On the downslide from pop stardom, a funny thing happened to John Mellencamp: He became a damned good songwriter and produced a couple of the strongest (and most underrated) rock records of the 1990s. People who wrote off the Indiana-bred singer from his "John Cougar" and "John Cougar Mellencamp" days have missed the development of a high-caliber songwriter and pop craftsman who has never abandoned his heartland roots but has still shown a willingness to stretch. Mellencamp's show Saturday at The Mark promises to be a pleasant surprise to all but his hardcore fans - who already know that he's grown into something special.

It wasn't an auspicious beginning for Mellencamp. His first few albums were terrible; "I hope you never find the first four," said Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp's musical director and guitarist. Those early records, under the name John Cougar, were produced by people outside the band and weren't reflections of what the singer or his comrades were capable of.

Yet Wanchic, who met Mellencamp at a recording studio in the mid-1970s and has been with him ever since, saw something in Mellencamp. "He had a star quality I recognized even as a kid," he said in an interview last week with the River Cities' Reader.

When the band started to produce its own work in the early 1980s, Mellencamp hit it big. In the early 1980s, American Fool ("the first that was really us," Wanchic said) and Uh Huh spawned hits such as "Jack & Diane," "Hurts So Good," and "Pink Houses." In 1985, Scarecrow brought a measure of critical respect, with "Rain on the Scarecrow" showing a maturity and social awareness that hadn't been obvious before. (Songs such as "R.O.C.K. in the USA," however, still showcased a fist-pumping rock star.)

While he would never have a string of hits like he did in the early '80s, Mellencamp continued to sell well and gain the grudging admiration of critics with records such as The Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy - two of Wanchic's favorites.

By the time the '90s rolled around, Mellencamp dropped the Cougar from his name and continued his artistic growth. Human Wheels came out in 1993 to universal praise, and it remains the singer's most accomplished work, a polished gem that combines stellar songcraft, arrangement, and performance.

A major heart attack in 1994 set Mellencamp back, but in 1996 he returned with Mr. Happy Go Lucky, a collaboration with dance producer Junior Vasquez. Somewhat surprisingly, the album didn't turn out to be a bald effort to boost sales by appearing more hip; Vasquez's production touches were subtle, and it's undeniably a Mellencamp record. Wanchic said that he and Mellencamp were recently admiring the album. "We actually accomplished a goal," Wanchic said. "We married the two [heartland rock and urban music] pretty successfully. It was kind of like our Sgt. Pepper."

Being on the wrong side of fame has its advantages, Wanchic said. "To endure past that [stardom] is the real exercise," he said. "We're now an enduring band." Mellencamp and his bandmates concentrate on "music for music's sake," he said, and they release material when they're inspired and when they're ready. "Product is not paramount in our minds," he said.

That age and respect - and the lack of label or audience pressure - mean that collaborations on the latest album (Cuttin' Heads) with artists such as Chuck D, India.Arie, and Trisha Yearwood don't feel strained.

Mellencamp is also something of a renaissance man. In 1992, he directed and starred in the Larry McMurtry-scripted Falling from Grace, and while the movie didn't break any box-office records, it was well-reviewed and showed Mellencamp to be a lot more sophisticated and talented than most had given him credit for. He's a painter as well, and he and the band are currently writing songs for a Jack the Ripper musical scripted by none other than Stephen King. (Mellencamp came up with the idea.) Wanchic said the band has finished five or six songs and promises that the show won't be a rock opera.

Even though Mellencamp is the star of the show, his band is an integral part of the writing and recording process. Mellencamp brings the bare bones of the song - "They come as folk songs," with acoustic guitar, melody, and lyrics, Wanchic said - and the band works with him on arrangement. "On the musical front, it's very collaborative," he added. "I don't like to see collaboration in lyrics. ... I want the message to be pure."

John Mellencamp will perform Saturday, November 9, at The Mark of the Quad Cities, with Alice Peacock opening. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $47.50 and $37.50.

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