This guy had an upward trajectory like nobody’s business. In a 40-year career, he’s done it all, and despite heart surgery, still smokes like a chimney. He defies his own mortality.
His hit list in the 80’s decade is unreal. Give him credit for mixing Americana into rock and roll, and never abandoning his roots.
His first album to gain him attention was John Cougar, in 1979. A manager convinced him to adopt the “Cougar” because it sounded more American than the German Mellencamp. Here’s a guy that is more American than anyone besides Bob Seger. “I Need a Lover” was released from the album and got to number 28 on the chart.
The next year came the album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, with “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” a song that hit number 17 and “This Time” got to number 27. The album was produced by famed guitarist Steve Cropper. Each of his albums performed better received more airplay. Mellencamp was developing a very polished, accessible sound.
In 1982 came the classic American Fool. Mellencamp and Don Gehman produced, and Mellencamp’s signature sound was born. Gehman helped retain the easy, melodic sound but injected some roughness that gave him street credibility. Mellencamp would continue to strive for an honest sound and resist production slickness. A number one album with the classics, “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane.”
Even though Mellencamp was carving out his distinctive sound and ability to tap into the American pulse, he was saddled with the Cougar name and he growing annoyed that his record company was trying to position him as the next Neil Diamond. Yes, really.
Uh-Huh came out in 1983, under the name John Cougar Mellencamp, at least including his last name. Small victories. It reached number nine on Billboard and gave us “The Authority Song,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses” and “Play Guitar.” Not bad.
Mellencamp was in rarefied air now. Scarecrow, the next album,was the turning point in my opinion. “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Lonely Ol’ Night” weren’t just popular songs, they were anthems. Mellencamp became the face of middle America and life in flyover country. His songs were well-crafted and memorable, but they also had heart. Along with Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp wrote songs that people could either personally relate to or understood the context.
The Lonesome Jubilee (1987) a top six album that produced three high charting songs, “Check it Out,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Paper in Fire.” What was different about the album was a more country-rock feel with traditional instruments along side the contemporary sound. Mellencamp was broadening his base without offending or losing any of his older fans.
Big Daddy (1989) a number seven album with “Pop Singer” (number 15) and “Jackie Brown” (number 48). He produced the album himself and continued the use of country instruments in selective places.
Whenever We Wanted (1991) “Get A Leg Up,” “Now More Than Ever,” “Last Chance,” “Again Tonight,” “Get A Leg Up” and “Again Tonight” was more of a return to a rock album.
In the 1990’s, Mellencamp became a much more enigmatic writer and performer. He battled record companies over his sound, and moved from label to label. He was not content to get stuck in a style and he was daring about his choices. All the way back to The Lonesome Jubilee, he wanted to push the boundaries by mixing genres. He did so, not for acclaim, but for honesty and to honor the roots of American music. Hit singles would be less frequent but he found niches in the various musical market and his albums consistently charted. He might not be writing “Jack and Diane” or “The Authority Song” but he was still connecting with blue collar America.
Human Wheels (1993) featured the number one “What If I Came Knocking” jumped back to an infusion of country. “Human Wheels” also charted.
Dance Naked (1994) “Wild Night” and “Dance Naked” with the album peaking at number 13.
Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996) “Key West Intermezzo” and “Just Another Day” were charting singles. Mellencamp had suffered a heart-attack in 1995 and his brush with death played a staring role in the making of this album.
John Mellencamp (1998) “Your Life is Now” and “”I’m Not Running Anymore”
Rough Harvest (1999) contained a mixture of covers and some of his older tracks.
Cuttin’ Heads (2001) “Peaceful World” was a moderate hit.
Trouble No More (2003) Blues and folk covers.
Freedom’s Road (2007) which debuted at number 5 on the charts, quite a late career accomplishment. One song, “Our Country,” was a hit and used in a truck commercial.
Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008) Mellencamp, always one to change and experiment with styles, called this a “modern electric folk songs.” This started Mellencamp’s relationship with producer T-Bone Burnett.
No Better Than This (2010) was recorded around the country in an effort to produced an American folks album as he said his career as a rock star was over.
Plain Spoken (2014) reached number 18.
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (2017) was a partial collaboration with Carlene Carter and charted at number 11.
Other People’s Stuff (2018) is a collection of roots songs, and incredibly landed at the top of the Billboard Top Rock Album chart.
The music he has created for the past 16 years has defied categorization. He was making what’s called “roots” music before it existed in popular music. Bob Dylan gets a lot of credit for infusing “traditional music” in his own music, but Mellencamp was doing that as well. Whether you call it “traditional” or “roots” or “Americana,” these were styles that were not overtly commercial, but he brought the audience to the music and it worked.
Mellencamp is more than the singer/ songwriter. He’s an artist in the true sense of the word. He’s a painter, writer, actor and even directed a feature film. At the height of his mainstream appeal, he starred in and directed Fall From Grace, from a script by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show). Check it out.