John Mellencamp “Small Town” Meaning [Explained]

“Small Town,” written by John Mellencamp, is a tribute to his experiences of growing up in Seymour, Indiana. Unlike many entertainers who relocate to larger cities for opportunities, Mellencamp returned to Indiana after a stint in New York City, setting up his recording studio, Belmont Mall, near Nashville, Indiana.

Instead of focusing on the confines and limitations of small-town life, Mellencamp’s song celebrates it, drawing from his personal experiences. 

In this article, we’ll explore the alluring meaning behind “Small Town” and what the song represents to John Mellencamp.

Lyrics Interpretation

Before we delve into the story behind this song, let’s take a closer look at each verse of the lyrics.

Verse 1: A Life Spent in a Small Town

Well, I was born in a small town

And I live in a small town

Probably die in a small town

Oh, those small communities

From the very opening lines of the song, Mellencamp paints a vivid picture of his life. He was born, lives, and expects to die in a small town, emphasizing the importance of community in his life. The repetition of “small town” throughout the song serves to underscore his connection and attachment to his hometown, a testament to the strength and value of smaller, tightly-knit communities.

Verse 2: Small Town Relationships

And all my friends are so small town

My parents live in the same small town

My job is so small town

Provides little opportunity

In this verse, Mellencamp explores the relationships and experiences that shape life in a small town. The social dynamics of his community – the familiarity of friends and family, the security of having a local job – are relatable aspects of small-town life. Though he acknowledges the limited opportunities in terms of career, it’s evident that the familial bond and camaraderie inherent in such communities are worth the trade-off.

Verse 3: Values and Experiences in a Small Town

Educated in a small town

Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town

Used to daydream in that small town

Another boring romantic, that’s me

Mellencamp digs into the foundations of his personality here, attributing his values and perspectives to his upbringing in a small town. His education and religious instruction shaped him, and the culture of his town nurtured his romantic ideals. He seems to take pride in being a “boring romantic,” suggesting an appreciation for simplicity and authenticity.

Verse 4: Small Town Transformations

But I’ve seen it all in a small town

Had myself a ball in a small town

Married an L.A. doll and brought her to this small town

Now she’s small town just like me

Mellencamp stresses the transformative power of small-town living here. Despite the seeming limitations of a small town, he’s experienced a full life, even bringing an “L.A. doll” to share his way of life, and she eventually assimilates into the small-town lifestyle.

Verse 5: Identity and Authenticity in a Small Town

No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from

Cannot forget the people who love me

Well, I can be myself here in this small town

And people let me be just what I wanna be, yeah, yeah, yeah

The lyrics highlight Mellencamp’s strong sense of identity tied to his hometown. He can’t forget his roots or the people who love him. The song communicates a strong sense of authenticity and freedom – in a small town, he is free to be himself without the pressure of pretense.

Verse 6: The Small Town and The Big City

Got nothing against a big town

Still hayseed enough to say, ‘Look who’s in the big town’

But my bed is in a small town

Oh, and that’s good enough for me

Here, Mellencamp contrasts small-town life with city living. He acknowledges the allure of the city but asserts his preference for the simplicity and familiarity of his small town. He finds comfort and fulfillment in the modesty of his small-town life.

Verse 7: Final Reflections

Well, I was born in a small town

And I can breathe in a small town

Gonna die in this small town

Oh, and that’s probably where they’ll bury me

As the song concludes, Mellencamp comes full circle. The song is not only an affirmation of his deep connection to his hometown, but also a celebration of the small-town values and way of life that shape and nourish him.

True Meaning Behind “Small Town”

John Mellencamp wrote “Small Town” about his own life, growing up in the modest confines of Seymour, Indiana. He took a crack at big city life, moving to New York City after scoring a record deal, but it wasn’t for him. He felt swamped, creatively stuck, and it just didn’t vibe with him. He high-tailed it back to Indiana, his safe haven, and set up a recording studio close to home. Instead of yearning for an escape, Mellencamp embraced the small-town life in his music, especially in this track.

When the song hit the airwaves, the media were quick to label Mellencamp the champion of small-town America. Mellencamp wasn’t really trying to make a statement; he was just singing his truth. Still, his music resonated with folks living in similar situations across America, like David Masciotra, author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour. Masciotra said it best, “Small Town” is a powerful tune that celebrates and acknowledges the worth and dignity of folks living in towns off the cultural map.

A huge fan of the 60’s music, Mellencamp couldn’t resist weaving in riffs from classic songs of that era in his tracks. Fun fact, you can hear a bit of The Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again” on the bridge of “Small Town.”

In a chat with Rolling Stone, Mellencamp admitted he penned this song after getting a tad frustrated with some New Yorkers who saw him and other folks from the Midwest as hayseeds. He wanted to say, ‘Hey, you can live a full life without being in the big city.’ The idea of needing to escape never occurred to him. He valued family, friends, and the tight-knit community he grew up in.

The success of “Small Town”? Mellencamp chalks it up to one simple fact – it makes people feel good. In contrast, some of his other songs that highlight challenges, like the struggles of American farmers, aren’t as commercially successful.

Oh, and that line, “Married an LA doll and brought her to this small town?” That’s about Mellencamp’s second wife, Vicky Granucci. They got hitched in 1981 and had two daughters before they split up. Post Vicky, he married Elaine Irwin, who was 17 years younger. Sometimes he’d sing, “My wife was 13 years old growing up in a small town when I wrote this song.” A little trivia there for ya!


“Small Town” is Mellencamp’s tribute to his roots and a celebration of the everyday life and values that are ingrained in the heartland of America. And whether he intended to or not, he sure became a voice for all those living in small towns across the country.

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