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John Mellencamp

Heartland rocker and Farm Aid co-founder John Mellencamp (known at various points of his career as Johnny Cougar and John Cougar Mellencamp before reverting to the name he was born with) grew up in the Midwest and spent much of the '70s struggling to break into the music business. In the process he became something of a poster child for the sad results of bad marketing decisions, falling into the orbit of managers who wanted to promote him as the next David Bowie and then, a bit more realistically, the next Bruce Springsteen. Or maybe Bob Seger.

But Mellencamp persisted, and in the early '80s had a string of hits, mostly resonanting with the theme of being young, restless, bored, and trapped in places where nothing ever really happened, e.g. "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane." By mid-decade he was starting to turn his attention to more serious social issues in his part of the country, most notably the loss of family farms to a bad economy and the encroachments of agribusiness. His growing anger about his neighbors' plight led to the album Scarecrow in 1985; that same year, he joined forces with Willie Nelson and Neil Young to launch the first Farm Aid benefit concert to help family farmers. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and Loretta Lynn showed up to play, and the fundraiser has become an almost annual event since.

Mellencamp, meanwhile, continued to grow as an artist and record new albums, discovering in the process a love for the life he'd once found so restrictive -- as perhaps best expressed in his perennial anthem "Small Town." Like the protagonist of that song, he continues to live happily with his family in Indiana.

Generally perceived as being on the liberal side of the political spectrum, Mellencamp recently joined forces with conservative buddy Travis Tritt to record the hit single "What Say You," a plea for civility and comradely spirit despite ideological differences.

Written by: Mary Eisenhart

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