It’s Monday so it’s time for the Monday’s Music Moves Me (4M) blog hop! Last week we used a 4th of July theme and my holiday post included the song, R.O.C.K. in the USA by John Cougar Mellencamp. And during this past week, I’ve just been in a Heartland Rock kind of mood. Heartland rock is a genre of rock music that is exemplified by the commercial success of singer-songwriters Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp. It is characterized by a straightforward musical style, a concern with the average, blue-collar American life, and a conviction that rock music has a social or communal purpose beyond just entertainment.
Heartland Rock speaks directly to me. So I decided to do my 4M Freebie post on John Cougar Mellencamp. The following is a little background info on this artist and showcases some of my favorite songs by him. At the end is an extended playlist in case you want to groove all day on the ever-relatable John Cougar Mellencamp.
John J Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951), previously known as Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, and John Cougar Mellencamp and now simply as John Mellencamp, is an American musician, singer-songwriter, painter, and actor. He is known for his catchy, populist brand of heartland rock, which emphasizes traditional instrumentation.
Mellencamp rose to superstardom in the 1980s while honing an almost startlingly plainspoken writing style that, starting in 1982, yielded a string of Top 10 singles including “Hurts So Good,” “Jack & Diane,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Small Town,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Paper in Fire,” and “Cherry Bomb.” He has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States. In addition, he holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit number one on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with seven, and has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one. Mellencamp released his latest album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, on April 28, 2017, to widespread critical acclaim.
Mellencamp is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Illinois, to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 32 years, and as of 2017 the organization has raised over $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.
Mellencamp is critically acclaimed and widely respected throughout the industry. Johnny Cash called Mellencamp “one of the 10 best songwriters” in music. Said longtime Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis: “Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience. His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music.”
The late Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White said in 2001:
John Mellencamp is arguably the most important roots rocker of his generation. John has made fiddles, hammer dulcimers, Autoharps and accordions lead rock instruments on a par with electric guitar, bass and drums, and he also brought what he calls ‘a raw Appalachian’ lyrical outlook to his songs. Mellencamp’s best music is rock ‘n roll stripped of all escapism, and it looks directly at the messiness of life as it’s actually lived. In his music, mortality, anxiety, acts of God, questions of romance and brotherhood, and crises of conscience all collide and demand hard decisions. This is rock music that tells the truth on both its composer and the culture he’s observing. (Source: Wikipedia)
WHY SO MANY NAMES IS WHAT I WANTED TO KNOW:
To make a long story short: For starters: After about 18 months of traveling back and forth from Indiana to New York City in 1974 and 1975, Mellencamp finally found someone receptive to his music and image in Tony DeFries of MainMan Management. DeFries insisted that Mellencamp’s first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and a handful of original songs, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, insisting that the bumpy German name “Mellencamp” was too hard to market. Mellencamp reluctantly agreed, but the album was a complete failure, selling only 12,000 copies. Mellencamp confessed in a 2005 interview: “That (name) was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, ‘You sound like a hillbilly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am.’ So that’s where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do… but I thought the name was pretty silly.” (Wikipedia)
He parted ways with that manager and Rod Stewart’s manager Billy Gaff took an interest in him and signed him to the Riva Records label. It was in 1979 when he started going by John Cougar with the release of his self-titled album. In 1980, his album Nothin’ Matters & What If It Did yielded two Top 40 singles, “This Time” (No.27) and “Ain’t Even Done With the Night” (No.17). In 1982, he released his breakthrough album, American Fool, which contained the singles “Hurts So Good,” an uptempo rock tune that spent four weeks at No. 2 and 16 weeks in the top 10, and “Jack & Diane,” which was a No. 1 hit for four weeks. A third single, “Hand to Hold on To,” made it to No. 19. “Hurts So Good” went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 25th Grammys.
With some commercial success under his belt, Mellencamp had enough clout to force the record company to add his real surname, Mellencamp, to his stage moniker. The first album recorded under his new name John Cougar Mellencamp was 1983’s Uh-Huh, a Top-10 album that spawned the Top 10 singles “Pink Houses” and “Crumblin’ Down” as well as the No. 14 hit “Authority Song,” which he said is “our version of ‘I Fought the Law’.”
It was his 1991 album, Whenever We Wanted, that was the first with a cover billed to John Mellencamp—the Cougar was now gone forever. Whenever We Wanted yielded the Top 40 hits “Get a Leg Up” and “Again Tonight,” but “Last Chance,” “Love and Happiness” and “Now More Than Ever” all garnered significant airplay on rock radio.
And from that point on, through today, he goes by John Mellencamp. Wowsa!
