Tim Wright, dwarfed by part of the downtown mural, used to play guitar with John Mellencamp during the early days of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s career.  Staff photo by Lew Freedman
Tim Wright, dwarfed by part of the downtown mural, used to play guitar with John Mellencamp during the early days of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s career. Staff photo by Lew Freedman
John Mellencamp looms over downtown Seymour the way his music carried him to international fame — in larger than life fashion The 35-foot by 52-foot mural on the outside wall of This Old Guitar Music Store honors the community’s favorite son for his words and tunes in a manner that can be inspirational to presentday youth, because yes, he was born in a small town, and it was this small town.

Activity was light Wednesday at Mellencamp Plaza and the Mellencamp mural on the eve of his 70th birthday, most likely because there were intermittent raindrops much of the day. Rather than recline at the tables and benches on the grassy, fenced plaza adjacent to the arresting homage, passersby inclined their necks to look up, as if to take note and say, Yep, it’s still there.

Not that long really, though, only since fall of 2019. It is the work of artist Pamela Bliss, with some bonus touches provided by first-graders at Seymour-Redding Elementary School taught by Mellencamp’s sister Janet Kiel.

The idea was generated by the late Larry McDonald, a drummer with Mellencamp years ago, and proprietor of the store. Son Matt runs the shop now. The store is pretty much the universal hub of Mellencamp memorabilia, walls covered with photographs of the man, the mural and friends marking time periods in his career, including the era when he went by the name John Cougar.

And also including a few items related to “The Mellenheads,” a devoted group of about eight fans who make an annual pilgrimage to the store, the mural and once as a group sang “Small Town” inside the building.

“He was so proud of it,” Matt McDonald said of how his father felt about the completed mural.

The art is a showstopper and over a short period of time has gained considerable attention by word-of-mouth, through on-line sites and those in officialdom in Seymour. Matt McDonald said it seems everyone who pauses to see the mural also pauses at the shop.

Since he has not kept a running tally, the younger McDonald cannot report how many countries have been represented, though Australia is definitely one of them. Plus, a wide variety of states.

“It’s people from everywhere,” McDonald said.

Not long ago, two “ladies traveling from California to Bedford and their GPS routed then down Second Street,” he said, even though that made little sense. They saw the mural, going, “Whoa, what is this thing here?”

McDonald said it is fine with him if GPS never corrects its directions, sending all future road trippers past his door at 106 W. Second St.

On a sunny weekend day, especially Saturdays, McDonald said, crowds may form to gaze at the art and pose for pictures.

Mayor Matt Nicholson said the mural has become a marvelous tourist attraction. If he is passing the corner and sees people trying to arrange souvenir photographs he stops and volunteers to snap one for them.

“I go, ‘Hey, can I take a picture for you?’” Nicholson said. “I get a kick out of it.”

Unless they ask who he is, Nicholson said he doesn’t tell them he’s the mayor.

“I just smile and take the picture,” he said, echoing McDonald. “People that show up are not only from around Seymour, but from around the world really.”

Mellencamp was born in Seymour on Oct. 7, 1951. His many hits include “Small Town,” “Pink Houses,” “Jack Diane” “R.O.C.K in the U.S.A” and “Cherry Bomb,” 22 top-40 hits in all. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.

The mural seems to ring true to Seymour residents, those who know Mellencamp, those who never met him and fans who just admire his music. Mellencamp literally gave his stamp of approval when he made a surprise visit to the workin- progress and placed his initials “JJM” on it.

Rolling Stone once wrote of Mellencamp: “Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience. His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way …” Mellencamp was one of those people. He was no overnight sensation coming out of high school or Vincennes University. He was more of a struggling artist.

On Wednesday, Tim Wright, 70, of Seymour, looked over the mural as he walked past. A guitarist who said he played with Mellencamp decades although they have drifted apart, Wright said he rode in the automobile with Mellencamp and his first wife to an Indianapolis studio when the musician cut his first demo tape.

That recording went nowhere, Wright said, but “He stayed with it. I knew John had the talent.” Mellencamp’s story — and the mural — Wright said, symbolize that “It can be a common person and he can make it.”

The left side of the mural portrays a very tall Mellencamp, a middleaged version with some gray in his whiskers, hands resting on a guitar as if it was a comforting prop to lean his weight on. This Mellencamp seems confident and successful, the guy who made it.

On the opposite right side corner, a smaller Mellencamp, wearing a blue jeans jacket with some local insignias on the back is portrayed facing the other direction. This is a younger Mellencamp, seemingly a tad insouciant and rebellious, but one who knows he is going places.

Without truly ever, however, really leaving Seymour behind. The words, lyrics, “I Was Born In A Small Town,” in white lettering, in the middle of the mural, say so much. Mellencamp has written many memorable songs, but those words probably mean the most to Seymour residents, to family members and friends he grew up alongside.

Kenneth Keefer, 63, of Seymour, who Wednesday happened to be wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd top, showing off one musical allegiance, said he was on his daily walk passing the mural. Keefer said he attended an early Mellencamp show on Chestnut Street when John Cougar albums were given away. He said he still has four of them.

“He can write music,” Keefer said. “I love the mural. I love it to death. It shows a part of Americana you don’t see much anymore. I tell everybody about the mural.”

It can be peaceful in the plaza at the corner of Second Street and Indianapolis Avenue during work hours. Some choose to picnic there and Matt McDonald said he sees John’s father Richard eating lunch there with regularity. Mellencamp family donated $50,000 to the construction of the plaza a year ago.

It was not as quiet when a train rumbles through, another signature Seymour historical connections. The trains produce steady music of their own, clattering and clanging along not quite in harmony with “Pink Houses.”

In late afternoon, Jim Wintz of Batesville, a guitarist himself, who had previously seen the mural through a friend’s electronic transmission, saw the mural in person for the first time.

“It’s hard to be from Indiana and not be a John Mellencamp fan,” Wintz said.

Instructors and pupils who use This Old Guitar Music Store for lessons, are surrounded by John Mellencamp, the mural, the plaza, decades of photographs.

Allison Green, 22, a violin teacher from Scipio, who said her favorite Mellencamp tune is “Jack & Diane,” said being at ground zero of Mellencamp history is notable.

“It’s amazing,” Green said. “It seems really special. I feel really privileged to work in a shop where it is so connected.”

Everyone in Seymour feels somewhat connected to John Mellencamp and the mural just makes the link stronger.
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