(Read about John Cougar Mellencamp after the video)
John J Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951), also known as John Cougar Mellencamp, is an American musician, singer-songwriter, painter, and actor. He is known for his catchy, populist brand of heartland rock, which emphasizes traditional instrumentation. He rose to superstardom in the 1980s while "honing an almost startlingly plainspoken writing style that, starting in 1982, yielded a string of Top 10 singles," including "Hurts So Good," "Jack & Diane," "Crumblin' Down," "Pink Houses," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," "Paper in Fire," and "Cherry Bomb." He has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States. In addition, he holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit number one on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with seven, and has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one. Mellencamp released his latest album, Plain Spoken, on September 23, 2014, to widespread critical acclaim.
Mellencamp is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Illinois, to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 31 years, and as of 2016 the organization has raised over $50 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.
Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008. His biggest musical influences are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, James Brown and the Rolling Stones. Said longtime Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis: "Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience. His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music."
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. Mellencamp's best music is rock 'n roll stripped of all escapism, and it looks directly at the messiness of life as it's actually lived. In his music, mortality, anxiety, acts of God, questions of romance and brotherhood, and crises of conscience all collide and demand hard decisions. This is rock music that tells the truth on both its composer and the culture he's observing.
Mellencamp is of German ancestry. He was born with spina bifida, for which he had corrective surgery as an infant. His father, Richard Mellencamp, was a physical disciplinarian who often discouraged his son from spending time with friends or having friends over to their house. Mellencamp formed his first band, Crepe Soul, at the age of 14 and later played in the local bands Trash, Snakepit Banana Barn and the Mason Brothers.
When Mellencamp was 18, he and his pregnant girlfriend, Priscilla Esterline, eloped. Upon revealing to his parents that he and Esterline were married and expecting, he was kicked out of the house. Mellencamp became a father in December 1970, only six months after he graduated from high school. His daughter, Michelle, later became a mother at age 19, making Mellencamp a grandfather at age 37.
Mellencamp attended Vincennes University, a two-year college in Vincennes, Indiana, starting in 1972. During this time he used drugs and alcohol, stating in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, "When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn't get off the couch. I would lie there, listening to Roxy Music, right next to the record player so I wouldn't have to get up to flip the record over. I'd listen to this record, that record. There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone."
Upon graduating from Vincennes University in 1974, Mellencamp played in several local bands including the aforementioned glitter-band Trash, which was named after a New York Dolls song, and he later got a job in Seymour installing telephones. At this time, Mellencamp, who had given up drugs and alcohol for good before graduating from Vincennes University, decided to pursue a career in music and traveled to New York City in an attempt to land a record contract.
Performing as Johnny Cougar and John Cougar (1976–1982)
After about 18 months of traveling back and forth from Indiana to New York City in 1974 and 1975, Mellencamp finally found someone receptive to his music and image in Tony Defries of MainMan Management. Defries insisted that Mellencamp's first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and a handful of original songs, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, suggesting that the bumpy German name "Mellencamp" was too hard to market. Mellencamp reluctantly agreed, but the album was a complete failure, selling only 12,000 copies. Mellencamp confessed in a 2005 interview: "That (name) was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, 'You sound like a hillbilly.' And I said, 'Well, I am.' So that's where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected to it, he said, 'Well, either you're going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.' So that was what I had to do... but I thought the name was pretty silly."
Mellencamp recorded The Kid Inside, the follow-up to Chestnut Street Incident, in 1977, but Defries eventually decided against releasing the album and Mellencamp was dropped from MCA records (Defries finally released The Kid Inside in early 1983, after Mellencamp broke through to stardom). Mellencamp drew interest from Rod Stewart's manager, Billy Gaff, after parting ways with Defries and was signed onto the tiny Riva Records label. At Gaff's request, Mellencamp moved to London, England, for nearly a year to record, promote and tour behind 1978's A Biography. The record wasn't released in the United States, but it yielded a No. 1 hit in Australia with "I Need a Lover." Riva Records added "I Need a Lover" to Mellencamp's next album released in the United States, 1979's John Cougar, where the song became a No. 28 single in late 1979. Pat Benatar recorded "I Need a Lover" on her debut album In the Heat of the Night.
