Origin: Seymour, Indiana
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Get used to hearing the tag of “heartland” music when surveying the latter half of John Mellencamp’s music blend of Stonesy hard rock and folk. He’s earned it. Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana in 1951, afflicted with spina bifida and had corrective surgery as an infant. Music found him at an early age.
Mellencamp 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.
His personal life may well have inspired some of his songs. When Mellencamp was 18, he eloped with his pregnant girlfriend Priscilla Esterline. Mellencamp became a father in December 1970, only six months after he graduated from high school. His daughter, Michelle, later became a mother when she was 19, making Mellencamp a grandfather at age 37.
After the divorce from Esterline, Mellencamp was married to Victoria Granucci from 1981 until 1989. 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 and their divorce became official on August 12, 2011.
Mellencamp has five children from his three marriages: Daughter Michelle from his marriage to Esterline; daughters Teddi Jo and Justice from his marriage to Granucci; and sons Hud and Speck from his marriage to Irwin.
His musical development coincided with his growth in popularity–by the time “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane” became hits in 1982, Mellencamp had created his own variation of the heartland rock of Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger with an emphasis on traditional instrumentation.
Mellencamp had given up drugs and alcohol for good before graduating from a two year stint at Vincennes University in 1974. He decided to pursue a career in music and traveled back and forth to New York City in an attempt to land a record contract. Finally, Tony DeFries agreed to manage the singer’s career. 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 nam1985e Johnny Cougar, suggesting that the bumpy German name “Mellencamp” was too hard to market.
Since that mis-named launch, John battled to regain his last name and eventually drop the “Cougar” slick marketing image. He recorded one more album, The Kid Inside in 1977. Then Mellencamp broke away from DeFries and instead, Rod Stewart’s manager, Billy Gaff, signed the young singer-songwriter to the small Riva Records label.
Mellencamp worked his next effort in England, where his following album yielded the standout track, “I Need A Lover,” which was included on his 1979 John Cougar album and charted at #28 on the US charts. Thus began the musician’s climb to stardom.
1985 was the year he released Scarecrow which yielded five Top 40 singles. Shortly after its recording, 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 $50 million for struggling family farmers as of 2017.
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.
Mellencamp’s 1991 album, Whenever We Wanted, was the first with a cover billed to John Mellencamp—the ‘”Cougar” was now gone forever.
A former editor of Billboard magazine called Mellencamp “the most important roots rocker of his generation. John has made fiddles, hammer dulcimers, Autoharps and accordions lead rock instruments on a par with electric guitar, bass and drums, and he also brought what he calls ‘a raw Appalachian’ lyrical outlook to his songs.”
Johnny Cash called Mellencamp “one of the 10 best songwriters” in music.
John Mellencamp’s music career spans 23 albums and 65 singles. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is his upcoming 23rd studio album to be released on April 28, 2017 by Republic Records.
The current single is “Grandview,” and it’s a lively tune heard on K-ZAP 93.3 FM and streaming at K-ZAP.org.
The album will feature significant contributions from Carlene Carter, who worked with Mellencamp on Ghost Brothers of Darkland County–his musical collaboration with Stephen King–and Ithaca, the movie he scored for former girlfriend Meg Ryan. Carter, Johnny Cash’s step-daughter, opened every show of Mellencamp’s 2015-2016 “Plain Spoken Tour.”
Chestnut Street Incident (1976)
A Biography (1978)
John Cougar (1979)
Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did (1980)
American Fool (1982)
The Kid Inside (1983)
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987)
Big Daddy (1989)
Whenever We Wanted (1991)
Human Wheels (1993)
Dance Naked (1994)
Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996)
John Mellencamp (1998)
Rough Harvest (1999)
Cuttin’ Heads (2001)
Trouble No More (2003)
Freedom’s Road (2007)
Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008)
No Better Than This (2010)
Plain Spoken (2014)
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (2017)