One of the most respected singer songwriters of all time, John Mellencamp began planning his escape from small town life at a young age while living on the outskirts of Seymour, Indiana. He began playing in bands in his early teens, and used music as a refuge from the sometimes-harsh realities of life spent in a rural, isolated area.
In the mid ‘70s he broke away and spent time in New York determined to get a record deal. While he did earn a spot on a label, he soon realized he was a small fish in a big pond of young rockers who would do anything for a taste of fame. Knowing he couldn’t sacrifice his small town roots for big city dreams, he used his stubborn disposition to his advantage.
Hitting his peak in the ‘80s, he has since spent decades penning some of America’s favorite tunes in honor of the “average joe,” which is an archetype he never steered away from despite massive success. Like the humble roots he was born into, he wrote songs for the people instead of the industry, and gently balanced the genius of his skillset between pop hit songwriter and rebellious rocker.
While he’s won some of music’s most prestigious awards including The Woody Guthrie Award and the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he still lives in Indiana, recording at his own studio not far from where he grew up. With songs bursting at the seams with honesty, passion, vulnerability, and rebellion, John’s many albums glorify the common man and highlight life’s hardships and triumphs with to-the-point yet eloquent lyrics. Truly a music man of the people, read on for our takes on John Mellencamp’s best songs.
10. Wild Night (ft. Me’Shell Ndegeocello)
A bass-heavy early ‘90s hit for John Mellencamp, he struck up a friendship with up and coming artist Meshell Ndegeocello while recording the Van Morrison classic. ‘Wild Night’ embodies the anticipation of a night spent out on the town, and the song’s driving rhythm, dancing bass, and descriptive lyrics create a perfect pop storm. It was one of Van Morrison’s commercially successful tracks on his critically acclaimed Tupelo Honey album. And Mellencamp scored a top 3 hit with it as well when he paired up with Ndegeocello for their own classic rock rendition.
Recommended: Check out the original on our curated list of Van Morrison songs.
9. Paper In Fire
Written during one of the more difficult times in Mellencamp’s life, many songs such as ‘Paper in Fire’ on his late ‘80s The Lonesome Jubilee album explore darker themes. For this particular track, he explores the hardships of working class America while Appalachian style fiddle and a stomping backbeat provide a solid foundation. He always remained faithful to his blue collar audience, but family members passing away and several close friends going through divorces added an extra layer to his songwriting, and painted an overall melancholy tone for this number and much of the 1987 record.
8. Ain’t Even Done With The Night
Quintessential ‘80s soft rock, ‘Ain’t Even Done With the Night’ was one of John’s earliest hits, which gave him a little wiggle room with his label to take more control over his songwriting process. He understood the need to create pop hits, but he also couldn’t ignore his gritty, rural roots that sometimes made him a hard musician to work with in the industry. A song written about his first marriage which happened when he was a young 18 years old, the chart-climber chronicles the excitement and doubt that encompasses building a life with someone. Though the marriage didn’t last, the tune’s honesty and authenticity registered with pop and rock fans, who have helped keep this track one of Mellencamp’s most enduring hits even today.
7. Authority Song
A career-defining song for the “heartland rocker,” Mellencamp’s ‘Authority Song’ from his popular Uh-huh album has a whole lot of punk rock attitude set against country-rock instrumentation and rhythm. A tune championing the world’s rebels, John deeply related to its story which is largely autobiographical and deals with his issues involving a music industry built on copies instead of originals, and trying to break out of a poverty-stricken hometown to make it as a New York rocker. The single epitomized his transition into his alter ego, John Cougar, and set him apart from the many other good-looking musicians his age also signed to his label. While those acts were willing to do whatever they had to in order to reach stardom, Mellencamp made it a point to highlight not only his rebel ways but his fidelity to his principles and values in his original music.
6. Cherry Bomb
Another fiddle-tinged rock track from John Cougar, this Gold certified single raced all the way to number one on rock charts after its debut. A song that reflects on Mellencamp’s teenage years living in small town America, it is one of the more cheery additions to his The Lonesome Jubilee album, which focused on more serious themes than previous albums. ‘Cherry Bomb’ features several background singers from his touring band, which acted as a nod to the influence Sly & The Family Stone had on his songwriting and vision for production.
5. R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock)
Mellencamp grew up in the ‘60s, when one of rock and roll’s golden ages was really taking shape, and other styles like soul and funk were being incorporated into the fiery genre. A huge hit on his Scarecrow album, the wildly successful ‘R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.’ was actually a last minute add on to the track listing. While the majority of the album focuses on John’s vision of America that has lost its way by forsaking its roots, the hit single represents a stark contrast and offers up an electrifying party tune paying homage to all of the ‘60s rock influences that helped shape John’s music and subsequent fellow rockers.
4. Pink Houses
Americana through and through, ‘Pink Houses’ is one of Mellencamp’s most well-known tracks. Throughout his career, he has remained one of the few artists who expertly and delicately balances celebrating life in America while also offering a realistic view of what it is really like for the average man and woman trying to make their way in the country, especially in the rural heartland. MTV gave the tune a lot of love in 1983, helping John reach another level of success and fame. He used this increased authority to drop the moniker he had been using at the demand of his management team, John Cougar, to his real name, John Mellencamp.
3. Small Town
John established himself as the people’s songwriter with this massive ‘80s hit. ‘Small Town’ was another original focused on his hometown pride, and the importance of celebrating America’s flyover states and rural communities. While one could make the assumption that he was simply sticking to a tried-and-true formula that had proven to be successful with other single releases, Mellencamp’s raw honesty and authentic rebellious nature shine through this track. When he reached stardom, he tried living in New York where most of his music business took place. But soon, he found himself in a severe artistic drought. It took him moving back home to small town Indiana to achieve a new songwriting renaissance, which is exactly how this popular number was born.
2. Hurts So Good
A song that started out as a joke with his good friend and sometimes-collaborator George Green ultimately won Mellencamp a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. With a memorable rhythmic guitar riff and lyrics full of nostalgia, the classic rock track is one of John’s most notable works. With the first lines of the tune scribbled in soap on his shower wall, soon Mellencamp and Green turned their comical “hurts so good” songwriting prompt into an All-American hit. The Grammy Award-winning track climbed all the way to the second spot on Billboard charts.
1. Jack & Diane
“A little ditty ‘bout Jack and Diane.” Mellencamp’s signature hit captures the essence of young love in America’s heartland and the bittersweet reality of time as it passes. ‘Jack & Diane’ was a number one hit, so the time John and his team spent on the tune paid off well. While other songs like ‘Hurts So Good’ were written in minutes, ‘Jack & Diane’ was a well-crafted Mellencamp masterpiece. The tune itself has become a part of American culture, with both the song’s title popping up as references in other artists’ songs to the opening instrumental riff being sampled in hit tracks for other singers as well. Spending a month at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the Recording Industry Association of America ultimately chose the 1982 single as one of the “Songs of the Century.”