In 1980, Mellencamp returned with the Steve Cropper-produced Nothin' Matters and What If It Did, which yielded two Top 40 singles – "This Time" (No. 27) and "Ain't Even Done With the Night" (No. 17). "The singles were stupid little pop songs," he told Record Magazine in 1983. "I take no credit for that record. It wasn't like the title was made up – it wasn't supposed to be punky or cocky like some people thought. Toward the end, I didn't even go to the studio. Me and the guys in the band thought we were finished, anyway. It was the most expensive record I ever made. It cost $280,000, do you believe that? The worst thing was that I could have gone on making records like that for hundreds of years. Hell, as long as you sell a few records and the record company isn't putting a lot of money into promotion, you're making money for 'em and that's all they care about. PolyGram loved Nothin' Matters. They thought I was going to turn into the next Neil Diamond."
In 1982, Mellencamp released his breakthrough album, American Fool, which contained the singles "Hurts So Good," an uptempo rock tune that spent four weeks at No. 2 and 16 weeks in the top 10, and "Jack & Diane," which was a No. 1 hit for four weeks. A third single, "Hand to Hold on To," made it to No. 19. "Hurts So Good" went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 25th Grammys. "To be real honest, there's three good songs on that record, and the rest is just sort of filler," Mellencamp told Creem Magazine of American Fool in 1984. "It was too labored over, too thought about, and it wasn't organic enough. The record company thought it would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was – not that the songs were better than my others – but people liked the sound of it, the 'bam-bam-bam' drums. It was a different sound."
Performing as John Cougar Mellencamp (1983–1990)
With some commercial success under his belt, Mellencamp had enough clout to force the record company to add his real surname, Mellencamp, to his stage moniker. The first album recorded under his new name John Cougar Mellencamp was 1983's Uh-Huh, a Top-10 album that spawned the Top 10 singles "Pink Houses" and "Crumblin' Down" as well as the No. 14 hit "Authority Song," which he said is "our version of "I Fought the Law'." During the recording of Uh-Huh, Mellencamp's backing band settled on the lineup it retained for the next several albums: Kenny Aronoff on drums and percussion, Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, Toby Myers on bass and John Cascella on keyboards. In 1988, Rolling Stone magazine called this version of Mellencamp's band "one of the most powerful and versatile live bands ever assembled." On the 1984 Uh-Huh Tour, Mellencamp opened his shows with cover versions of songs he admired growing up, including Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" and the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina."
Since college, Mellencamp has, with the exception of his continuing addiction to nicotine, lived a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle. In 1984, when asked about his views on drugs, he told Bill Holdship of Creem magazine, "If you want to stick needles in your arms, go ahead and fucking do it. You're the one that's going to pay the consequences. I don't think it's a good idea, and I sure don't advocate it, but I'm not going to judge people. Hell, if that was the case, you wouldn't like anyone in the music business because everyone's blowing cocaine."
In 1985, Mellencamp released Scarecrow, which peaked at No. 2 in the fall of '85 and spawned five Top 40 singles: "Lonely Ol' Night" (No. 6), "Small Town" (No. 6), and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to '60s Rock)" (No. 2), "Rain on the Scarecrow" (No. 21) and "Rumbleseat" (No. 28). According to the February 1986 edition of Creem Magazine, Mellencamp wanted to incorporate the sound of classic '60s rock into Scarecrow, and he gave his band close to a hundred old singles to learn "almost mathematically verbatim" prior to recording the album.
"Learning those songs did a lot of positive things," Mellencamp explained to Creem writer Bill Holdship. "We realized more than ever what a big melting pot of all different types of music the '60s were. Take an old Rascals song for example – there's everything from marching band beats to soul music to country sounds in one song. Learning those opened the band's vision to try new things on my songs. It wasn't let's go back and try to make this part fit into my song, but I wanted to capture the same feeling – the way those songs used to make you feel. After a while, we didn't even have to talk about it anymore. If you listen to the lead Larry [Crane] plays on 'Face of the Nation,' he never would have played that 'cause he didn't really know who the Animals were. He's young, and he grew up on Grand Funk Railroad. You hear it, and it's like 'where did that come from?' It had to be from hearing those old records."
Scarecrow was the first album Mellencamp recorded at his own recording studio, jokingly dubbed "Belmont Mall," located in Belmont, Indiana and built in 1984. Mellencamp sees Scarecrow as the start of the alternative country genre: "I think I invented that whole 'No Depression' thing with the Scarecrow album, though I don’t get the credit," he told Classic Rock magazine in October 2008.
Shortly after finishing Scarecrow, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in Champaign, Illinois on September 22, 1985. The Farm Aid concerts remain an annual event and have raised over $50 million for struggling family farmers as of 2016.
