A pop radio staple for three decades, Grammy-award winner John Mellencamp was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2008. A native of the Jackson County town of Seymour, which would be immortalized as the “ Small Town” of his eponymous 1985 hit, Mellencamp took a two-year degree from Vincennes University and left for New York City in 1975. Performing and recording as “Johnny Cougar” in his early years, the singer-songwriter started cranking out Top 40 hits in 1979. Citing influences from Woody Guthrie to Motown, Mellencamp went from writing innocent love songs to those increasingly flavored with the vernacular imagery of the heartland.
By 1985, those images were the bleak Midwestern portraits on the critically acclaimed album Scarecrow , the first of many recorded in his Brown County studio. Mellencamp’s concern for the beleaguered family farmer transcended the purely literary when he collaborated with fellow musicians Neil Young and Willie Nelson to organize a benefit concert in 1985. Since the inaugural show in Champaign, Illinois, Farm Aid has staged shows around the country—Indianapolis playing host in 1990 and 2001—to raise more than $30 million to keep family farms afloat. Mellencamp has maintained his primary residence in Indiana, as he explained to a television journalist in 1981, because “…if you ever talk to a farmer on a tractor, he’s got a lot to say. To me those are the real people…the real item.”
Although considerably less splashy than his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, less publicized awards have acknowledged Mellencamp’s efforts for social justice, from Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef Special Music Industry Humanitarian Award in 1991 to the ASCAP Foundation Champion Award in 2007. Within Indiana, Mellencamp’s philanthropic efforts have extended to Indiana University and Seymour’s Southern Indiana Center for the Arts, where a permanent exhibition of the musician’s forays into the visual arts is on view.