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Born in Seymour, Indiana on October 7, 1951, John Mellencamp suffered a number of setbacks as a child, including being born with a neural tube defect called spina bifida that necessitated a lengthy hospitalization as a baby. As a teenager, he was rebellious, often getting in trouble with the law. He formed his first band at the age of 14 and continued to play throughout his teens. When he was 17, he eloped with Priscilla Esterline, his pregnant girlfriend, and struggled to support his family by working a series of blue-collar jobs. By the time he was 24, he had decided to move to New York City to break into the music industry.
In New York, Mellencamp became a client of Tony DeFries, best known for managing David Bowie, who signed him to a deal with MainMan/MCA. Mellencamp recorded an album of covers called Chestnut Street Incident, and upon receiving the finished album, he was infuriated to learn that DeFries had billed him as Johnny Cougar. Released in 1976, Chestnut Street Incident's sales didn't live up to MCA's expectations and they quickly dropped Mellencamp, an experience that would make him wary of the music business for the rest of his career. Two years later, he signed with the Polygram-distributed Riva Records, releasing A Biography in 1978 to little notice. However, 1979's Johnny Cougar spawned the Top 40 hit "I Need a Lover," which also became an AOR hit for Pat Benatar in 1980. Steve Cropper produced 1980's Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, which contained the Top 30 hits "This Time" and "Ain't Even Done with the Night."
Mellencamp's next album, 1982's American Fool, became his breakthrough, both commercially and musically. More focused than his earlier records, American Fool rocketed to number one on the strength of the number two hit "Hurts So Good" and the number one single "Jack and Diane," both of which were supported by videos that became MTV favorites. The success of American Fool gave him the clout to add "Mellencamp" to his stage name, and 1983's Uh-Huh became his first album credited to John Cougar Mellencamp. Uh-Huh was released while American Fool was still high on the charts, and it became a success, peaking at number nine and generating the Top Ten hits "Crumblin' Down" and "Pink Houses," as well as the Top 15 "Authority Song." He supported the album with his first major headlining tour.
While he had commercial success, Mellencamp made his bid for greater critical acclaim with his next album, 1985's Scarecrow. Scarecrow displayed a greater social consciousness and musical eclecticism, resulting in his best-reviewed -- and best-selling -- album to date. Peaking at number two, Scarecrow generated the Top Ten singles "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town," and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." Following the release of Scarecrow, Mellencamp became an outspoken advocate of the American farmer, organizing Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and Neil Young. He also became known for his anti-corporate stance, refusing to accept tour sponsorship offers from beer and tobacco companies.
Mellencamp continued to explore social commentary and new musical avenues with 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee. Featuring a distinct Appalachian folk and country influence, The Lonesome Jubilee was a melancholy elegy for the forgotten Middle America. It was more adventurous than its predecessors, and it was also a hit, peaking at number six and generating the hits "Paper in Fire," "Cherry Bomb," and "Check It Out." Mellencamp continued to explore American roots music on 1989's Big Daddy, which fared well with critics and peaked at number seven. Two years later, he returned with Whenever We Wanted, peaking at number 17. 1993's Human Wheels received some of Mellencamp's strongest reviews, and debuted at number seven on the album charts. He made his feature film debut with 1992's Falling from Grace; he directed the movie as well as playing the leading role of a country singer at a crossroads in life.
Mellencamp bounced back into the Top Ten in 1994, when his duet with Meshell Ndegeocello on Van Morrison's "Wild Night" peaked at number three. Its accompanying album, Dance Naked, became his biggest album since Big Daddy, going gold only months after its release. Mellencamp planned to support the album with an extensive tour, but he suffered a major heart attack in late 1994 that forced its cancellation. He spent 1995 recuperating, re-emerging in 1996 with Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Produced by Junior Vasquez and demonstrating an understated dance influence, Mr. Happy Go Lucky was greeted with positive reviews and featured the single "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," which helped the record go gold. The album was his last for longtime label Mercury, and he moved to Columbia for 1998's John Mellencamp. Rough Harvest, a collection of unreleased material recorded during his Mercury years, appeared a year later.