Prior to the 1985–86 Scarecrow Tour, during which he covered some of the same 1960s rock and soul songs he and his band rehearsed prior to the recording of Scarecrow, Mellencamp added fiddle player Lisa Germano to his band. Germano would remain in Mellencamp's band until 1994, when she left to pursue a solo career.
Mellencamp's next LP, 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, included the singles "Paper in Fire," (No. 9) "Cherry Bomb," (No. 8), "Check It Out," (No. 14) and "Rooty Toot Toot" (No. 61) along with the popular album tracks "Hard Times for an Honest Man" and "The Real Life," both of which cracked the top 10 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart. "We were on the road for a long time after Scarecrow, so we were together a lot as a band," Mellencamp said in a 1987 Creem Magazine feature. "For the first time ever, we talked about the record before we started. We had a very distinct vision of what should be happening here. At one point, The Lonesome Jubilee was supposed to be a double album, but at least 10 of the songs I'd written just didn't stick together with the idea and the sound we had in mind. So I just put those songs on a shelf, and cut it back down to a single record. Now, in the past, it was always 'Let's make it up as we go along' – and we did make some of The Lonesome Jubilee up as we went along. But we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to sound like, even before it was written, right through to the day it was mastered."
As Frank DiGiacomo of Vanity Fair wrote in 2007, "The Lonesome Jubilee was the album in which Mellencamp defined his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp."
During the 1987–88 Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp was joined onstage by surprise guest Bruce Springsteen at the end of his May 26, 1988 gig in Irvine, California, for a duet of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," which Mellencamp performed as the penultimate song during each show on that tour.
After the Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp divorced his second wife, Vicki.
In 1989, Mellencamp released the personal album Big Daddy, with the key tracks "Jackie Brown," "Big Daddy of Them All," and "Void in My Heart" accompanying the Top 15 single "Pop Singer." The album, which Mellencamp called at the time the most "earthy" record he'd ever made, is also the last to feature the "Cougar" moniker. In 1991, Mellencamp said: "'Big Daddy' was the best record I ever made. Out of my agony came a couple of really beautiful songs. You can't be 22 years old and had two dates and understand that album."
Mellencamp was heavily involved in painting at this time in his life and decided not to tour behind Big Daddy, stating: "What's the point?... This other step that people keep wanting me to take to become another level of recording artist – to be Madonna? To sell out? To bend over? To kiss somebody's ass? I ain't gonna do it." In his second painting exhibition, at the Churchman-Fehsenfeld Gallery in Indianapolis in 1990, Mellencamp's portraits were described as always having sad facial expressions and conveying "the same disillusionment found in his musical anthems about the nation's heartland and farm crisis."
Performing as John Mellencamp (1991–1997)
Mellencamp's 1991 album, Whenever We Wanted, was the first with a cover billed to John Mellencamp—the Cougar was now gone forever. Whenever We Wanted yielded the Top 40 hits "Get a Leg Up" and "Again Tonight," but "Last Chance," "Love and Happiness" and "Now More Than Ever" all garnered significant airplay on rock radio. "It's very rock 'n' roll," Mellencamp said of Whenever We Wanted. "I just wanted to get back to the basics."
In 1993, he released Human Wheels, and the title track peaked at No. 48 on the Billboard singles chart. "To me, this record is very urban," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine of Human Wheels in the summer of 1993. "We had a lot of discussions about the rhythm and blues music of the day. We explored what a lot of these (current) bands are doing – these young black bands that are doing more than just sampling."
Mellencamp's 1994 Dance Naked album included a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" as a duet with Meshell Ndegeocello. "Wild Night" became Mellencamp's biggest hit in years, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album also contained two protest songs in "L.U.V." and "Another Sunny Day 12/25," in addition to the title track, which hit No. 41 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1994. "This is as naked a rock record as you're going to hear," Mellencamp said of Dance Naked in a 1994 Billboard magazine interview. "All the vocals are first or second takes, and half the songs don't even have bass parts. Others have just one guitar, bass, and drums, which I haven't done since American Fool."
With guitarist Andy York now on board as Larry Crane's full-time replacement, Mellencamp launched his Dance Naked Tour in the summer of 1994, but a minor heart attack suffered after a show at Jones Beach in New York on August 8 of that year eventually forced him to cancel the last few weeks of the tour. "I was up to 80 cigarettes a day," Mellencamp told the Boston Herald in September 1996 about the habits that led to his heart malfunction two years prior. "We'd finish a show and I'd go out and have steak and french fries and eggs at 4 in the morning and then go to sleep with all that in my gut. It was just a terrible lifestyle."
