Today is the 66th birthday of American rock songwriter John Mellencamp, born in Seymour, Indiana (1951). He started playing in bands when he was 13 and began recording under the stage name Johnny Cougar, which he thought was “pretty silly,” under pressure from his record label. He later changed it to John Cougar Mellencamp, and finally dropped the “Cougar” altogether in 1991.
His career skyrocketed in the ’80s with hits including “Jack and Diane,” “Hurts So Good,” and “Small Town.” Billboard magazine wrote: “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.”
He had a brief career as an actor and was originally offered Brad Pitt’s role in Thelma and Louise, but he refused because he didn’t want to take off his shirt. Mellencamp said: “So Brad Pitt took his shirt off and look what happened to Brad Pitt. I was that close.”
Mellencamp is also a talented artist and paints dark, unsettling portraits in the style of German Expressionism. He often starts working on his music in response to something he’s painting, and he can go weeks without leaving his house, switching back and forth between the two. Mellencamp said: “Every day that I walk up in my art studio and I complete a painting, I have something to show for my time. I have millions of them in me.”
He started smoking when he was 10 years old and still smokes today. When asked if he’s worried about his health, he said he has a “wacky idea” that he’ll be OK because he doesn’t both drink and smoke, and he thinks he’s “offsetting [his] cigarette consumption by exercising.”
His latest album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, came out last April to great reviews. He lives in Indiana.