarily eloquent."
The Paintings of John Mellencamp will travel Museum of Art in DeLand, Florida, where it will be on view from October 16, 2014 through January 4, 2015, and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, where it will be on view from January 17 to April 12, 2015. Plans are being finalized for the exhibition to travel to additional museums.
In addition to the exhibitions listed above, Mellencamp was part of a group show at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His work has also been exhibited at Herron School of Art and Design, a division of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. In 1989, he was part of a two-man show with jazz legend Miles Davis at The Triangle Gallery in Los Angeles. Harper Collins published Paintings and Reflections, an overview of Mellencamp’s earlier work as a painter, in 1998.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
Mellencamp began working on a musical with horror author Stephen King, entitled Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, in 2000. The musical debuted in the spring of 2012 at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, GA, where it ran from April 4 through May 13. A CD/DVD deluxe edition, featuring the dialog, soundtrack, handwritten lyrics and a mini-documentary about the making of the musical, was released on June 4, 2013. Production on the musical's recorded soundtrack began on June 15, 2009, when T-Bone Burnett, who served as the project's musical producer, began laying down tracks in Los Angeles, California for the songs Mellencamp wrote for the project. The soundtrack includes Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, Ryan Bingham, Will Dailey and Neko Case among others singing the songs Mellencamp wrote.
In November 2010, Mellencamp told the Chicago Tribune:
|“||T-Bone and I and Stephen King are working on a musical. All the music has been recorded. We had Kris Kristofferson, Neko Case, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, all singing different characters’ roles. I wrote all the songs, 17 songs. (T-Bone) produced. It sounds like the 'Sgt. Pepper' of Americana to me. Forget about the play, just the songs, the way these people sing them. I’m sitting there listening to it and thinking, "Did Rosanne Cash just kill that song or what!" The play is called "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," about two brothers who hate each other. If you could imagine Tennessee Williams meets Stephen King. They’re recording the dialogue now and we’re putting out a record of the entire show before it comes out. Right now, Elvis Costello, Meg Ryan, Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey are doing table readings like an old radio play. So you’ll get all the dialogue, all the sound effects, and all the songs sung by different people so you can follow the story. The CD will come out ahead of time. So many people are involved, it’s taken a long time. But we don’t have to worry about money or record companies – it’s our own money we’re putting into it, so we said, let’s just make something beautiful.||”|
Ryan D'Agostino of Esquire stated in a review of a New York rehearsal of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County in the fall of 2007, "Musicals aren't usually a guy thing. This one, though, is not only tolerable, it's good. It may be the first-ever musical written by men for men. There's no orchestra, just two twangy acoustic guitars, an accordion, and a fiddle. The songs are both haunting and all-American."
The Alliance described the show as a "Southern Gothic musical fraught with mystery, tragedy and ghosts of the past."
The official description of Ghost Brothers of Darkland County from the Alliance Theatre website:
In the tiny town of Lake Belle Reve, Mississippi in 1957, a terrible tragedy took the lives of two brothers and a beautiful young girl. During the next forty years, the events of that night became the stuff of local legend. But legend is often just another word for lie. Joe McCandless knows what really happened; he saw it all. The question is whether or not he can bring himself to tell the truth in time to save his own troubled sons, and whether the ghosts left behind by an act of violence will help him – or tear the McCandless family apart forever.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County received mixed reviews upon its initial run in Atlanta. The musical toured 20 U.S. cities as a "radio play" in the fall of 2013 and will tour 18 more cities across the U.S. in the fall of 2014.
Mellencamp has made several forays into acting over the years, appearing in four films: Falling from Grace (which he also directed) (1992), Madison (2001, narration only), After Image (2001), and Lone Star State of Mind (2002). His older brother, Joe Mellencamp, appears in Falling from Grace as the bandleader during the country club scene along with his band Pure Jam.