He returned to the concert stage in early 1995 by playing a series of dates in small Midwestern clubs under the pseudonym Pearl Doggy.
In September 1996, the experimental album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which was produced by Junior Vasquez, was released to critical acclaim. "It's been fascinating to me how urban records use rhythm and electronics, and it's terribly challenging to make that work in the context of a rock band," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine in 1996. "But we took it further than an urban record. The arrangements are more ambitious, with programs and loops going right along with real drums and guitars."
Mr. Happy Go Lucky spawned the No. 14 single "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" (Mellencamp's last Top 40 hit) and "Just Another Day," which peaked at No. 46.
Recording for Columbia (1998–2003)
After the release of Mr. Happy Go Lucky and a subsequent four-month tour from March–July 1997 to promote it, Mellencamp signed a four-album deal with Columbia Records, although he wound up making only three albums for the label.
Issued a day before his 47th birthday in 1998, his self-titled debut for Columbia Records included the singles "Your Life is Now" and "I'm Not Running Anymore," along with standout album tracks such as "Eden Is Burning," "Miss Missy," "It All Comes True" and "Chance Meeting at the Tarantula." The switch in labels coincided with Dane Clark replacing Aronoff on drums. "On this record, we ended up quite a bit away from where we started," Mellencamp told Guitar World Acoustic in 1998. "Initially, I wanted to make a record that barely had drums on it. Donovan made a record (in 1966), Sunshine Superman, and I wanted to start with that same kind of vibe—Eastern, very grand stories, fairy tales."
He released a book of his early paintings, titled Paintings and Reflections, in 1998.
In 1999, Mellencamp covered his own songs as well as those by Bob Dylan and the Drifters for his album Rough Harvest (recorded in 1997), one of two albums he owed Mercury Records to fulfill his contract (the other was The Best That I Could Do, a best-of collection). In May 2000, he gave the Indiana University commencement address, in which he advised graduates to "play it like you feel it!" and that "you'll be all right." Following the delivery of his address, Indiana University bestowed upon him an honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts.
In August 2000, Mellencamp played a series of unannounced free concerts in major cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest as a way of giving back to fans who had supported him the previous 24 years. With a lo-fi setup that included portable amps and a battery-powered P.A. system, Mellencamp, armed with an acoustic guitar and accompanied only by an accordionist and a violist, dubbed the jaunt "Live in the Streets: The Good Samaritan Tour." At these dozen shows, which ranged in length from 45 to 60 minutes, Mellencamp covered a number of rock and folk classics and sprinkled in a few of his own songs. "Nobody's selling anything, there's no souvenirs—except what's in everybody's heart," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine. "Think about it: Isn't that where music started? To anybody who's said thank you to me, I say, 'You're very nice, but, really, thank you.'" 
The early 21st century also found Mellencamp teaming up with artists such as Chuck D and India.Arie to deliver his second Columbia album, Cuttin' Heads and the single "Peaceful World". Cuttin' Heads also included a duet with Trisha Yearwood on a love song called "Deep Blue Heart." "He played me this song," Yearwood told Country.com, "and he said, 'I kind of have an idea of like when Emmylou Harris sang on Bob Dylan's record, just kind of harmony all the way through.'"
Mellencamp embarked on the Cuttin' Heads Tour in the summer of 2001, before the album was even released. He opened each show on this tour with a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and also played a solo acoustic version of the Cuttin' Heads track "Women Seem" at each show.
In 2003, he released Trouble No More, a quickly-recorded collection of folk and blues covers originally done by artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Lucinda Williams and Hoagie Carmichael. The album was also dedicated to Mellencamp's friend, Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White, who died from a heart attack in 2002. In October 2002, Mellencamp performed the Robert Johnson song "Stones in My Passway" at two benefit concerts for White. Columbia Records executives, who were in attendance at the benefit shows, were so impressed with Mellencamp's live renditions of "Stones in My Passway" that they convinced him to record an album of vintage American songs, which ultimately became Trouble No More. Mellencamp sang the gospel song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" at White's funeral on July 2, 2002. Trouble No More spent several weeks at #1 on Billboard's Blues Album charts.
Words and Music and Freedom's Road (2004–2007)
Mellencamp participated in the Vote for Change tour in October 2004 leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. That same month he released the two-disc career hits retrospective Words & Music: John Mellencamp's Greatest Hits, which contained 35 of his radio singles (including all 22 of his Top 40 hits) along with two new tunes, "Walk Tall" and "Thank You" – both produced by Babyface but written by Mellencamp.
