Time and success haven’t mellowed John Mellencamp. The 53-year-old Heartland rocker remains a headstrong, energetic and outspoken artist who wants to do things his own way.
This isn’t to say that Mellencamp hasn’t matured and evolved. By his own admission, he certainly has changed over the decades since he catapulted to musical fame in the early 1980s as a defiant singer-songwriter with a distinct sound and style.
“Young people have a terrible problem,” Mellencamp says. “They want certain things. But as you get older, you realize that you don’t really want anything, but you would prefer it. There’s a difference between wanting and preferring. Now I say, ‘I prefer to do it this way,’ instead of ‘I gotta do it this way,’ which is how I used to be.”
Seated in the control room of his recording studio in Belmont, Ind., not far from his longtime home in Bloomington (pop. 69,291), Mellencamp has the air of contentment that comes with hard-won success. His unique talents as a singer-songwriter have allowed him to tour the world and collaborate with many icons.
“I am so fortunate,” he says. “I have worked with Larry McMurtry, one of the greatest American novelists. I am working with Stephen King right now, who is a great American novelist. I’ve gotten to work with Bob Dylan, Donovan, John Fogerty and Willie Nelson. As far as that goes, I can’t think of anybody else that I even care to meet. I’ve already met all my heroes.”
Mellencamp was born and raised in nearby Seymour, Ind. (pop. 18,101), which is about an hour south of Indianapolis. His father, Richard, worked as an electrical contractor, and his mother, Marilyn, was a homemaker and postal employee. With the exception of a brief stint in the late 1970s—when he moved to London for professional reasons—Mellencamp has spent his entire life in southern Indiana.
Although he’s a Grammy winner who has sold more than 40 million albums, Mellencamp maintains a relatively normal life when he’s not on tour. While he may be approached by autograph-seeking fans, he doesn’t hesitate to attend local public events and run errands.
“I’ve had a pretty up-and-down career,” Mellencamp admits. “But even at the height of my career, I never allowed my career to get in the way of me doing anything. I never stopped myself from going someplace just because I might have to sign an autograph. The thing that I have found, which is lucky for me, is that most people like John Mellencamp.”
A friend to farmers
After early struggles in the music business, the singer skyrocketed to stardom with his 1982 album American Fool, which contained the smash hits Hurts So Good and Jack & Diane.
Back then, he used the stage name John Cougar, which had been foisted upon him by a manager. On the cover of his classic 1983 album Uh-Huh, he billed himself as John Cougar Mellencamp. He eventually dropped “Cougar” and simply used the surname that appears on his birth certificate.
Capitalizing on the music-video revolution of the 1980s, Mellencamp became a mainstay on MTV, thanks to videos such as Pink Houses, Small Town and Crumblin’ Down. His lyrics poignantly described the trials and dreams of people living in small towns, and he has extended his concern for those in rural America beyond his music.
In 1985, Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young co-founded Farm Aid as a way to help American farming families. The organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year by holding a star-studded benefit concert.
Mellencamp keeps up-to-date on many aspects of farm legislation. “The farm problem, like everything else, is always in motion,” he says. “Politicians can pass bills that have nice names but that are misleading as to what the farm problem really is.”
Many things have changed in Mellencamp’s life since the first Farm Aid concert, but one constant has been the presence of his bandleader, Mike Wanchic. The Bloomington-based guitarist and producer has worked steadily with Mellencamp since 1978. Wanchic sees little difference between Mellencamp’s public persona and his private side.
“I think that’s why John has managed to survive in this business,” Wanchic says. “He actually believes in what he’s out there doing—as opposed to a band that puts on a costume and goes out and does an act. This is not an act. John’s not kidding when it comes to this music. He’s dead serious about it, but we have fun when we’re playing it.”
Wanchic adds that he and Mellencamp have a lot in common besides their profession: “John really enjoys the same things I do, which are a small-town environment, country living and family. He likes to travel with his wife, and he brings his children on the road a great deal.”
A family man first
Mellencamp met his wife, supermodel Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp, in 1991 at the photo shoot for the cover of his album Whenever We Wanted. The following year, the couple got married in Seymour, at a log cabin belonging to the groom’s uncle. They have two sons—Hud, 11, and Speck, 10—and Mellencamp has three children—Michelle, 34, Teddi Jo, 23, and Justice, 19—from two previous marriages.
Irwin-Mellencamp admires her husband’s parenting techniques. “John makes an effort at being very fun, which a lot of dads don’t do,” she says. “John plays to his strong suits, and he tries to share with the kids the things that he is interested in. He’s pretty smart about the activities that he does with them, and that makes things enjoyable all around.”
Irwin-Mellencamp, 34, who has appeared in ads for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret, currently is the spokesperson for Almay cosmetics. Despite her fame, she still sees herself as just a regular, small-town resident. “I grew up in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania (pop. 4,242), a town much smaller and more rural than Bloomington, but with similar values,” she says. “Obviously, you don’t forget that. I like the way I was raised—in a very average way—and that’s how I want my kids to be raised.”
With his voice taking on a serious tone, Mellencamp comments, “I’m quite a different dad than my dad was. Fathers in the ’50s were a whole different kettle of fish than fathers are today. For one thing, when I was growing up, I never saw my dad. He was always at work. Then, when I was old enough to realize what time he got home from work, I always made it a point not to be home. From age 14 to probably 20, that was a time when my dad and I were hardly speaking. Now, I see him every day and he’s become a big part of my life and my kids’ life. People do grow up.”
And as he’s matured, Mellencamp has built quite an impressive body of work, as evidenced by his latest album, the two-CD compilation Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits. He is promoting the album during a summer tour with John Fogerty.
Following the tour, Mellencamp will continue working on a stage production that he has been developing with Stephen King for the past three years. Titled Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, it includes music composed by Mellencamp and dialogue written by King.
“The play has mystical qualities to it,” Mellencamp says. “It takes place from 1945 to right now. Plus, it takes place in Louisiana and Mississippi, so I had the opportunity to write blues songs, Cajun songs and jazz songs.”
Making music is Mellencamp’s primary creative outlet, but not his only one. He directed and starred in the 1992 feature film Falling From Grace, which was written by Larry McMurtry. He also has been a devoted painter for many years, and has exhibited his work in art galleries. In 1998, dozens of his oil paintings were reproduced in the book Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections.
The hallways and lounge of Mellencamp’s recording studio are adorned with his colorful figurative paintings. After more than 30 years in the music business, Mellencamp hints that one day he will lay down his guitar and pick up his paintbrush—permanently.
“I have an art studio, but I just haven’t had the time to paint as much as I’d like to,” he says. “Painting, for me, is something that I know I will return to. That’s how I will live out my life—as a painter. I know it. My wife knows it. Everybody who knows me knows it. So, that is what I will do.”