When you get kicked out of a group called Snakepit Banana Farm you might want to reconsider your career options. And what could be going through your mind when you start a '60s cover band called Trash? You might also have second thoughts about the music business when the guy who got you signed to MCA Records changes your name without telling you. But all this was part of the John Mellencamp's climb toward fame.
Mellencamp started playing Rock and R&B with Crepe Soul in '65. By '66 he'd been in and out of Snakepit Banana Farm. Jumping forward, Mellencamp entered the '70s with Trash. Along the way, he graduated from college and got himself a job with the phone company. When the job ended, Mellencamp headed for New York with a demo - his version of Paul Revere and The Raiders' "Kicks."
He got a deal with MCA but prior to the release of his debut album his management company decided that Mellencamp (the name) just wasn't going to make it. So Cougar it became. Imagine the shock of seeing some other name on your work. It's no wonder Mellencamp hated it and wanted to change it back. It was a gradual process. John Cougar, then John Cougar Mellencamp and at last, John Mellencamp.
Starting with "Ain't Even Done With The Night," Mellencamp wrote and performed several Rock classics from a unique American perspective. The "Scarecrow" CD raised Mellencamp to serious artist stature and also signaled his involvement in the plight of America's farmers. He was a leader in the Farm Aid movement since the mid-'80s. Not surprising since Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, and raised in Bloomington. In the early '90s, he suffered a "mild" heart attack. Blaming it on cigarettes and a bad diet he moved on. No big deal.
Mellencamp spent the '90s and beyond veering between a roots Rock version of his earlier self and Folk/Blues. '96 release "Mr. Happy Go Lucky" found Mellencamp dipping into Hip-Hop while "Cuttin' Heads," out in '01 followed a jagged acoustic path. For "Rough Harvest" Mellencamp did acoustic versions of his own songs plus covers of "Under The Boardwalk" and "In My Time Of Dying." Though viewed as a toss-off project it was pretty impressive. Mellencamp delved deeper into traditional Folk and Blues on his '02 outing "Trouble No More."
Selling your soul to Rock N' Roll was OK. But selling your Rock N' Roll to advertise a product was wrong. The history of Rock songs in advertising is long and often embarrassing. Usually, an agency licensed a Top 10 hit for an ad campaign. Think of all the ads with "Good Vibrations" or "Born To Be Wild." Let's not forget "Start Me Up." The group (or at least the songwriters) got to pocket some probably much needed cash while the product had instant appeal (or so the ad guys thought) to the "youth market." It was such a seemly process that many performers, most notably Bruce Springsteen, refused to license their music for commercials. But over time, everything changes and people adapt. New groups discovered that getting their tune placed in a high rotation commercial was a great way to get exposure. The ad agencies liked it because the licensing fees were marginal. Soon the stigma of "selling out" faded (though it never completely disappeared).
Just when it looked like Mellencamp could release an album "unnoticed," what does he do but license a track to promote Chevrolet's Silverado trucks. The "Our Country" commercial aired about every :30 seconds during football season. There was no getting away from it. A middle America singer and a middle America truck. Somebody was thinking.
Mellencamp said he allowed "Our Country," the lead single from "Freedom's Road", to be used in the high-profile campaign because he wanted the song to get some exposure. "I don't know if it was the best way to present the tune to (listeners), but at least they heard it." No kidding. As a result, Mellencamp's '07 collection of anthems, odes and observations got a lot more attention than it might have normally.
A year later, Billy Joel inducted Mellencamp into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame in New York. "I was fortunate enough to write a couple of songs that connected with people," said the heartland singer at the ceremony. "People thought the songs were about them, and I want to thank those people."
Despite the Hall of Fame recognition (usually coming after a career is long over), Mellencamp proved he was still in the game with "Life, Death, Love And Freedom," released in July, '08. Well prior to the disc's release the song "Jena" and the accompanying video created a stir. The song referred to the 'Jena Six', a group of black students accused of beating a white classmate after nooses were hung from a tree where black students congregated. Mellencamp sang "Jena, take your nooses down." In a fax to the press, Murphy R. McMillin, the mayor of Jena, LA, wrote that the song was "so inflammatory, so defamatory, that a line has been crossed and enough is enough." Mellencamp countered saying the track was a condemnation of racism, not indictment of the people of Jena.
"Life, Death, Love And Freedom" was recorded using the CODE audio format. The high-fidelity technology was developed by the album's producer T Bone Burnett along with a group of engineers. Following the likes of Paul McCartney, Mellencamp signed with Starbuck's Hear Music. "In today's business environment, each artist needs to pursue his own path and determine what works best," said Mellencamp of the decision. "For me, Hear is the right way to go for this album. I'm glad to be working with a team of open minded people who seem to be interested in what the music is about and what it sounds like."
Mellencamp took a long look back with his '10 box set "On The Rural Route 7609." The career-spanning collection featured 54 tracks ranging from rare demos to the hits. The title referred to the time period when the songs were recorded - between '76 to '09. "It's like an address," said Mellencamp. "I thought it sounded cool."