In 2005, Mellencamp toured with Donovan and John Fogerty. The first leg of what was called the Words and Music Tour in the spring of 2005 featured Donovan playing in the middle of Mellencamp's set. Mellencamp would play a handful of songs before introducing Donovan and then duetting with him on the 1966 hit "Sunshine Superman". Mellencamp would leave the stage as Donovan played seven or eight of his songs (backed by Mellencamp's band) and then return to finish off his own set after Donovan departed. On the second leg of the tour in the summer of 2005, Fogerty co-headlined with Mellencamp at outdoor amphitheaters across the United States. Fogerty would join Mellencamp for duets on Fogerty's Creedence Clearwater Revival hit "Green River" and Mellencamp's "Rain on the Scarecrow."
Mellencamp released Freedom's Road, his first album of original material in over five years, on January 23, 2007. He intended for Freedom's Road to have a 1960s rock sound while still remaining contemporary, and he feels that goal was achieved. "We wanted to make sure that it had the same feeling of some of the great songs from the '60s but also had the message of today and had the backbeat of today. I think we came up with a pretty timeless sounding album," Mellencamp told his online radio station in late 2006. "Our Country," the first single from Freedom's Road, was played as the opening song on Mellencamp's 2006 spring tour, and the band that opened for him on that tour, Little Big Town, was called on to record harmonies on the studio version of "Our Country," as well as seven other songs on Freedom's Road. Although Mellencamp had always been outspoken and adamant about not selling any of his songs to corporations to use in commercials, he changed his stance and let Chevrolet use "Our Country" in Chevy Silverado TV commercials that began airing in late September 2006.
"I agonized," Mellencamp told USA Today's Edna Gundersen in 2007 over his decision to license "Our Country" to Chevrolet. "I still don't think we should have to do it, but record companies can't spend money to promote records anymore, unless you're U2 or Madonna. I'm taking heat because no one's ever done this before. People have licensed songs that have already been hits, but nobody's licensed a brand-new song to a major company, and people don't know how to react."
Mellencamp sang "Our Country" to open Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, and the song was nominated for a 2008 Grammy Award in the Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance category, but lost to Bruce Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere." Freedom's Road peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 album chart by selling 56,000 copies in its first week on the market.
The T Bone Burnett era (2008–2013)
On August 13, 2007, Mellencamp began recording his 18th album of original material, titled Life, Death, Love and Freedom. The album, which was released on July 15, 2008, was produced by acclaimed roots producer T Bone Burnett. The first song with video, "Jena," was introduced on Mellencamp's website in October 2007. In an interview with the Bloomington Herald-Times in March 2008, Mellencamp dubbed Life, Death, Love and Freedom "The best record I've ever made." He signed with Starbucks' Hear Music label to distribute the album and said, "they think it's a fucking masterpiece." The album's first single was "My Sweet Love." A video for the song was filmed in Savannah, GA on June 9, 2008. Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town is featured in the video. She harmonizes with Mellencamp on "My Sweet Love" and provides background vocals to three other songs on Life, Death, Love and Freedom, which became the ninth Top 10 album of Mellencamp's career when it debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 the week of August 2, 2008. Like Freedom's Road, Life, Death, Love and Freedom also sold 56,000 copies in its first week on the market. In its list of the 50 best albums of 2008, Rolling Stone magazine named Life, Death, Love and Freedom No. 5 overall and also dubbed "Troubled Land" No. 48 among the 100 best singles of the year.
Mellencamp made a guest appearance at Billy Joel's concert of July 16, 2008 at Shea Stadium in New York, singing "Pink Houses."
On September 3, 2008, Mellencamp made available on his website a home-video recording of his solo acoustic cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" as a sign that the 2008 Presidential Election is going to bring about change in America.
On September 23, 2008, Mellencamp filmed a concert at the Crump Theatre in Columbus, Indiana for a new A&E Biography series called "Homeward Bound". The show features performers returning to small venues where they performed during the early stages of their careers. Mellencamp had last played at the Crump Theatre on October 4, 1976. The program aired on December 11, 2008 and also featured an in-depth documentary tracing Mellencamp's roots.
For the first time since the Whenever We Wanted Tour in 1992, Mellencamp toured Australia and New Zealand with opening act Sheryl Crow from November 15 – December 7, 2008. Crow joined Mellencamp on stage to duet on "My Sweet Love" during the last seven shows.
