Northwest Indiana Times: Seymour, Indiana - 'Ain't that America'

By Jane Ammeson - Times Correspondent

The "Small Town" that John Mellencamp immortalized in his 1985 hit song wasn't just an imagined Mayberry sort of place. Mellencamp, the rock singer and songwriter known for his heartland ballads, was writing about Seymour, Ind. , a town of about 20,000 just an hour south of Indianapolis.

There have been Mellencamps in Jackson County since the 1850s when a German immigrant, Johann Herman Möhlenkamp, settled in a nearby county.

Now an audio driving tour CD, "The Roots of an American Rocker," lets travelers listen to John Mellencamp's lyrics while visiting places important to him when he was growing up.

The folksy reminiscences include those from a woman he dated during his freshman year of high school. She recalls how Mellencamp tried to win her back by playing "Working My Way Back to You" on the telephone.

Though their romance didn't work out, Mellencamp later wrote a song titled "To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)" which talked about their stealing kisses underneath the porch. It was a song that would shock her grandmother.

Others who share recollections include Mellencamp's mother (who talks about him writing songs at 15 and how she threw away some of his music, only to be chastised by him telling her it was going to be "commercial"), his sister and brother, and former teachers and neighbors.

Seymour in those days was a place where kids caught lightning bugs, walked to school and came home for lunch and had ice cream sodas at places like Larrison's Diner at 200 South Chestnut St. in Seymour's historic downtown, a local eatery that first opened in the 1940s and a place where Mellencamp hung out. It's the first stop on the tour and since Mellencamp still stops by, there's always the chance he might be there.

Mellencamp, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, filmed "Falling from Grace," a 1992 movie which he directed and starred in, around Seymour. The movie tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a country star who tries to straighten out his life by returning to his southern Indiana roots. Scenes from the movie that are on the tour include the Schneck Medical Center and the Rok-Sey Roller Rink.

Other stops to check are the singer's boyhood home where he lived until age 14, the house where his grandmother, Laura Mellencamp, lived, the three schools -- Emerson Elementary, Shields Junior High and Seymour High School (he's honored on their Wall of Fame and if you want to see it, ask in the office and they'll show you) -- that he attended and the Rockford Ridge Restaurant, where food is still served, in that oh-so mid 20th century style, by car hops.

When Mellencamp heard that the two-story brick house with a broad front porch where he hung out with his friend Mark Ripley while growing up was for sale, he bought the house and used it when shooting "Falling from Grace."

It was a fortuitous buy. Besides being a musician, Mellencamp paints. For the nominal amount of $1 a year, he leases the home to the Southern Indiana Center for the Arts (SICA), another stopping point on the tour. It is the only place where his paintings are on permanent display.

The idea behind the audio driving tour developed more than a decade ago because of the constant stream of visitors from both the U.S and throughout the world who wanted to see what Mellencamp's "Small Town" was like.

And for those who love Mellencamp, co-founder of Farm Aid and someone who in his decades-long career has made 22 Top 40 Hits and won 13 Grammy Awards, this it it.

Seymour is indeed an old-fashioned town in many ways with its tree-lined streets, handsome historic houses and businesses that have been family owned for generations. For those driving and listening to the narration, it's easy to get a sense of the forces that shaped Mellencamp and why he would want to remain part of a place so integral to his music and who he became.

People were looking for something up close and personal regarding Mellencamp, said Jane Hays, public relations manager for the Jackson County Visitor Center.

"Taking the tour is like following in his footsteps," Hays said. "He's still an important part of us."

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