He continued his "roots" journey with '10's "No Better Than This," The album was recorded, with the help once again of T Bone Burnett, at historic locations, including Sun Studios (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) in Memphis; the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA (the oldest Black church in North America); and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, TX (where Robert Johnson made his first recordings in '36).
"John is a really great singer and I'm always happy working with him in any environment," Burnett told the Express-News. "The fact he chose these historic locations is a big plus. The stories that have come out of the sessions are extraordinary."
"It was absolutely the most fun I've ever had making a record in my life. It was about making music - organic music made by real musicians - that's heartfelt and written from the best place it can come from," offered Mellencamp. He added that he was done being a Rock star. "I have only one interest: to have fun while we're doing this and maybe have something that somebody might discover."
Considering where he started and where he has ended up, John Mellencamp traveled one long road. It's a tribute to his grit, determination and talent that he has done what he has. Originally grouped with other male pop/rock singers of the moment, like Bryan Adams, Mellencamp was regularly dismissed as a "baby" Springsteen. Yet, he eventually carved out a place where he was defined on his own terms and not in relation to someone else. "Scarecrow" was Mellencamp's breakthrough album. It opens with the blistering "Rain On The Scarecrow" which deals with bank foreclosures on family farms. The joys and difficulties of small town life, Mellencamp's roots, are audible in "Small Town" and "Lonely Ol' Night." Perhaps reflective of his days with Trash, the most joyous song on the CD is "R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To '60s Rock)." The song mentions Bobby Fuller ("I Fought The Law"), the Young Rascals ("Good Lovin'"), Mitch Ryder ("Devil With A Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly") and the incredible James Brown.
Early on, Mellencamp lived or died, by his hits. But the transition from John Cougar to John Mellencamp gave him a deeper perspective. Since his debut in the late '70s, Cougar/Mellencamp's albums consistently improved with "Uh-Huh" and "American Fool" showing he could deliver more than hits. And even the hits had more substance (not that it's a major Rock requirement). "Lonesome Jubilee" is another Mellencamp classic. Both "Check It Out" and "Cherry Bomb" reveal a mature but still Rockin' perspective. The mid-90s found Mellencamp pursuing an acoustic based sound that rode the line between roots Rock and traditional Country. The human tales were still closest to his heart. "Mr. Happy Go Lucky," "Cuttin' Heads" and "Rough Harvest" have a ragged appeal. Mellencamp sings with hard-earned conviction and emotional depth. "Trouble No More" illustrates Mellencamp's love of Folk and Blues. He is a compelling force making the songs come alive.
In his fifth decade, having already endured the twin indignities of suffering a heart attack and becoming a grandfather (albeit a "young" one) and licensing one of his best songs in years for a truck commercial, it would be reasonable to suspect that Mellencamp had lost a step. But as "Freedom's Road" clearly illuminates, that would be an erroneous conclusion. Mellencamp's music still has teeth. And for all the philosophical and positive moments, at its core, "Freedom's Road," is a dark, haunted album.
Mellencamp has always been most effective and believable when drawing on his own experiences. When he sings "thank God for forgiveness" ("Forgiveness") with measured relief rather than celebration or reaches a Gospel furore on the title track before slipping into a worldly-wise reading of the line "looking for the devil, he's out there on Freedom's Road," it's evident, he's been there. He knows all about trials and tribulations. Choices, some good and some bad, all have to be reconciled.
Mellencamp has an inclusive nature as "Our Country" and "The Americans" illustrate. We're all in this together. "The Americans" touches the diversity, in terms of people and attitudes, found among the folks that live between Canada and Mexico and two oceans. He opens the set with the hopeful "Someday" but adopts a harsher view on "Ghost Towns Along The Highway" where there are no expectations.
According to Mellencamp, "Life, Death, Love And Freedom" is a collection of "modern electric folk songs." Downshifting from "Freedom's Road," this effort is stark and often brooding. Using stripped down arrangements anchored by an acoustic guitar Mellencamp tells tales of loss, free will, pain and redemption. His straight from the gut vocals - ranging from world-weary to revelatory - have a genuine validity.
It would be fun to say that with "No Better Than This" Mellencamp has come full-circle. Actually, his career isn't circular or even an arc but rather a continued quest for authenticity. It began in earnest with the "Scarecrow" album and was solidified by his co-founding of Farm Aid.
Having started as a hit machine ("Ain't Even Done With The Night" and "Jack & Diane") before shunning pop ("Pop Singer"), Mellencamp is a wizened vet whose course changes, even if it's reviving the past, has benefited both the singer and his audience. "No Better Than This" is the latest exhibit.
The commitment, emotion and artistry are undeniable. But when Mellencamp travels down the Rockabilly road on "No Better Than This" he is truly awesome. The title track, "Save Some Time To Dream" and "Don't Forget About Me" (an Elvis-type shuffle) prove that had Mellencamp been around in the '50's he would have made some big noise.