Wall Street Journal: Born In A ‘Small Town’: How John Mellencamp Wrote The Song


When John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” was released on his “Scarecrow” album in September 1985, the song helped launch a form of heartland rock that celebrated family farms and blue-collar workers.

Originally written by Mr. Mellencamp as a valentine to his hometown of Seymour, Ind., “Small Town” reached No. 6 on Billboard’s pop chart in early ’86 while “Scarecrow” climbed to No. 2 on the album chart.

“Scarecrow” was reissued this month on the extra-thick 180-gram vinyl format by Mercury/UMe in advance of Mr. Mellencamp’s tour in the fall. Recently, Mr. Mellencamp, 64, looked back on the song’s evolution. Edited from an interview:

John Mellencamp: I was 12 when I first picked up a guitar. My family lived in Seymour, Ind., and my older brother, Joe, was the star of our high school musicals. In one show, he had to play some guitar chords, so my parents bought him a nylon-stringed model.

Once the musical was over, the guitar sat in the corner of the bedroom we shared. One day I grabbed it. My goal was to learn enough chords to play along with the songs I was listening to on the radio.

I never had a guitar lesson in my life and I still can’t read music. But I had a good ear and a feel for it. By 1965, I was in a soul band that played parties, dances and proms at local high schools and colleges.

I was 14 and the youngest kid in the seven-member band. The older musicians all knew American soul music inside and out. We covered obscure pop and soul songs by big stars, which exposed me to music that most people never get to hear.

I also learned about racism. Three of us in the band were white and the rest of the guys were black. The audience loved us when we played. Offstage, the black guys in the band were often met with racial slurs. I was offended at their treatment, not to mention my great-great grandmother was black.

After junior college, I went to New York hoping to get a record deal or be admitted to the Art Students League to study painting. After dropping off a demo tape at Main Man, the management agency signed me and cut a deal with MCA Records. They also insisted I use “Cougar” as my middle name. I hated that.

I had no songwriting skills, so my first few albums were awful. They featured mostly cover songs and early originals. Critics didn’t like me, so I knew that to make it, I’d have to write songs and convince radio to play them.

I began carrying a pad around and jotting down lyrics for songs I was working on. By 1984, I had written and recorded quite a few top-10 hits, including “Jack & Diane,” “Hurts So Good,” “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses.”

At the time, my label, Mercury/Riva, wanted an album from me every 18 months. In between I was on tour, so I was rarely home. But one day in ’84 when I was home in Bloomington, Ind., Vicky, my wife then, called me down to our basement laundry room. When I got there, a big box was on our clothes-folding counter.

I’m the worst speller in the world, so Vicky had ordered an electric typewriter with a built-in spell-check system. I tried to make sense of the owner’s manual, but I couldn’t figure it out. I’d put a sheet of paper in and start typing, but the words I misspelled weren’t being corrected.

Frustrated, I said to myself, “Well, I guess I’m just a stupid hillbilly. What do I know? I was born in a small town.” After a few more minutes with the typewriter, I began to realize it didn’t automatically correct misspelled words. It had a dictionary on a computer chip that identified words you misspelled and beeped to alert you to fix them.

I had my Gibson Dove, so I put the guitar strap around my neck and started playing and typing lyrics [he sings softly], “Well, I was born in a small town / And I live in a small town.” But as I typed my lyrics fast, the machine let off beeps to flag spelling errors: “All my friends—beep!— are so—beep!—small town / My parents—beep!—live in the same small—beep!—town.” Upstairs, I could hear Vicky and my Aunt Tootes, who was also our nanny, dying of laughter over the beeps. Finally I yelled out, “Would you guys shut up!”

Once the song started to come, it came fast. I’d sing some lyrics, type them out and play the music on my guitar. Then I’d start at the beginning to sing what I had to inspire additional lines.

Eventually I went upstairs, looked at Vicky and Aunt Tootes, and said, “I’m glad you guys think this is so funny.” They started laughing again. I said, “OK, now laugh at this.” I played them “Small Town,” and they went dead quiet. When you play what you’ve done for a family member and you get that kind of reaction, you know you have something.

For some time, my friends and I had been talking about how small towns and the people who lived there were getting screwed economically as America changed. Soon I realized that “Small Town” was more than a phrase of my own frustration. It was a song that felt as though Woody Guthrie had sent it to me from the grave.

That’s when I started working with Willie Nelson and Neil Young to organize Farm Aid. We planned a concert like Live Aid for September ’85 in Champaign, Ill. The purpose was to raise money for families trying to save their family farms from new laws that favored corporate farms.

The next step for “Small Town” was to arrange and rehearse it with my band. I had a second house a few minutes outside of Bloomington that operated as an office. I had added a recording studio and turned the two-car garage into rehearsal space.

In April ’85, the band and I went into the garage to arrange “Small Town.” I sat there like a conductor with the band facing me. There was no writing out parts. We had it all in our heads. I just told my drummer, Kenny Aronoff, what I wanted—a pounding beat—and we went to work.

“Small Town’s” opener was already written in my chord progressions. That was the hook line. The trick going forward was to keep the song simple and not over-arrange it. But we had a problem.

The song was verse-chorus, verse-chorus, verse chorus—it felt too same-samey. The solution was to add a bridge. In the garage, I took one of the verses [he sings softly]—“No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me / Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town / And people let me be just what I want to be”—and rewrote the melody to make it a bridge. This broke up the song’s sameness.

“Small Town’s” arrangement was critical. I knew there was no way I could walk out on stage and sing and play it acoustically. The audience would tune out. We also had to arrange the song in a higher key. Back then, I tended to write songs in a lower key and transpose them to a higher key later so I could belt them out on stage.

When the arrangement was done, we walked into the studio inside the house to record. I only sang on the record, I didn’t play. Larry Crane was on lead guitar. We finished the song in just two or three takes.

The only instrument we added later was John Cascella’s organ. For some reason, he wasn’t there when we had recorded. He came in later that night, and we overdubbed his part. At first, John kept trying to play complex stuff that didn’t work. Finally I said, “John, damn it, stop noodling around. Just go to those big chords.” What he played next was beautiful.

Before the single was released in November ’85, we needed something for MTV. In Bloomington and Seymour, we took out ads asking for snapshots and home movies. We were flooded with material.

John Mellencamp - Small Town
The video was good, but I always felt it ruined the song. Songs are meant for dreaming, and the video gave my lyrics a literal context. The focus was all on me instead of letting listeners imagine their own small-town experiences.

I never used that tan typewriter again. Now I have no idea where it is—probably gathering dust in one of my storage units.