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 okay. 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."
"No Better Than This" peaked at #10 on the Billboard 200, becoming the 10th Top 10 album of Mellencamp's career.
The live album "Trouble No More Live At Town Hall," recorded over a decade earlier in New York City, dropped in '14. As the title implied, the set contained songs from "Trouble No More" with a handful of additional tracks.
"Plain Spoken," featuring the single "Troubled Man," arrived a few months later. Again produced by Burnett (their 3rd consecutive collaboration), it was the first Mellencamp album under his lifetime recording contract with Republic Records.
Carlene Carter served as the opening act at every show on the supporting tour. That connection continued through Mellencamp's next efforts.
Carter worked with Mellencamp on Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County, his musical collaboration with Stephen King, and Ithaca, the score for the '15 film drama starring his former flame Meg Ryan.
"Sad Clowns & Hillbillies," Mellencamp's 23rd album, contained songs originally written for those projects. The album was originally thought of as a Mellencamp/Carter duets set but actually became, according to Carter, "a wonderful conglomeration of (John's) songs and my songs."
1976 Chestnut Street Incident
1978 A Biography
1979 John Cougar
1980 Nothin' Matters And What If It Did
1982 American Fool
1983 The Kid Inside
1987 The Lonesome Jubilee
1989 Big Daddy
1991 Whenever We Wanted
1993 Human Wheels
1994 Dance Naked
1996 Mr. Happy Go Lucky
1998 John Mellencamp
1999 Rough Harvest
2001 Cuttin' Heads
2003 Trouble No More
2007 Freedom's Road
2008 Life, Death, Love and Freedom
2010 No Better Than This
2014 Plain Spoken
2017 Sad Clowns & Hillbillies
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," "American Fool" and "The Lonesome Jubilee," showing he could deliver more than hits. And even those hits had more substance (not that it's a major Pop or Rock requirement).
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 and he sang with hard-earned conviction and emotional depth.