John Mellencamp is a pure product of middle America.
Through a combination of talent, vision and stubborn determination he became an authoritative rocker and adroit storyteller. His best songs – including “Pink Houses,” “Small Town” and “Rain on the Scarecrow” - symbolize the hopes, fears and basic decency of America’s heartland. He also has captured rock’s feisty, independent spirit and dogged pursuit of good times on such numbers as “Crumbling Down,” “Authority Song” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”
Mellencamp’s music is fundamentally rooted in American music, especially the feisty garage-rock, raw-voiced soul and impassioned folk-rock of the Sixties. These were the sounds that defined his coming-of-age years as a teenage misfit in the small town of Seymour, Indiana. Frustrated and looking for somewhere to fit in, he found salvation in music. Still, as with every aspect of his life, nothing came easily. He was a mediocre high-school student, and a two-year degree from Vincennes University and a day job with the phone company seemed pointless exercises for someone as bitten by the musical bug as Mellencamp.
Mellencamp has had not one career but several musical careers. He was first miscast in the mid-Seventies as a corn-fed glam-rocker (“Johnny Cougar”) who shared management with David Bowie. Next he became a journeyman rock and roller – his first name now shortened to “John” - who was at least moving in the right direction. During this period, he managed a few minor hits (“I Need a Lover,” “Ain’t Even Done with the Night”) but still had a checkered outlook on life. Mellencamp titled an album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, and that statement reflected his basic disenchantment. In 1982, however, he crossed over to the big-time with American Fool – note the self-deprecating title - which topped the charts for nine weeks and yielded the mega-hits “Hurts So Good” (#2) and “Jack & Diane” (#1).
By this time, Mellencamp had a much firmer handle on who he was, how he wanted to sound, and what he wanted to write about. Singing in a forceful, expressive rasp, he unleashed a string of rock-solid albums in the Eighties: Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. Notably, he restored his surname, crediting those four albums to John Cougar Mellencamp. He was now a songwriter to be reckoned with, and years of accumulated angst erupted in songs that spoke for the passions and frustrations of the average person trying to make a go of it in hard times. On these records, he had become something of a musical weather vane, gauging which way the winds were blowing in middle America. Such songs as “Pink Houses” and “Small Town” still speak eloquently to the sensibilities of the heartland.
When he kicked off the Nineties with Whenever We Wanted, he was back to being simply John Mellencamp - a man who had banished all traces of artifice from his name and work. Having defined his core sound by this time, he subsequently broadened his musical palette with the stripped-down, spontaneous songcraft of Human Wheels; a foray into the sonic territory of hip-hop, entitled Mr. Happy Go Lucky; and the raw, knife-edged blues of Trouble No More.
In 2007, Mellencamp released Freedom’s Road, his first album of new material in more than five years. Then, in 2008, he issued Life, Death, Love and Freedom. The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett, and Mellencamp called it “the best record I’ve ever made.” The following year he released another Burnett-produced album, No Better Than This.
“It’s all about, ‘Let’s go someplace else,” Mellencamp said in 1996. “It’s great to put people together who have the capability and vision to do something different when you challenge them.”
Mellencamp has always had durable, hard-hitting bands. Guitarist Larry Crane, a school chum from Seymour, and drummer Kenny Aronoff anchored the lineup in the Eighties. Mike Wanchic has been a constant presence on rhythm guitar, Lisa Germano’s violin has lent rootsy and exotic tones to his music, and Crystal Taliefero has been a longtime backup vocalist and onstage foil. He has also collaborated with other singers – notably Me’Shell Ndegéocello (on his Top Five remake of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”) and India.Arie (on the utopian anthem “Peaceful World”).
A man with a conscience, Mellencamp used his visibility and influence to advocate an issue that hit close to home. As a co-founder of Farm Aid, Indiana’s favorite son has helped give voice and raise money to redress an American tragedy – disappearing farmlands, dispossessed farm families – that might otherwise been overlooked. Since the Eighties, Mellencamp has ranked among the upper echelon of hard-rocking, often topical American singer/songwriters – a fraternity that also includes Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Seger and Neil Young. Like all those icons, Mellencamp ultimately succeeded by finding and following his own voice.
John Mellencamp (vocals, guitar; born October 7, 1951)