Cuttin' Heads, his second album for Columbia and 20th overall, followed in 2001 and spawned a radio hit with "Peaceful World," which featured neo-soul singer India.Arie on backing vocals. Also in 2001, he won the Billboard Century Award for creative achievement. Inspired by his performance of Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" at an October 2002 tribute concert for the late music journalist Timothy White, Mellencamp recorded a covers album, Trouble No More, in 2003. It was released that summer and topped the Billboard blues chart. The impressive Freedom's Road appeared in 2007, followed by the T-Bone Burnett-produced Life Death Love and Freedom a year later in 2008, the same year he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. An eight-song live set drawn from that album's songs, Life Death Live and Freedom, appeared in 2009, and a deluxe package combining both the original album and the live disc was also released at the same time.
A four-disc box set overview of Mellencamp's recording career, On the Rural Route 7609 (he released his first album in 1976, thus the number in the set's title), appeared in 2010. 2010 also marked his second collaboration with producer T-Bone Burnett for the critically acclaimed No Better Than This, recorded in a variety of historic locations across the United States using a vintage monophonic tape machine, with no edits or overdubs. Mellencamp's next project was an ambitious collaboration with novelist Stephen King. Termed a "Southern gothic musical," Ghost Brothers of Darkland County was scripted by King, with music by Mellencamp. The official set was released in 2012, and included a full audio reading of the musical as staged on two discs, with a third disc of recordings of the songs alone, all of which were again produced by Burnett. 1978-2012 was a 19-disc box set that contained all his albums from John Cougar to No Better Than This; it appeared in time for the holiday season in 2013.
In May of 2014, Republic Records signed Mellencamp to what was described as a "lifetime" recording contract, and the releases started soon afterward. The archival Performs Trouble No More: Live at Town Hall appeared in July of that year, followed by the fresh studio album Plain Spoken in September. Mellencamp developed a spirit of creative camaraderie with singer and songwriter Carlene Carter during the Ghost Brothers of Darkland County sessions, and she appeared on the score he composed for the 2015 film Ithaca, which was directed by Mellencamp's then-girlfriend Meg Ryan. Carter was his opening act on the Plain Spoken tour, and jointly performed two songs during the shows -- "Indigo Sunset" and "My Soul's Got Wings" -- hinting at a more formal future musical partnership. The pair began to record at his Nashville, Indiana studio, with roughly half the tracks sung as duets. The finished album, titled Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, was credited to John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter, and was released in April 2017. It debuted at 11 on Billboard's Album charts. In December, he issued Other People's Stuff, a collection of covers, many previously released; it debuted at seven on Billboard.
Mellencamp next started working on a jukebox musical based on his songs called Small Town, with Naomi Wallace and Kathleen Marshall; in 2021, it would focus on the story of Jack and Diane as told through his catalog of tunes. January 2022 saw Mellencamp release Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, a spare, incisive set steeped in blues and folk flavors. The LP included the single "Wasted Days," one of three tracks featuring Bruce Springsteen, a longtime friend and fellow heartland rock icon. A deluxe reissue of his 1985 landmark Scarecrow arrived in October 2022, featuring a bonus disc of outtakes, rough mixes, and demos. In 2022, Mellencamp appeared on Turner Classic Movies as a guest programmer, discussing and introducing some of his favorite films with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. TCM would also present John Mellencamp & The Good Samaritan Tour 2000, a 37-minute documentary chronicling an acoustic busking tour Mellencamp undertook in 2000. TCM would also sponsor his 2022-2023 concert tour, marking the first time Mellencamp partnered with a corporate entity to present his shows. The 2023 leg of the tour coincided with the release of Orpheus Descending, a studio album named after a play by one of Mellencamp's favorite writers, Tennessee Williams. The effort was a mix of social and political commentary and more personal musings, matched with rough, rootsy sounds. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Mark Deming