Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t work out. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.
On today’s episode of OHW, we examine the brief career of Ken Mellons, a hat act and longtime Nashville native who spent much of the 1990s on the roster of one major label or another. Most of his singles disappeared quickly like ripples on a pond (out of 11 single releases listed on Wikipedia, 10 failed to crack the Top 35), but there was one notable exception, a #8 hit from 1994 that felt far more ubiquitous at the time than its peak indicated:
“Jukebox Junkie” was one of those fun, uptempo numbers that can’t help but catch the listener’s ear, and for a moment it made Mellons a part of the country music conversation. However, he was never able to build on the song’s success, and within a few years he had all but disappeared from the scene. What happened?
After examining the evidence, it seems that “Jukebox Junkie” was not only a great song, but a great song for its time, and Mellons was never able to recapture that success…and then he fell into the clutches of a country music supervillain, and all hope was lost.
The Gateway Drug
Mellons’s style mimicked the old-school stars of the past (and one star in particular that’s we’ll talk about in a second), and it led him to a job at Opryland USA “impersonating country performers” and eventually a regular gig playing at the Grand Old Opry. His first record deal was signed with Epic Records in 1993, and his self-titled debut album arrived a year later.
Nashville, like the NFL, is a copycat league, and while the neotraditional sound of the era certainly made Mellon’s work a natural fit for the radio, what Music City really loves to do is find the next soundalike iteration of a current star (think of all the Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen clones clogging up the airwaves right now). For Mellon, his spiritual predecessor was clear: The man sounds almost exactly like John Anderson, a fellow old-school country star who had crashed fairly had in the latter half of the 80s, but then found a second wind in the early 90s behind hits like “Straight Tequila Night” and “Seminole Wind.” 1992 was Anderson’s best showing in nearly a decade (three top 10s, with #1s on either side of the year), and if Mellons could capture some of that same glory for Epic, he was worth taking a flyer on.
Mellon’s debut single “Lookin’ in the Same Direction” was basically a copy of Alan Jackson’s debut single “Blue Blooded Woman,” and like Jackson’s track, it went down in flames (it peaked at an awful #55 on the Billboard charts). The follow-up, however, was “Jukebox Junkie,” which became one of the most-played songs of the year and thrust Mellons into the mainstream spotlight. The magic left as quickly as it arrived, however, and neither of the next two singles from that album (“I Can Bring Her Back” and “Workin’ For The Weekend”) made it past #40.
So where did “Jukebox Junkie” succeed where its fellow singles failed? I think what happened is that it managed to find the sweet spot that Joe Diffie stumbled across with “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green”: It was a bit of a novelty song, but it had decent tempo, it was fun without feeling too silly, and its sound adhered closely to the meta of the era (which is to say, driven by rollicking electric guitars and punchy drums, featuring lots of fiddle and steel guitar, and seasoned with a tinkling piano). The song was the very definition of radio-friendly, and stuck the landing in a way that none of Mellons’s other work could.
Afterwards, Mellons alternated between more-serious fare and attempts to recreate the “Jukebox Junkie” magic, but nothing seemed to do the trick. His material wasn’t necessarily bad, but he fell into the same trap that a lot of artists today are stuck in: There was nothing that distinguished his work and made it rise above its peers. Songs like “I Can Bring Her Back” and “Stranger In Your Eyes” were decent ballads, but there was no reason to listen to them over the ballads of bigger names like Jackson or George Strait, and Mellon’s lighter material (“Workin’ For The Weekend,” “Rub-A-Dubbin'”) failed to find the same niche as “Jukebox Junkie”: The former felt a little forced and its sound was a little thin, and the latter overshot the mark and was too much of a novelty tune to have broad appeal.
It didn’t help matters that the genre was also shifting away from the neotraditional movement towards a pop-country sound. 1995 would mark the peak of Anderson’s last Top Ten single “Bend It Until It Breaks,” and was also the year Shania Twain earned her first #1 and began her reign atop country music. Fading fortunes and shifting tides conspired to make Epic decide to go in a different direction, and after two singles from a single album went nowhere, the label dropped Mellons from their roster.
