Larrison’s Diner locked up at 3 p.m., and we arrived with just five minutes to spare. My husband and I were in Seymour, taking an audio tour of John Mellencamp’s boyhood haunts, and the throwback grill was the first stop. “We know you close soon,” I said as we slipped in. “May we just have some sodas to go?” Instead, the Larrison’s crew insisted we sit down for a cheeseburger and a root-beer float.
Inspired by Jeff Vrabel’s list of Mellencamp’s best Indiana concerts (“R-O-C-K in the Hoosier State”), we drove Seymour’s back roads listening to the voices of those who knew the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer way back when, on a CD we picked up at the Jackson County Visitor Center. The tour presents the small-town imagery of Mellencamp’s music: skating at the Rok-Sey roller rink; kicking up dust dancing in a gravel parking lot; cafe owners who treat you like neighbors, even if you’re not.
Cruising past cornfields reminded me that despite his prickly nature, Mellencamp has always embraced his roots, from becoming an unofficial mascot for Indiana (“I’m going to die here,” he told Rolling Stone) to co-founding Farm Aid, which has raised $45 million to help family farmers. It’s a way of life many of the people highlighted in this month’s Homegrown feature still carry on.
Yet bring up Mellencamp’s name in conversation in this part of the state, and you’ll likely get a yeah-yeah-we-get-it eyeroll. Although I grew up 500 miles away, I seem to like Mellencamp more than native Hoosiers do—or at least have a much less complicated relationship with the man and his music.
Granted, I can see getting burned out on having the guy used as shorthand for Indiana itself. But to me, there’s not much to be ashamed of. Here is someone unapologetically himself, evolving his (critically acclaimed) music, often channeling the downtrodden, when he easily could have made bank by being a Johnny Cougar caricature. Respected by other socially aware rockers like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. A renaissance man who paints, for goodness’ sake!
So look for me at his August 4 concert at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. I’ll be the one in the dusty jeans, white T-shirt, and red bandanna. Unapologetic, just like John.
Amanda Heckert is the editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Monthly.