Most recently: In December 2015, Mellencamp began recording a duets album with Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter), who was his opening act for all shows on the Plain Spoken Tour (promoting his 2014 album) and would join Mellencamp for two songs during his set. “We really enjoyed singing together on tour,” Carter told The Advocate. “Our voices clicked really good. John got the idea to do an album together. I was blown away.” The result was Mellencamp and Carter’s duets album, titled Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which was released this year on April 28, 2017. “We wrote a couple of songs together, and she wrote some and I wrote some,” Mellencamp told USA Today.
Here are just a few of my favorite John Cougar Mellencamp songs, from various versions of his name incarnations, in no particular order:
Crumblin’ Down – “Crumblin’ Down” is the lead single from John Mellencamp’s 1983 album Uh-Huh. It was a top-ten hit on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Mainstream Rock charts. “Crumblin’ Down” was the first single released by Mellencamp to include his real last name: previous releases were credited to “John Cougar.”
It was written by Mellencamp and longtime writing partner George Green. According to Green, the song attempts to answer the question of what to do when success eventually fades, and “the big-time deal falls through.” The song touches on Mellencamp’s fame as well as the frustrations of losing one’s livelihood: the lyrics were inspired, in part, by Mellencamp’s cousin losing his job as an electrical engineer.
Here’s the video that received heavy play on MTV:
Cherry Bomb – “Cherry Bomb” is a 1987 hit song released as the second single from Mellencamp’s ninth studio album The Lonesome Jubilee.
The song was a success in the U.S., reaching #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, #12 on the Adult Contemporary Chart and becoming a top ten hit on the main Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it reached #8.
“Cherry Bomb” is a nostalgic song that reflects back on Mellencamp’s teenage years hanging out in clubs with his friends. In a 1989 BBC radio interview, Mellencamp said: “Cherry Bomb is just a name of a club that I made up. The real name of the club was The Last Exit—The Last Exit Teen Club actually was the name of the place. It was a place that we went as kids. The whole world seemed to exist there. Everything that was important happened down in the basement of this church is what it was.”
Paper in Fire – another 1987 hit from The Lonesome Jubilee album. The song was a success in the U.S., reaching #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, and becoming a top ten hit on the main Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also topped the Canadian Singles Chart, and charted on various European singles charts.
The inspiration for the song was revealed in a 1989 interview with the BBC: Mellencamp said: “‘Paper in Fire’ deals with a lot of biblical things – paper in fire, in fact, is hell, and is referred to in the Bible as hell. ‘A man will be cast into paper in fire.’ It’s in there, believe me, it’s in there. That’s where that term came from.”
The line “we keep no check on our appetites,” from the song’s final verse, was cited in the 1963 movie Hud, which is one of Mellencamp’s favorite movies and has inspired many of his songs.
Rain on the Scarecrow – “Rain on the Scarecrow” was co-written by John Mellencamp and George M. Green for Mellencamp’s eighth studio album Scarecrow. Released in September 1985, it peaked at #2 on the U.S. chart.
About the album: The overall theme of the album is the fading of the American dream in the face of corporate greed. Rolling Stone wrote that songs such as “Face of the Nation,” “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town” have a “bittersweet, reflective tone.”
In his 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit, Mellencamp said: “With Scarecrow, I was finally starting to find my feet as a songwriter. Finally, for the first time, I realized what I thought I wanted to say in song. …I wanted it to be more akin to Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Faulkner, as opposed to the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan.”
Check It Out – “Check It Out” is a 1987 song by John Mellencamp released as the third single from his album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1988. The single was a top 20 hit, reaching number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The music in this song is fantastic and I love the electric violin especially. Here is the live performance from a concert on December 11, 1987 at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana:
Pink Houses – “Pink Houses” was released on the 1983 album Uh-Huh on Riva Records. It reached #8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in early 1984. “Pink Houses” was ranked #439 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Recorded in a farmhouse in Brownstown, Indiana, the song was inspired when Mellencamp was driving along an overpass on the way home to Bloomington, Indiana from the Indianapolis airport. There was an old black man sitting outside his little pink shotgun house with his cat in his arms, completely unperturbed by the traffic speeding along the highway in his front yard. “He waved, and I waved back,” Mellencamp said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “That’s how ‘Pink Houses’ started.”
The song also served as a scathing critique of Yuppies and Reaganomics and the overall “Greed is good” atmosphere of the time.
Its Use in Politics: In 2004, the song was played at events for Senator John Edwards’ presidential campaign. The song was also used at events for Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign.
“Pink Houses” along with “Our Country” was played by Senator John McCain at political events for his 2008 presidential campaign. Mellencamp contacted the McCain campaign pointing out Mellencamp’s support for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and questioning McCain’s use of his music; in response, the McCain campaign ceased using Mellencamp’s songs.
In January 2009, Mellencamp played “Pink Houses” at We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
In 2010, “Pink Houses” was used by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) at events opposing same-sex marriage. At Mellencamp’s instruction, his publicist sent a cease and desist letter to NOM stating that “Mr. Mellencamp’s views on same sex marriage and equal rights for people of all sexual orientations are at odds with NOM’s stated agenda” and requesting that NOM “find music from a source more in harmony with your views than Mr. Mellencamp in the future.”
