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Mellencamp does Indiana proud CHRIS KATTERJOHN:

March 17, 2008

A friend of mine did a project once with Indiana rocker John Mellencamp and said he was one of the biggest jerks he'd ever met. It put a bad taste in my mouth.

Not one who was wild about his music to begin with, I liked him even less after that.

Well, the Hoosier musical icon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame March 10 after failing to get enough votes when nominated in both 2003 and 2005. My first reaction to the news was, "Big deal."

Other people were saying the honor was long overdue for Mellencamp, whose durability and record sales over more than 30 years in the business have earned him respect in the field, a loyal fan base and-I would guess-a sizable fortune.

I did my best to stay up to watch his acceptance speech on the live broadcast because I wanted to see just how big of a jerk he would be on national television. Unfortunately, I didn't make it past Madonna.

I would've been disappointed. The next morning, I was surprised to read accounts that Mellencamp's acceptance speech was laced with humility and gratitude.

What impressed me most was this comment he made to reporters before the ceremony: "People say to me-and I know they're trying to be nice-'Congratulations on getting in. ... It's about time.' I think, 'About time? I'm lucky to get in at all.' There's a lot of people who should be in before me, and they're not in yet."

In his speech, he noted he was also lucky to be alive thanks to a now-92-year-old doctor who operated on his spina bifida when he was an infant. He evoked the name of his grandmother who regularly told him, "Buddy, you're the luckiest boy in the world."

The folksy anecdotes weren't surprising coming from a guy born and raised in rural Indiana and who has built a career writing and singing about the trials and tribulations of the common man. But the attitude was.

It's made me rethink the man.

Certainly his career has been one to marvel at, and not just for its duration. He's evolved from a smart-alecky, greasy-haired kid with the stage name John Cougar to the hard-edged, thoughtful Mellencamp of today.

Over the years, his music has evolved from basic rock 'n' roll through acoustic ballads through blues standards and back again. His release due out later this year, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," is said to be yet another twist in his repertoire.

During that span, he has sung duets with an eclectic range of vocalists from Joan Baez and Indie.arie to Trisha Yearwood and Bruce Springsteen. He's recorded two albums that sold over 5 million copies each, including "American Fool," the best-selling album of 1982.

He's been a conscientious citizen, using his celebrity and status to bring attention to the plight of the family farm as a founding board member of Farm-Aid, a benefit now over 20 years old. He's been active in politics.

On the creative side, he's an accomplished painter and has acted in television and movies. His latest project is a collaboration with horror writer Stephen King called "Ghost Writers of Darkland County," a play that will debut in Atlanta in April 2009.

His one well-documented vice is cigarettes, which he still smokes at the rate of a pack a day in spite of a major heart attack in 1994 that put him out of commission for a year. (Before the heart attack, he was a four-packer, so he's trying.)

Obviously stubborn, he is also described as demanding, blunt and sometimes hard to get along with. Often, those traits go hand in hand with creativity, passion and conviction, and in Mellencamp's case, they surely do.

I guess one of the most telling things about the man is that, in spite of his hall-of-fame career, he's stayed in Indiana. He's a Hoosier through and through.

This Hoosier son has shown me a new side of himself, and now I think John Mellencamp has done us proud. And, yeah, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a big deal.



Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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