Chillicothe Gazette: This Small Town Was Rockin'

After vigorous campaign, John Cougar Mellencamp came to town for two concerts

of the Gazette Staff

John Lennon once said The Beatles were "bigger than Jesus."

Many consider that statement dubious, but there's no mistaking - for a few weeks 20 years ago - John Cougar Mellencamp was bigger than Santa Claus in Chillicothe.

On Dec. 16, 1987, Mellencamp - who Thursday became a member of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame - played two free shows at OU-C's Shoemaker Center.

"He called it his Christmas gift to the city," said Chip Arledge, a Frankfort native who was then program director at WFCB-FM (94.3).
When Mellencamp agreed to come to Chillicothe, he was one of the biggest stars in popular music.

In August 1987, Mellencamp released "The Lonesome Jubilee" - an album which became his fourth straight top ten on the U.S. charts. "Jubilee" followed "Scarecrow," a 1985 release that climbed to #2 in the land and spawned three top 10 singles.

He had also, along with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, established Farm Aid, an annual concert that helped focus attention on the plight of the family farmer.

"That's what people really should remember," said Arledge. "At the time, John was huge. And we got him to come because he's a man of his word."

A challenge
The story began in March 1986 when Arledge wondered if Mellencamp, who was an advocate for rural and small town life, would play a concert in Chillicothe - a small town much like Mellencamp's hit by the same name.
"I played the song and wondered aloud on the air if he would play here," said Arledge. "So, we challenged our listeners that we'd pay for it if they signed a petition to get John to play here."

Arledge figured, if challenged, Mellencamp would play in Chillicothe.

"John had a reputation of a person who was true to his word and his cause. He has always wanted to make a difference," he said. "I knew if we pushed the right button, he'd be in a difficult position to say no."

A petition circulated throughout Ross County - with people of all ages signing up and gathering signatures. When all was said and done, more than 6,000 people signed the petition asking Mellencamp to play a concert in Chillicothe.

By this time, word of the petition had reached the national media, including The Associated Press and USA Today, who all did stories and helped promote the cause.

Arledge then took the petition to Mellencamp's hometown, Seymour, Ind., and to the front door of his parents.

"They said, 'Well, he's playing a show in Bloomington tonight, so they helped me get in touch with John's people and we went there to present the petition."

After a two- to three-hour wait, Arledge, Mellencamp and then-Mellencamp manager Harry Sandler met and Arledge presented them with the petition.

"The first question out of their mouth was 'Where are going to play?' And I told them that we'd play in a field if we had to, but not to worry because we'd get them a place to play."

Now, we wait ...
At the time the petitions were presented, Mellencamp was in the middle of a world tour. Arledge knew it wouldn't happen overnight.
"I'm the type of person that believes the best in people until they prove me otherwise," said Arledge. "They didn't say no, so I believed it would happen someday."

Mellencamp and Sandler made no promises, but said they loved the idea and wanted to find a way to play the concert.

"They just said, 'Keep in touch.' And that's what I did," said Arledge.

For nearly a year and half, Arledge placed a monthly phone call to Mellencamp's management, in addition to attending any shows that got near Chillicothe.

At a November 1987 show in Cincinnati, Arledge got a glimmer of hope from Sandler.

"He said it could happen today or in ten days, but I knew it was getting close," he said.

As an upcoming concert in Columbus neared, Arledge called Sandler to "mooch tickets" to the show

"I'll never forget it, he said, 'You won't need those tickets because we're coming to Chillicothe.'" recalls Arledge.

After a few more discussions, the two sides decided Mellencamp would play two shows Dec. 16, 1987, at Shoemaker Center.

Time for action
From that point, Arledge remembers one thing very vividly - how the community responded.
Mellencamp footed the bill for production, hotels and other essentials, but security, a venue and several other logistics had to come together.

"If we needed something, the community stepped up to provide it," he said. "If we needed people for unloading trucks, a service club or someone came forward to help. Ohio University-Chillicothe, to my knowledge, never billed us for use of the Shoemaker Center. It was a true community effort.

"To me, (the concert) said everything about music, the holidays and a sense of community."

Getting tickets to the show ended up being a tough chore.

"The one caveat that Mellencamp had was that he wanted the people who signed the petition to be at the show, so now we had to figure out the best way to get the tickets into the hands of those people," said Arledge.

An advertisement in the Chillicothe Gazette told local residents to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope with a signature as it would have appeared on the petition by Dec. 8.

"We had to go back and match the signatures the best we could," said Arledge. "We did the best we could. I still believe that everyone that signed the petition and wanted to see the show got to see the show."

At the time, WFCB's mail was outpacing that of Santa Claus.

A local post office spokesman said the radio station had received more than 2,450 letters, while Santa pulled down about 20 letters.

'Small Town' comes alive
The shows - one each at 7 and 10 p.m. - both held huge, but well-behaved crowds.
Mellencamp started the shows with "Small Town" and rolled through the hits such as "R.O.C.K (in the U.S.A.)," "Jack and Diane," and "Lonely Ol' Night" and, by the time local man Tim Zeisler hopped on stage to sing "Pink Houses," Chillicothe had been captured by the Mellencamp mystique.

"What I remember about the show was standing up on the running track at Shoemaker Center and watching all those people have a great time, thinking, you know that maybe we just made a difference," Arledge said.

"You know, I've seen 1,000 different artists in concert and when people ask me what my favorite concert is I always tell them the second John Cougar Mellencamp show at Shoemaker Center in Chillicothe. It was just a special, special time."
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