Mellencamp performs first public concert in Seymour since 1976

1976.

That’s the last time Seymour native John Mellencamp performed onstage in a public setting in his hometown.

On Saturday night, the 70-year-old put on an acoustic show at Chateau de Pique Winery and Brewery for the return of Southern Indiana Center for the Arts’ gala fundraiser, Artful Affair. The not-for-profit organization’s primary fundraiser hadn’t occurred since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mellencamp told the sold-out crowd of 400 he was there to support the arts center. One of his sons, Speck Mellencamp, serves as executive director, and they both are painters.

Plus, John owns the 1851 two-story brick mansion on the north side of Seymour and rents it to SICA for $1 per year.

When he was a kid, John said his best friend, Mark Ripley, lived in the home.

“Then when his parents died, I bought the house, and I was going to give it to Mark when we got to be my age,” Mellencamp said. “The only thing I didn’t count on was that Mark died.”

He then shared what it was like to grow up in Seymour, saying many people ask him about that.

“I really enjoyed growing up in Seymour,” the now-Bloomington resident said.

“When I was a kid, my grandparents on Friday night would take me to downtown Seymour on Chestnut Street, and that place was packed with people — farmers bringing in their stuff to sell and everything was family-oriented and owned. In my mind as a little boy, it was like a Norman Rockwell painting. It was a beautiful little town,” he said. “I enjoyed growing up here, and I’m so happy that my son has decided to come here and live.”

More than 30 years ago, Mellencamp said his mother, who also was a painter, suggested he turn the former Ripley home into an art community, rent it and make it a nonprofit.

“She and some other people and a guy named Don Hill got the place going, and much to my surprise, it’s still going today,” Mellencamp said of SICA, which was founded in 1991. “That’s why I came here tonight to support the arts.”

For the first Artful Affair in 1994, 160 people attended, and $10,000 was raised. Mellencamp contributed one of his original paintings and an autographed poster, which raised more than $1,800 in the auction.

That year and those that followed through 2014, the fundraiser was held at The Pines Evergreen Room south of Seymour. Mellencamp continued to donate autographed guitars and other memorabilia for the fundraiser.

Then the event returned in 2019 but didn’t occur in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic.

In its return Saturday, Artful Affair featured an art auction with works by Speck and John, Marvin Cherney, Alexander Winch and Silas Cheo, refreshments and live music from Indianapolis folk pop duo Lilly & Madeleine before Mellencamp performed.

“During the past two years, I have been telling Speck and the board that when we are able to bring back Artful Affair, it would have to be something different and really engage our supporters. I think we knocked it out of the park,” SICA board President Eric DiBlasi Jr. said. “It was a huge gesture on John Mellencamp’s behalf to agree to be a part of this event. The board, including myself, was pleasantly surprised and of course very grateful when it became official.”

Looking back at the income from Artful Affair in its heyday, the board used that as a goal for this year, and DiBlasi said they far exceeded it. SICA relies on memberships, grants and fundraisers for income.

“Of course, we expected this event to sell out, but not as quickly as it did, which was a good problem to have,” he said. “It was great to see the support of this event both in the ticket sales and the art auction.”

Mellencamp performed seven songs and shared stories in between each. He was joined onstage by Andy York, who has been a guitarist in his band for 28 years.

He opened with “Stones in My Passway” and then sang one of his hits, “Small Town.”

Before singing “Longest Days,” he shared a story about his grandmother. As he was growing up, she took him to the Nazarene church with her. When he was 35 and she was nearly 100, he went to visit her, and they talked about random things.

“She goes, ‘You know, Buddy, I think we need to pray,’” Mellencamp said. “She started saying a prayer we all know. Then all of a sudden, her voice started to raise a little bit and she got real excited, and it was just like the next thing I know, she’s going, ‘Me and Buddy are ready to come home.’ I looked at her and I said, ‘Grandma, Buddy is not ready to die. You’re almost 100. I’m 35. I have a lot more sinning to do.’”

Then it got real quiet, and they looked at each other.

“She said these words to me, and I turned it into a song. She looked at me and she said, ‘Buddy, you’re going to find out real soon that life is short, even in its longest days,’” Mellencamp said.

After that song, he did something he said he has never done before at a show: Take questions from the audience. He answered these questions: What’s the most surreal moment you’ve experienced? Do you keep in touch with the guys from Crepe Soul? How will Indiana University basketball do this year? When is your next studio album coming out? What’s the name of the new record? Who is your best friend?

