The New Hoosier Playlist: Songs About Indiana

Louis Armstrong, John Mellencamp, The Jackson 5 and more pay tribute to the 16th state.

“Honest to Goodness.” So quaint! That motto, chosen by the Indiana Office of Tourism Development (a.k.a. Visit Indiana) to attract outsiders to the Hoosier State, received mixed reactions online shortly after its debut. Even so, the IOTD puts a positive spin on the phrase, with popular singer-songwriter and Indiana son Jon McLaughlin coming alongside to pen a ditty in honor of his home turf. This Indiana-centric song—ultimately uplifting if less frantic than the “Indy Is Happy” clip that circulated earlier this year—got us pondering other odes to the Hoosierland. Here’s our playlist set to pull at your nostalgic heartstrings:
“Honest-to-Goodness Indiana” — Jon McLaughlin (2014)
The title echoes the aforementioned tourism mantra, and McLaughlin’s ballad is sincere and earnest without pandering. While some may remain or claim to be unsure what “Honest to Goodness” implies exactly, it makes for a good chorus.

“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” — written by Paul Dresser (1897)
The Terre Haute native’s most famous composition pays homage to his Wabash Valley home—cornfields, hay, and sycamore trees included. So popular was the ballad, the Indiana General Assembly made it the official state song on March 14, 1913, the same year this recording by the American Quartet was pressed.

“Back Home Again in Indiana” — written by Ballard McDonald and James F. Hanley (1917)
The song borrows heavily from “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” including the opening suite, its melodic cues, and some romantic barnyard imagery. It’s often mistaken as the state’s official anthem, though, due to its annual performance at the Indianapolis 500. That Race Day tradition began in 1946, with Jim Nabors famously performing the song in his weepy baritone from 1972 through 2014.

“Can’t Get Indiana Off My Mind” — Hoagy Carmichael (1940)
Playfully pining for his homeland, Carmichael’s lounge-friendly tenor gracefully croons about the Wabash River and his friends back home. Bing Crosby would later cover the song.

“Indiana” — Louis Armstrong (1965)
An uptempo rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana,” Satchmo’s take on the timeless standard is more than tired lip service. Armstrong’s connection to the Hoosier State is profound: He made his recording debut in Richmond in April 1923 as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

“Goin’ Back to Indiana” — The Jackson 5 (1971)
Once Michael Jackson became famous enough to muscle out of his father’s abusive grip, he bolted for the gaudy isolation of his Neverland Ranch and seldom mentioned his traumatizing childhood in Gary. It’s with a sad sense of irony that a young MJ sounds so jovial at the thought of going home on this title track from The Jackson 5’s 1971 album.

“Small Town” — John Mellencamp (1985)
You knew this one was coming, didn’t you? While other Hoosier-born rock stars like David Lee Roth and Axl Rose dissociated themselves from their roots, Mr. Meg Ryan made a living embracing them—for better or worse. This ode to villages everywhere stands as a summation of the songwriter’s Hall of Fame career. He’s always been a cornball. But he’s our cornball, damn it.

“Indiana” — David Mead (2004)
This singer-songwriter is stuck driving through the Hoosier State while his baby is “riding those concrete canyons” of the big city. “Indiana’s the wrong place to be stuck in a car,” he sings. What? You don’t like our wide swaths of corn and soybean farms, David Mead? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, friend.

“Back to Indiana” — The Elms (2009)
Owen Thomas can’t tell you why he loves his Indiana-bound lady in her evening gown. All he knows is that he’ll spend four minutes in a music video dashing from New York City to a gravel road in the heartland to see her. Run on, fella.

“Indiana” — Jon McLaughlin (2009)
Him again! Rather than get teary-eyed over a scenic beach or a cascading mountain, McLaughlin waxes poetic about the everyday detail of his Indiana home. “I love the miles between me and the city,” the chorus begins. Too bad a faceless woman haunting this ballad doesn’t reciprocate his sentimentality.

“Indiana” — Melissa Etheridge (2010)
This one starts with a bummer: A baby girl is born and immediately disowned by her father. Raised by her mama to be tough as an Indiana winter (read: barn strong!), she finds the initiative to move to the Big Apple. There she stumbles into a life of wealth and fame, only to realize she was happier back home. If this song were given the movie treatment, it would star Lindsay Lohan and appear on the Lifetime network. (Slice of trivia: Etheridge herself formerly summered on Lake Wawasee.)

“Pizza King” — Wussy (2011)
Before Wussy vocalist Lisa Walker uprooted to Cincinnati and co-founded one of America’s most critically acclaimed bands, she grew up bored and restless in Muncie. This droning slice of Midwestern ennui name-checks her hometown in addition to Terre Haute, Valparaiso, pay lakes, and the state’s greasiest homegrown pizza chain.