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A pop sensation in the 1980s, singer-songwriter John Mellencamp has evolved into one of rock’s most enduring acts, and given voice to the small-town experience.
John Mellencamp - Full Biography (45:15)
John Mellencamp - Full Episode (45:15)
The grandson of an Indiana farmer, John Mellencamp grew into a pop/rock icon. Starting as a pop star with hits like "Hand to Hold Onto" and rebellious youth songs like "Play Guitar," he became a "Springsteen of the Midwest."
Starting as a pop star with rebellious youth songs like "Play Guitar," he became a "Springsteen of the Midwest" with his "Small Town" and "Pink Houses," while lending major support to the cause of Farm Aid.
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The videos for both songs got a lot of play on MTV, which further boosted Mellencamp’s growing popularity.
The following year, Mellencamp had another hit with Uh-Huh (1983). The album had three successful singles, “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” and “Authority Song.” After years of being panned by critics, Mellencamp started to win them over with such recordings as Scarecrow (1985). The widely acclaimed album featured a mixture of styles,
from the uptempo “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A (A Salute to 60s Rock)” to the more introspective “Small Town” to stormy dirge “Rain on the Scarecrow,” which explored the plight of the family farmer. This subject was especially close to his heart, having been one of the co-founders of Farm Aid, an organization dedicated to supporting American family farms. Working with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 and has worked actively on the charity’s behalf ever since.
Mellencamp continued to mature as an artist with his next recording, The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), which featured some experimentation with a more folk rock sound. Three tracks from the album—“Paper in Fire,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Check It Out”—reached the top 20 of the pop charts. During the coming years, his albums remained strong sellers, but he had fewer singles that made it onto the charts. Big Daddy (1989) had the self-satirizing hit “Pop Singer” while Whenever We Wanted (1991) contained “Get a Leg Up.” For Mellencamp, making the video for “Get a Leg Up” turn out to be a life-changing event. During the filming, he met model Elaine Irwin whom he started dating. The couple married in 1992.
Around this time, Mellencamp tried his hand at acting. He starred as a country music singer in the drama Falling from Grace (1992), which he also directed. The screenplay was written by famed western novelist Larry McMurtry.
With Dance Naked (1994), Mellencamp made a triumphant return to the pop singles charts with a duet with Meshell Ndegéocello. Their hit, “Wild Night,” was a cover of a song by Van Morrison. That same year, Mellencamp had to cancel his tour plans after suffering a heart attack. This health crisis led to some changes in his lifestyle. “I didn’t work out at all until I had the heart attack,” he told People magazine. Mellencamp cut back on his tour schedule and started running and doing weight training.
Trying out some hip-hop beats, Mellencamp worked with dance music producer Junior Vasquez on Mr. Happy Go Lucky (1996). He later experimented with the blues for 2003’s Trouble No More.
After a few years away from the recording studio, Mellencamp returned with Freedom’s Road (2007), which reached as high as number five on the album charts. In 2008, he found his music caught up in the midst of the election-year politics.
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