by Mona Jhaveri - July 18, 2019

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The impressive career of American heartland rock everyman and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, John “Cougar” Mellencamp, spans four decades and isn’t even close to winding down. Johnny Cash once lauded the vital 67-year-old as “one of the ten best songwriters in music,” and so far he has graced us with two dozen studio albums documenting his songwriting and playing ability.

John “Cougar” Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana and started rising to fame in the 1980s when “heartland rock” was peaking as a genre due to contributions by rock stars such as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. John Mellencamp’s life, filled with candid, blue collar-stories in a small town resonated strongly at the time, but he remained prominent and both commercially and critically successful even as the genre went out of fashion. He has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards and won one as Best Male Rock Performer for “Hurts So Good” in 1983. The awards never stopped coming, and he was later inducted into the ultimate classic, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. 

Sympathy for the Common Man

John Mellencamp’s sympathy for the common man wasn’t only present in his songwriting – political activism has permeated his career ever since its beginnings. He was one of the many artists who criticized Ronald Reagan during the 1980s presidential elections, and one of the first ones to oppose the Iraq War. Both in Mellencamp’s music and in written statements can attest to that. For his achievements in championing various causes and embodying the spirit of “John Steinbeck’s empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man,” he was awarded the prestigious John Steinbeck Award in 2012. 

The list of causes he has supported is extensive. Mellencamp is one of the founders of Farm Aid, an organization that started as a single benefit concert in 1985 to raise money for family farms in America. Since then Farm Aid has been transformed into a charity that still holds benefit concerts annually and has raised over $53 million so far. Besides improving the working conditions of farmers, he has also supported various charities that work on fighting illnesses, such as Population Services International, Celebrity Fight Night Foundation, Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, and Musicians on Call.

On August 8, 1994, he suffered a minor heart attack in New York City, during the Dance Naked Tour. The heart attack happened because John Mellencamp smokes. Back then, he used to smoke around 80 cigarettes a day. A fascinating tidbit in John Mellencamp’s life is that he also helped medical science by being one of the first babies to have a life-saving spina bifida surgery at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. He opened up for CBS News, stating that he was the only one of the three patients at the time that has lived to adulthood. He also shared on CBS News that his parents paid 1$ for the spina bifida surgery because he was “a guinea pig.” Later on, he honored the hospital with a benefit concert.

Music and Charity 

John Mellencamp’s music and charity work come from an honest place that people all across America, from New York City to Los Angeles, can relate to – they are both an expression of the compassion of the common working man. Whether he’s writing songs, performing for charities, or speaking his mind, he is an agent of change, encouraging his audience to be kind and generous. 

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