Pop and Rock Stars Hailing from the Hoosier State May Surprise You

Writer/Jeff Kenney

In a recent edition of The Lakes Magazine, we explored the perhaps surprising array of legendary musicians in the jazz genre (not to mention a pioneering studio specializing in it) who hailed from Indiana. Along related lines, readers are likely familiar already with a few commonly known names –the likes of Michael Jackson or John Mellencamp — in the pop or rock genres who hail from the Hoosier state. But the longer list, which even then is certainly an incomplete one, might surprise you. Let’s take a look. Indiana

Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and the Jackson Five. As mentioned above, one of the best-known pop music sensations to originate in Indiana happens to have gotten its start proximate to the Lakes Magazine’s readership area. Formed in Gary, Indiana in 1964 by family patriarch Joe Jackson, the Jackson Five signed with Motown Records in 1968 and released a string of hits including, “I’ll be There,” “ABC,” and “I Want You Back.” They even acknowledged their Hoosier roots with the song, “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” in 1971. Of course, several members of the group, whose popularity in their heyday was so great that they were the topic not only of television specials but the stars of their own animated series, went on to launch solo careers, most visibly the late Michael Jackson and sister Janet Jackson. The family’s modest childhood home still stands in Gary.

John Mellencamp. The rocker John Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana in 1951 and attended Vincennes University, playing in various bands along the way. By the 1980s, Mellencamp, who had performed and recorded under the names Johnny Cougar and John Cougar Mellencamp (though he later retained only the name John Mellencamp professionally), had a series of hits including “Small Town,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Jack and Diane,” among many others. Mellencamp’s “roots rock” style and lyrical themes have reflected his Indiana upbringing, often concentrating upon rural, small town, and agricultural themes. This was also borne out in his work as a co-founder and continued supporter of the Farm Aid endeavor, which sought to raise awareness and funds relating to the plight of the American farmer.

Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin of Guns N’ Roses. Axl Rose (whose birth name was the far more pedestrian-sounding William Bruce Rose Jr.) and Izzy Stradlin (that is, Jeffrey Dean Isbell) were not only born in Lafayette, Indiana, but met while attending high school there, forming a partnership central to the early basis for the monster hitmaking band, though it got its start officially in Los Angeles. Formed in 1984, GNR went on to sell millions of records including the likes of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle.”

David Lee Roth. Indiana-based fans of 1980s music are finding plenty to celebrate by way of this list, and rock band Van Halen stalwart David Lee Roth ups the ante. Not only was Roth born in Bloomington, Indiana (though he mostly grew up in New Castle), but he credits some of the success of his best-known musical venture, with Van Halen, to the values of the Hoosier State. He told a New Castle radio station in 2019: “My grandparents moved to New Castle in 1913. It’s in the sense of humor, the ‘get it done’ and how we do get it done approach work ethic of Van Halen, frankly. It’s a Midwest approach, not some flakey Hollywood horse manure.”

Roth saw great success, particularly in the 1980s, not only with Van Halen but as a solo artist in his own right.

Babyface. Born in Indianapolis, Kenneth Brian Edmonds was given his stage name, “Babyface,” by Parliament-Funkadelic legend Bootsy Collins due to Edmonds’ youthful appearance.

Working in the R&B genre, Babyface’s multi-Grammy and hit-making career has been marked more by his songwriting and production endeavors than his own solo work, and his track record is astounding. As a writer and producer Edmonds generated hits from the likes of TLC, Toni Braxton (with whom he won a Grammy award in 2014 for their duet album), Midnight Star, Pebbles, Bobby Brown, Usher, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Eric Clapton. The Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds Highway in Indianapolis pays tribute to his legacy.

Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe. Born in Terre Haute as Bob Alan Deal, Mars contributes another Hoosier connection to ’80s hitmaking bands, in this case heavy metal legends Mötley Crüe. In fact, it was Mars, whose family by then had moved to Los Angeles, who suggested the band’s moniker to bandmates Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx, who, with the addition of lead singer Vince Neil, launched the group in 1981. Ranked as one of the greatest metal bands in history, the group saw 22 top 40 hits and six top 20 singles over the course of its career.

Indiana Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon. Like the aforementioned Guns N’ Roses co-founders, Richard Shannon Hoon was born in Lafayette, though he was raised in nearby Dayton, Indiana. In fact, once he made the move to Los Angeles and joined his bandmates to form Blind Melon in 1991, Hoon became friends with GNR lead Axl Rose and even sang backup vocals on some of the latter band’s recordings.

Blind Melon’s biggest hit came in 1993 with the single, “No Rain,” but tragedy struck less than two years later when, in 1995, Hoon died of a drug overdose at just 28 years old. He was buried in the cemetery in his hometown of Dayton, Indiana.

John Hiatt. Multiple Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Hiatt grew up in Indianapolis, honing his skills playing there in his early years, where he defied narrow genre labels by way of his proficiency in blues, folks, country, and eventually New Wave and rock styles. Hiatt had a notable recording career of his own but made considerable impact as a songwriter, penning classics like “Across the Borderline” (covered by the likes of Freddie Fender and Willie Nelson), “Riding with the King” (a double platinum song covered by Eric Clapton and B.B. King), and “Thing Called Love,” whose recording by Bonnie Raitt became a hit single in 1989.


There have been a handful of musicians in the country genre to originate from Indiana, and a few have “crossed over” between the country and pop worlds, including:

Crystal Gayle. One of eight children (including country star Loretta Lynn) from the mining town of Paintsville, Pennsylvania, Crystal Gayle’s family (she was born Brenda Gail Webb) moved during her childhood to Wabash, Indiana. In their new, more urban setting in Wabash, the family’s exposure to more diverse cultural groups impacted Gayle’s musical influences as well. In the 1970s, Gayle’s more strict country music took on more of a pop style, and 1977 saw her hit, “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” cross over into international hit status, the first of many of her songs to do so. In fact, in 1999 she paid musical tribute to another Hoosier legend, jazz composer Hoagy Carmichael, with an album of American and jazz standards.

In 2015, the Wabash County Historical Museum renamed its theater, The Crystal Gayle Theater, in honor of her local roots.

Rich Mullins. Hailing from Lynn, Indiana, in Randolph County, late contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Mullins’ music was hugely impactful in the that genre but reached well beyond it as well. Among his other compositions, “Awesome God” and “Sometimes by Step” became praise and worship standards and those and others of his songs were performed or recorded by virtually all the most notable musicians in the contemporary Christian world.

Adam Lambert. Hailing from Indianapolis, Lambert combined his classical and theatrical vocal training to undergird a musical career that has sold millions of records.

Joshua Bell. While not a rock musician, violinist Bell, from Bloomington, has collaborated with an array of musicians and made a variety of television and movie appearances (both in front of the camera and in soundtrack recordings) to become one of the most recognizable and popular musicians in his field.

Honorable mention: Bill Monroe. Kentucky-born Monroe moved to Indiana in his teens and went on to become arguably theIndiana most recognizable name in the bluegrass genre. Perhaps most notable for Hoosiers, the bluegrass festival he founded in 1967 in Bean Blossom, Indiana (today the annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival) has become one of the premiere festivals of its kind in the world, drawing thousands to the small Indiana town each year.

Local historian Jeff Kenney is the Museum & Archives Manager for Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana.

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