In 1980, Mellencamp turned down the lead role in the movie The Idolmaker because, as he told the Toledo Blade in 1983, "I was afraid that if I made too much money, I'd have no motivation to make records anymore."
Mellencamp told VH1 that he was originally offered the Brad Pitt role in Thelma and Louise: "You know they used to want me to be an actor all the time and I used to get more movie role offers. That's when I was – believe it or not, I used to not be as ugly as I am now. And they gave me this script called Thelma & Louise and they said, 'The guy wrote the part with you in mind, John, you really gotta do this part.' And I read the script and I thought, 'Yeah, I get it but I don't want to take my shirt off.' So Brad Pitt took his shirt off and look what happened to Brad Pitt. I was that close."
He married former model Elaine Irwin on September 5, 1992. On December 30, 2010, Mellencamp announced that he and Irwin had separated after 18 years of marriage. Their divorce became official on August 12, 2011, with the couple negotiating "an amicable settlement of all issues involving property and maintenance rights, the custody and support of their children, and all other issues," according the settlement agreement.
Mellencamp has five children from his three marriages:
- Michelle from his first marriage to Priscilla Esterline (1970–81)
- Daughters Teddi Jo and Justice from his second marriage to Victoria Granucci (1981–89)
- Sons Hud and Speck from his marriage to Elaine Irwin (1992–2011)
Collaboration with George Green
Mellencamp co-wrote several of his best-known songs with his childhood friend, George Green, who, like Mellencamp, was born and raised in Seymour, Indiana. Green was a gifted lyricist and contributed lyrics to numerous Mellencamp radio hits, including "Human Wheels," "Minutes to Memories," "Hurts So Good," "Crumblin’ Down," "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Your Life is Now," and "Key West Intermezzo," in addition to songs recorded by Barbra Streisand, Hall & Oates, Jude Cole, Vanessa Williams, Ricky Skaggs, Sue Medley and The Oak Ridge Boys among others. Mellencamp and Green's final collaboration was "Yours Forever," a song that was included on the soundtrack to the 2000 movie, The Perfect Storm. Mellencamp and Green had a falling out in the early 2000s, and Green ultimately moved from Bloomington, Indiana to Taos, New Mexico in 2001. "Like when you're married, when you're friends with somebody for a long time, the more things build up the more things can go wrong," Mellencamp said in the liner notes to his 2010 box set, On the Rural Route 7609. "There were personal problems, cross-pollinated with professional issues. George has written some great lyrics and we've written some great songs together, but I just couldn't do it any more."
On August 28, 2011, Green died in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the age of 59 after losing a battle with a rapid-forming small cell lung cancer. "I’ve known George since we were in the same Sunday school class. We had a lot of fun together when we were kids. Later on, we wrote some really good songs together," Mellencamp told the Bloomington Herald Times shortly after Green's death. "George was a dreamer, and I was sorry to hear of his passing."
Politics and activism
Mellencamp was critical of Ronald Reagan through his music in the 1980s and wrote some scathing lyrics about Reagan in his 1989 song "Country Gentleman:" "He ain't a-gonna help no children/He aint a-gonna help no women/He just gonna help his rich friends."
In 2003, Mellencamp became one of the first entertainers to speak out against the Iraqi War when he released the song "To Washington", which was also critical of the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections. "When the song first came out I was in the car one day and we were driving to the airport and I had my kids with me and a radio station was playing 'To Washington' and having callers call in," Mellencamp said. "Some guy comes on and says, 'I don't know who I hate the most, John Mellencamp or Osama bin Laden.'"
In an "Open Letter to America" on his website, Mellencamp stated:
The Governor of California was removed from office based on finance troubles. And yet George W. Bush has lied to us, failed to keep our own borders secure, entered a war under false pretense, endangered lives, and created financial chaos. How is it that he hasn't been recalled? Perhaps this time we could even have a real election... but that wouldn't fit the Bush administration's "take what you want and fire people later" policy. Take an election; take an oil field; take advantage of your own people – a game of political Three-Card Monte.
