Mellencamp was raised in the small town
of Seymour, Indiana, where he played in bands and planned his escape. At 21, he took a trip to New York City to check out art school (he is a talented painter) and drop off some demos. Before the trip was over, he got an offer from a management company willing to push him as a recording artist. He took the offer (it was money coming in, rather than going out), setting him on an awkward path to stardom.
He got a record deal with MCA but clashed with the label, refusing to mingle with tastemakers or participate in any industry pomp. But he did let his manager change his name to "Johnny Cougar," which he used for his first two albums, the second of which, A Biography
(1978), became a surprise hit in Australia thanks to the single "I Need A Lover
." Going to that country and seeing how fans react to a pop star made him determined to create more hits - not for the adulation, but for the creative freedom. If he was on the radio, critics and record companies wouldn't matter, and he could call the shots.
For his next two albums, he became "John Cougar" and did everything he could to generate hits, with modest success ("Ain't Even Done with the Night" reached #17 in 1981). But it was "Hurts So Good," the first single from his fifth album, American Fool
, that gave him the breakthrough he was looking for. Two albums later, he started using his real last name and writing songs like "Pink Houses
" and "Rain On The Scarecrow
" that reflected more of his true self. The hits kept coming until the '90s, when his music fell out of fashion in favor of hip-hop and grunge. He stayed the course, making music that fed his artistic appetite and performing to smaller but very enthusiastic audiences.