His most surreal moment occurred in Los Angeles, California, when Bob Dylan was being honored.

“He talked about blues artists, and the only modern contemporary guy he mentioned was me,” Mellencamp said. “I’ve won all kinds of awards, but that meant more to me than being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all of that stuff, having the greatest songwriter of our generation acknowledge I had written a really good song.”

Crepe Soul was the first band he formed when he was 14, but Mellencamp said he hasn’t talked to those band mates in several years.

As for IU basketball, Mellencamp said he wishes the Hoosiers a lot of luck.

He recently announced he is recording his 26th studio album at Bellmont Mall Recording Studio in Bloomington and is planning for a 2023 release. During Saturday’s show, he said it will be called “Orpheus Descending,” and he will start an 87-stop tour in February.

Finally, he said his best friend is his family.

Back to the music, Mellencamp sang “A Ride Back Home” before performing the No. 1 single “Jack and Diane,” which was on his fifth album released in 1982, “American Fool.” The audience sang along to that one.

Next was a song he wrote with fellow Seymour native George Green, “Rain on the Scarecrow.” One day, they were sitting in Mellencamp’s kitchen talking about local small towns disappearing.

At the time, Mellencamp said he was 22 and “gainfully unemployed” except for playing in a band called Mason Brothers on the weekends, and Green was driving a Bunny Bread truck. They were trying to get money together to go to New York to record demos in hopes of getting a record deal.

A grocery chain was having a $5,000 scratch-off contest, and when Green learned he couldn’t participate because he was indirectly employed by the company, he encouraged Mellencamp to turn in the winning scratch-off and they would split it. Mellencamp agreed to do it, and he took the money to New York and landed a record deal.

“Courage is when you know that you’re licked, but you start and you go anyway. Even though you know you’re going to fail in the end, that’s what courage is,” he said. “That’s what it took, and that’s what I had when I was a kid.”

Why did he get the record deal?

“The girl who was sitting behind the desk, guess where she was from? Indiana,” Mellencamp said, drawing applause. “I would call that luck.”

Right after sharing that story Saturday, Mellencamp tossed a cigarette butt off of the stage, and a man in the audience yelled out he would donate $1,000 for it. He then walked up to the stage, pulled out a wad of cash and handed over the donation for SICA.

“See what I mean about being lucky?” Mellencamp said.

To close out his set, Mellencamp talked about helping launch Farm Aid in 1985 to benefit American farmers. After a press conference, country musician Willie Nelson offered Mellencamp some advice: Be nice to your audience.

“I was very lucky to have Willie say that because after that, I tried to be a little nicer to people because he was right,” he said. “There’s such a thing as the good neighbor policy. I’m going to mind my business, and you’re going to mind your business, but if you need a helping hand, I’m going to try to help you, and perhaps you would return the same to me.”

That was the thought behind his final song, “Pink Houses.”

“That is the spirit in which this country was built on — everybody helping everybody else, be kind to your neighbor, be friendly,” Mellencamp said.

“We don’t have to agree, but we don’t have to be mean to each other,” he said. “Just because we disagree on politics, it doesn’t mean that person you’re disagreeing with is the enemy. You may not like anything they have to say or agree with anything that they say, but this is America, and they have a right to say it, and they are allowed to have a right and you’re allowed to have your right. That’s what this country was founded on.”

After the show, those who purchased VIP tickets got their picture taken with Mellencamp. The night ended with the closing of the art auction.

“I don’t think anyone could have expected such a unique experience,” DiBlasi said. “John Mellencamp playing to a room of 400 is very unique itself, but the stories and crowd engagement with Q&As really made this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Artful Affair is planned again next year on the third weekend in September. The board hopes to have a spring fundraiser, too.

“This event more than anything was a celebration of community,” Speck said. “People from all over the county came together and were able to engage with so many different kinds of art. We are so grateful that people wanted to participate and support the arts center in this way.”

At a glance 

Southern Indiana Center for the Arts is at 2001 N. Ewing St., Seymour.

The gallery is open from 2 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and the pottery studio is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. People also can visit the Conner Print Shop-Museum or sign up for private art lessons.

For information, call 812-522-2278, visit soinart.com, like/follow SICA on Facebook and Instagram or email [email protected]