Small Town – “Small Town” is a song released on the 1985 album Scarecrow. The song reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Mellencamp wrote the song about his experiences growing up in a small town in Indiana, having been born in Seymour, Indiana, and living in Bloomington, Indiana, which, at the time of the release of the song, was much smaller. The music video has references to both towns.
“I wrote that song in the laundry room of my old house,” Mellencamp told American Songwriter magazine in 2004. “We had company, and I had to go write the song. And the people upstairs could hear me writing and they were all laughing when I came up. They said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ What else can you say about it?”
Here John Mellencamp performs “Small Town” at Farm Aid III held on September 19, 1987 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985 and serve on the board of directors. The three agreed that family farmers were in dire need of assistance and decided to plan a concert for America. Farm Aid III was held in Lincoln, Nebraska at Memorial Stadium. Artists including Emmylou Harris, Steppenwolf, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, John Denver, Lou Reed, Joe Walsh, and many more performed).
And here’s a few of his earlier songs: “The singles were stupid little pop songs,” Mellencamp told Record Magazine in 1983:
Ain’t Even Done with the Night – One of Mellencamp’s earliest of hit songs, from the 1981 album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. It was his fourth studio album, under his pseudonym of John Cougar. It includes the moderate hits “Ain’t Even Done with the Night,” which reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 as the album’s second single.
Here’s a live performance of Ain’t Even Done with the Night in 1981, with some odd costuming, in my opinion:
This Time – “This Time” is the lead single, also from the 1981 album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. The song peaked at #27 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The woman on the album’s cover and in the music video for “This Time” is actress Edith Massey, a member of the Dreamlanders troupe who often appeared in the films of John Waters. Massey was chosen because, as Mellencamp told Rolling Stone in late 1980, “I was looking for a typical heavy woman to convey a lower-middle-class way of living.”
A decade later, this next song is a powerful social commentary from Mellencamp’s 1991 album Whenever We Wanted. This, his 11th album, is the first to be credited simply to Mellencamp’s given name (i.e., without the “Cougar” name).
The album includes the hits “Get A Leg Up” (#1 for three weeks on the Album Rock Tracks chart), “Now More Than Ever” (#3 on the Album Rock Tracks chart), “Last Chance” (#12 on the Album Rock Tracks chart), and “Again Tonight” (#1 for two weeks on the Album Rock Tracks chart). “Get A Leg Up” (#14) and “Again Tonight’ (#36) also cracked the Billboard Hot 100. (You can see these videos in my full playlist below).
Regarding the styling of the album: After his previous two albums (The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy) featured such non-traditional rock instruments as the accordion and violin, Mellencamp said that on Whenever We Wanted he wanted to put those instruments “back in their cases” and return to a harder-edged sound. Mellencamp further elaborated on the album, saying: “It’s very rock ‘n’ roll. I just wanted to get back to the basics.”
Love and Happiness
Finally, here is one of Mellencamp’s newly released songs from his 23rd studio album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (released April 28, 2017):
Easy Target – Politically-charged “Easy Target” was dropped (premiered) on the eve of Trump’s inauguration (January 19, 2017) on Yahoo’s The Katie Couric Interview. It is John’s reflection on the state of our country.
Ahead of the performance, John Mellencamp sat down with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric to discuss the inspiration behind the song, the Trump inauguration, and his views on a divided country. An outspoken artist, Mellencamp continues his journey to convey the truth through this passionate and plain-spoken song.
As for the album’s cover art:
The artwork on the front cover of Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was taken from a 2005 Mellencamp painting called “Twelve Dreams.” This marks the first time since 1991’s Whenever We Wanted that Mellencamp has displayed one of his paintings on an album cover.
Without further ado, here is “Easy Target”:
JOHN MELLENCAMP INTERVIEW: CBS SUNDAY MORNING
Mellencamp was interviewed earlier this month by Jane Pauley and aired on CBS Sunday Morning (July 2, 2017). Thanks Alana (Ramblin’ with AM), for the reminder! This is a fantastic interview and gives great insight into John Mellencamp the man. Take a few minutes and check it out:
Didn’t get enough? Below is a comprehensive playlist of Mellencamp songs (30 of them, including some of his newest material) that I really enjoy so if you want to listen to a big long block of John Cougar Mellencamp today, here’s your ticket:
Monday’s Music Moves Me (4M) is a blog hop hosted by X-Mas Dolly, and co-hosted by JAmerican Spice, Stacy Uncorked and Curious as a Cathy. Be sure to stop by the hosts and visit the other participants.
You are next… Click here to enter
This list will close in 5 days, 0 hrs, 30 min (7/14/2017 11:59 PM North America – Central Standard Time)