Mellencamp participated in a tribute concert for Pete Seeger's 90th birthday on May 3, 2009 at Madison Square Garden in New York City which raised funds for an environmental organization founded by Seeger to preserve and protect the Hudson River. Mellencamp performed solo acoustic renditions of Seeger and Lee Hays' "If I Had a Hammer" and his own "A Ride Back Home."
In the summer of 2009, Mellencamp embarked on a tour of minor league ballparks with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson that ran from July 2 – August 15.
While he was on tour, Mellencamp recorded a new album titled No Better Than This that was again produced by T Bone Burnett. The tracks for the album were recorded at historic locations, such as the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia as well as at the Sun Studio in Memphis and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Crossroad Blues." Mellencamp recorded the album using a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone, requiring all the musicians to gather together around the mic. The album was recorded in mono. Mellencamp wrote over 30 songs for the record (only 13 made the final cut), and he wrote one song specifically for Room 414 at the Gunter Hotel. "It's called 'Right Behind Me'. I wrote it just for this room," Mellencamp told the San Antonio Express-News. "I could have done this in my studio. But I want to do it this way, and if I can't do what I want at this point, I'm not going to do it. If it's not fun, I'm not going to do it. I'm through digging a ditch." No Better Than This was released on August 17, 2010 and peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200, becoming the 10th Top 10 album of his career. No Better Than This is the first mono-only release to make the top 10 since James Brown's Pure Dynamite! Live at the Royal, which peaked at No. 10 in April 1964.
On December 6, 2009, Mellencamp performed "Born in the U.S.A." as a tribute to Bruce Springsteen, who was one of the honorees at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. "I was very proud and humbled to have been able to play 'Born in the U.S.A.' in a different fashion that I think was true to the feelings that Bruce had when he wrote it," Mellencamp said. He performed "Down by the River" on January 29, 2010 in Los Angeles in tribute to Neil Young, who was honored at the 20th annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala. Mellencamp sang the hymn "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" at "In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement" on February 9, 2010.
A career-spanning box set of album tracks and demos titled On the Rural Route 7609 was released on June 15, 2010, nine weeks before No Better Than This hit stores. "If you didn't get deeper into the original albums and know these songs, it will be like discovering new material," Mellencamp said about On the Rural Route 7609.
Mellencamp, who co-headlined 11 shows in the summer of 2010 with Bob Dylan, launched the No Better Than This theater tour on October 29, 2010 in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. On this tour, which ran through the summer of 2012 and covered the entire United States and Canada and much of Europe, Mellencamp opened each concert with a showing of a Kurt Markus documentary about the making of No Better Than This called "It's About You" before hitting the stage to play three different sets: a stripped-down acoustic set with his band, a solo acoustic set, and a fully electrified rock set. "It'll be like Alan Freed, like the old Moondog shows," Mellencamp told Billboard magazine prior to the tour. "When you went to see his shows, there was a movie like 'The Girl Can't Help It' or something, and then three or four bands played. I'm gonna come out and play with upright bass and cocktail [drum] kits and a lot of acoustic instruments. I'll play for, like, 40 minutes that way. Then the band will leave and it'll just be me with an acoustic guitar for 40 minutes, and then there'll be 40 minutes of rock 'n' roll. You'll get three different types of John Mellencamp, and you'll get a movie." Mellencamp played for over two hours and included 24 songs in his setlist on the tour. He brought the No Better Than This tour to Europe in the summer of 2011, opening in Copenhagen on June 24. One reviewer called the opening gig of the European leg of the tour "maybe the best rock-performance ever in Denmark." The No Better Than This Tour returned to the U.S. for one final round of shows from Oct 25 – November 19, 2011. The tour finally concluded with a tour of Canada in the summer of 2012.
Mellencamp took part in two Woody Guthrie tribute concerts in 2012 as part of a year-long celebration surrounding the 100-year anniversary of the folk icon's birth.
On July 8, 2014, Mellencamp unexpectly dropped a new live album called Trouble No More Live at Town Hall. The album captures his live performance at Town Hall in New York City on July 31, 2003, in which he performed every track from his 2003 Trouble No More covers album in addition to a rendition of "Highway 61 Revisited" by Bob Dylan and reworked versions of three of his own songs. Two songs performed at the 2003 Town Hall concert, the 1962 Skeeter Davis hit "The End of the World" and the traditional folk song "House of the Rising Sun," did not make the final track list despite the album's official press release stating that the CD and digital versions "feature the complete 15-song concert."