John Mellencamp has evolved from an AOR-friendly hard rocker in the Bob Seger-Bruce Springsteen mold to the critically-hailed exponent of country and R&B-flavored roots rock. Born in Seymour, Indiana with a form of spina bifida, he started his first band at age fourteen. After attending community college and trying a series of blue-collar jobs, he relocated in New York City in the mid-1970s with a backlog of self-penned songs with hopes of establishing a music career. There, he signed with David Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries, who assigned him the moniker "Johnny Cougar" and help secure a reported million dollar deal with Main Man. The resulting album, Chestnut Street Incident (Main Man 601; 1976), was a commercial failure, and he was dropped by parent company MCA.
Signing with Riva Records in the late 1970s (to his frustration, as John Cougar), Mellencamp began building a following through well-crafted recordings—including the hit singles "I Need a Lover" (Riva 202; 1979), "This Time" (Riva 205; 1980), and "Ain’t Even Done with the Night" (Riva 207; 1981)—and constant touring. His commercial breakthrough came with American Fool (Riva 7501; 1982, #1), driven by Grammy-winning "Hurts So Good" (Riva 209; 1982; #2), "Jack and Diane" (Riva 210; 1982; #1, "Hand to Hold On To" (Riva 211; 1982), all of which were in heavy MTV rotation. The 1980s were a watershed decade for him, including the following Top Ten albums: Un-Huh (Riva 7504; 1983), Scarecrow (Riva/Mercury 824865; 1985), The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury 832465; 1987), and Big Daddy (Mercury 838220; 1989). In addition to producing his own recordings, he was in demand to perform similar duties for other artists, including Mitch Ryder’s Never Kick a Sleeping Dog (1983) and James McMurtry’s Too Long in the Wasteland (1989).
He was a co-organizer of Farm Aid along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in 1985; he wound go on to appear at Farm Aid concerts I through VI. He has given more concerts over the years to bring attention to the problems of the American farmer, and, in 1987, he testified before a congressional subcommittee. His strong political activism also extended crticism of beer- and cigarette-company sponsorship of concert tours and the refusal to allow his music to be employed in commercials.
By the 1990s, Mellencamp’s recordings were less commercially successful, due in part to their more introspective tone and greater reliance on folk instrumentation. He was now moving into other fields, directing and acting in the film, Falling From Grace (1992; scripted by author Larry McMurtry), and mounting exhibitions of his paintings. He suffered a heart attack in 1994, but has continued to remain active as a performer and recording artist.
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