By the beginning of the ’80s the genre called heartland rock which came to prominence a decade before seemed to be falling out of favor with mainstream audiences. That was until John Cougar came along and gave it some needed variety. Sure Bob Seger and Tom Petty had a string of hits during the period and Bruce Springsteen would later blow the genre into the pop major leagues, but in 1982 heartland rock was still the music of farmers, factory and construction workers in the Midwest according to all those Chevy and Ford pickup truck commercials.
That would start to change with American Fool. John Melloncamp had been recording since the mid ’70s under the name John Cougar. They were mostly forgettable and overlooked albums that fail to get much traction. Produced by Don Gehman, who brought focus and discipline to the production, American Fool was still plagued with problems. Fortunately, a tighter band and moments of polished songwriting with a focus on storytelling was the result.
More importantly Melloncamp was finally able to capture an idealized plight of hopelessness from the Midwestern hillbilly/redneck (the type of people usually ignored in rock, but praised in country). He packaged it in such a way that appealed to sophisticates on the coasts who considered Mellencamp’s home turf of Indiana as flyover country.
That kind of high end spokesman of the low end is how I have imagined Mellencamp’s music every sense the American Fool. Springsteen and Seger might have represented urban factory workers, but Melloncamp brought workin’ man’s rock to the farms and small towns of the Midwest. using some of the conventions of country and folk music.
While not quite the soaring patriotic truck commercial music of Bob Seger or the populist rock of Bruce Springsteen -Melloncamp’s (or Cougar) had found a kind of artistic middle ground. It would shape his later career as John Melloncamp moving forward.
With a string of hit songs like the catchy “Hurts So Good” and the sparse yet beautiful classic “Jack and Diane”, American Fool combined elements of country and blues in a workin’ mans rock aesthetic. It might have been cookie cutter had it not been Southern Indiana scruff he brought to the production. And to think his record label was expecting a Neil Diamond styled record.
Due to the sudden success of American Fool, Melloncamp came across as a new artist and used the opportunity to revert to his real name in subsequent recordings. While it might not have been the best album of the year, like much of the music in its genre, it still sounds relevant today due to the light influence of synthesizers and electronic measures that were quickly becoming the standard of the time.
’82 was a tough year for anyone that was not Michael Jackson,Toto or Fleetwood Mac, yet American Fool with it’s 3 singles managed to reach #1 for a few weeks. American Fool might not be Melloncamp’s best album but its where he refined his sound to the point of becoming the artful ambassador for the American Heartland.