In April 2007, Mellencamp performed for wounded troops at the Walter Reed Medical Center. His original intent was to duet on the Freedom's Road track, "Jim Crow", with singer and activist Joan Baez. However, Army officials barred Baez from performing. He told Rolling Stone magazine: "They didn’t give me a reason why she couldn't come. We asked why and they said, 'She can't fit here, period.' Joan Baez is a 66-year-old woman and the sweetest gal in the world."
According to a February 8, 2008, Associated Press report, Mellencamp's camp asked that the campaign for presidential candidate Sen. John McCain stop using his songs, including "Our Country" and "Pink Houses", during their campaign events. McCain's campaign responded by pulling the songs from their playlist. Mellencamp's publicist, Bob Merlis, noted to the Associated Press that "if [McCain is] such a true conservative, why [is he] playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as an ardent leftist?" Merlis also noted that the same songs had been used, with Mellencamp's approval, by John Edwards's campaign; in response, the McCain campaign ceased using the songs.
Mellencamp performed "Small Town" at a Barack Obama rally in Evansville, Indiana on April 22, the night of the 2008 Pennsylvania primary. Mellencamp also performed "Our Country" at a rally for Hillary Clinton in Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 3, 2008, although he never came out in support of either Obama or Clinton during the primaries. "Neither candidate is as liberal as he would prefer, but he's happy to contribute what he can," Merlis said.
On January 18, 2009, Mellencamp performed "Pink Houses" at the Obama inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
In 2010, Mellencamp's music was used by the National Organization for Marriage at events opposing same-sex marriage. In response, Mellencamp instructed Merlis to pen a letter to NOM stating "that Mr. Mellencamp’s views on same sex marriage and equal rights for people of all sexual orientations are at odds with NOM's stated agenda" and requesting that NOM "find music from a source more in harmony with your views than Mr. Mellencamp in the future."
Honors and awards
Mellencamp has won one Grammy Award (Best Male Rock Performer for "Hurts So Good" in 1982) and been nominated for 12 others. He has also been bestowed with the Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef Special Music Industry Humanitarian Award (1991), the Billboard Century Award (2001), the Woody Guthrie Award (2003), and the ASCAP Foundation Champion Award (2007). On October 6, 2008, Mellencamp won the prestigious Classic Songwriter Award at the 2008 Q Awards in London, England. Mellencamp was nominated for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009, 2010 and 2014, but he was not elected. On September 9, 2010, Mellencamp received the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award in Nashville. On July 30, 2012 in San Jose, CA, Mellencamp received the John Steinbeck Award, given to those individuals who exemplify the spirit of "Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man."
Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Class of 2008. The induction ceremony took place in New York City on March 10, 2008, and Mellencamp was inducted by his good friend Billy Joel, who asked Mellencamp to induct him into the Rock Hall back in 1999 (Mellencamp had to opt out because of another commitment, so Ray Charles inducted Joel). During his induction speech for Mellencamp, Joel said:
|“||Don’t let this club membership change you, John. Stay ornery, stay mean. We need you to be pissed off, and restless, because no matter what they tell us—we know, this country is going to hell in a handcart. This country’s been hijacked. You know it and I know it. People are worried. People are scared, and people are angry. People need to hear a voice like yours that’s out there to echo the discontent that’s out there in the heartland. They need to hear stories about it. [Audience applauds] They need to hear stories about frustration, alienation and desperation. They need to know that somewhere out there somebody feels the way that they do, in the small towns and in the big cities. They need to hear it. And it doesn’t matter if they hear it on a jukebox, in the local gin mill, or in a goddamn truck commercial, because they ain’t gonna hear it on the radio anymore. They don’t care how they hear it, as long as they hear it good and loud and clear the way you’ve always been saying it all along. You’re right, John, this is still our country.||”|
- Best selling music artists
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- Bruce Robb (producer)
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