Label instability is something that derailed a lot of careers in our deep-dive series, but plenty of artists have switched labels and found success as well, so when Mellons found a new home with a new label, he probably figured he still had a chance at mainstream success.
…Except that he signed with Curb Records, headed by the infamous Mike Curb.
My fellow Kyle over at Saving Country Music has compiled a list of Curb’s biggest blunders and pettiest moves, but the TL;DR version is that Curb does whatever he wants whenever he wants to whoever he wants, no matter how badly it makes him or the artist look in the process. He messed with LeAnn Rimes, he messed with Jo Dee Messina, he messed with Hank Williams III, he messed with Clay Walker, and he’s made a complete mess of Tim McGraw’s discography (9 compilations of McGraw’s hits? Really?). The bottom line is that this really doesn’t seem like a guy you wanted to go into business with.
I can’t find any specific statements detailing if/how Curb might have torpedoed Mellons’s career, but there’s an awful lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests that he did…
- Despite signing with Curb in 1997, Mellons did not release a full album on the label until 2001. His first two singles were left as single-only releases for several years (similar to what happened to Messina), and when the album was finally released, it was under the bizarre title The Best Of Ken Mellons, as if they were trying to fool consumers into thinking it was a greatest hits package (because we know Curb loves to release those…)
- I couldn’t find any direct statements from Mellons about his time at Curb, but the sources I did find indicated that he wasn’t thrilled about being there:
“Mellons subsequently parted company with Epic and, although he kept busy with live work and his fund-raising commitments, his recording career had largely stalled by the end of the decade due, in no small part, to record company politics.” (emphasis added)—Oldies.com, undated
“Frustrated with the label, Ken asked to be released from his record deal in 2003…” (emphasis added)—”The Music Know It All,” rareandobscuremusic, April 15 2020
We may never really know what went down at Curb, but we can infer that whatever it was, it basically put Mellons’s career on ice, and he wasn’t terribly happy about it. He was granted the release he wanted in 2003, but by then the industry had moved on, and later releases on independent labels (including “Paint Me A Birmingham,” which was released around the same time as Tracy Lawrence’s version but wound up nowhere near as successful) never found any traction. In 2005, Mellons decided to turn his focus to his family, and while he would release other records in the years to come, the book on his mainstream country career was essentially closed.
Could Mellons’s fate have been different under the direction of a different label? I think so, because Curb (at least according to the Wikipedia page) followed basically the same playbook that Epic did: Alternate between emotional-but-undistinguished ballads and silly novelty tracks. Mellons was a good-enough singer to hold his own behind the mic, and a label with better material and a better plan could have found a way to capitalize on Mellons’s strengths, even as the neotraditional movement faded.
So what derailed Ken Mellons’s county career? Honestly, it was a little bit of everything: Shifting trends in music, poor management and subpar business strategies, and Mellons’s own inability to elevate his music above his competitors and into the mainstream consciousness. Perhaps he was a man out of time, someone whose classic country instincts and influences meant that they missed their musical moment by a good decade or so, but I think there’s a plausible alternate timeline where Mellons seizes on his breakthrough and finds lasting success in Music City. Alas, that didn’t happen in this particular reality, but the stars did align for one brief moment, giving Mellons a taste of success that many aspiring artists never reach (ask Carlton Anderson if he would have rather have one hit and a short mismanaged career instead of getting kicked to the curb at the first sign of trouble). The success of “Jukebox Junkie” was a high that no drug could replicate, and it left enough of a mark that nearly thirty years later, us jukebox junkies still remember his name.
One thought on “One-Hit Wonderings: What Happened To Ken Mellons?”
Ken melons was a great artist . when I first heard him i thought he went to the John anderson Scholl of music and he also had the phrasing and twang of George Jones . and a little of sammy kershaw . The music was running to country pop crap. And good vocals were not in style . Even doud stone who had a very very good voice was in and out fast . nothing wrong with Ken melons . but country music took a dump .. Sounding like a young John anderson was not a bad thing. Of confederate railroad came out ten years later would the still be running from door to. Door of record companies waiting for country music to fix its mess up .