John Mellencamp has embodied the genre of music now known as roots rock, or Americana
His first album, The Chestnut Street Incident, was released in 1976 under the name Johnny Cougar
After first finding fame as rocker Johnny Cougar, Grammy-winner John Mellencamp gradually reclaimed his real name while staking out his own unique rock sound with self-penned songs like Small Town and Cherry Bomb that embodied the genre of music now known as roots rock, or Americana. Together with massive Top 40 hits like Hurt So Good and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., they earned him numerous prestigious awards including the Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef Special Music Industry Humanitarian Award, the Billboard Century Award, the Woody Guthrie Award, the ASCAP Foundation Champion Award, Q Awards’ Classic Songwriter Award, the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award and the John Steinbeck Award (given to those individuals who exemplify the spirit of "Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man”).
Born October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana, Mellencamp, who still lives in nearby Bloomington, loved music and was performing in local bars and heading a soul band by the time he was 14. His first album, The Chestnut Street Incident, was released in 1976 under the name Johnny Cougar, his manager thinking his real name might hamper sales. After scoring his first hit, I Need a Lover, in 1979, his fifth album, American Fool, became 1982’s best-selling album on the strength of Hurts So Good and the No. 1 hit Jack & Diane. But with the ‘80s albums that followed (Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee, and Big Daddy) and their hits including Crumblin Down, The Authority Song, Small Town, Rain on the Scarecrow, Lonely Ol Night, R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., Paper in Fire, Check it Out, Cherry Bomb, Pop Singer and Jackie Brown, he developed what became his singular signature sound.
Coinciding with that sound was Mellencamp’s lyrical concerns with themes idenitifed by his Steinbeck Award, especially the dignity of the common man. To this end, he joined Willie Nelson and Neil Young in launching Farm Aid in 1985 as an annual music festival geared to generating awareness of the plight of the American farmer. Meanwhile, throughout his continuing recording and touring activities, he regularly promoted other songwriters via covers and collaborations (his most recent album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies features Carlene Carter), and influenced new generations of singer-songwriters in rock as well as country, with Keith Urban in particular stating that witnessing his Lonesome Jubilee tour in Australia was an “ephiphany”: Urban has since covered many Mellencamp songs in his concerts, performed Pink Houses with him in nationally televised events, and had a 2015 hit single with John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.
In addition to his music, Mellencamp has become an accomplished painter, his works having appeared in several gallery shows (including the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, New York’s ACA Gallery and the Butler Institute of American Art) and published portfolios. He acted and directed the 1991 feature film Falling From Grace, and wrote the music and lyrics for the musical The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County in collaboration with Stephen King, who wrote the libretto. And in 2008, John Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Billy Joel.