Initially, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was supposed to be a collection of spiritual country duets with Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. While prominently featuring Cash on duet vocals for five of the 13 songs, John Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album only includes one tune the two artists wrote together.
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. They started working together in 2012 in connection with Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical for which Mellencamp collaborated with author Stephen King and veteran producer T-Bone Burnett. He subsequently invited Cash to sing a song he had written as part of the music score for Ithaca, a drama motion picture released in Oct 2015 and directed by his then-girlfriend Meg Ryan. “That was when we became friends, when I went to Indiana and recorded with him and the guys this really cool song called Sugar Hill Mountain that’s in the movie,” Carter told Songfacts.
Carter also joined Mellencamp as the opening act on his extensive 2015-2016 tour in support of his previous album Plain Spoken. It was during that tour when the initial idea for Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was conceived. “It started out like ‘Look, lets go back and do an old country religious record,” Mellencamp said during an interview with Yahoo! News’ Katie Couric. “‘We’ll try to write songs that sound like those songs, but they’ll be new.’ And then it just kept evolving and evolving and evolving, and the songs that she was bringing and the songs that I was bringing – they weren’t so religious. I write a lot of sad songs, so it’s like Sad Clowns & Hillbillies – that’s where it came from.”
The album pretty much picks up where Mellencamp’s previous 2014 studio release Plain Spoken left off, featuring mostly acoustic, stripped down, front porch type roots music. This record is not for the multi-tasking generation; instead, it’s an invitation to sit down and listen. The album is also very different from Mellencamp’s ’80s rockers like Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., which I dearly love and which attracted me to him in the first place. Of course, his departure from the straight rock sound these songs represent started a long time ago. It was 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee that for the first time introduced more traditional folk and country music instruments like accordion and fiddle to Mellencamp’s songs.
The one exception that sounds more like vintage Mellencamp is Grandview, the album’s second and current single, for which Martina McBride is joining him on vocals. You could easily picture the tune on 1985’s Scarecrow or 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. That’s not a surprise – Mellencamp co-wrote it with his cousin Bobby Clark in the 1990s. He told the Indianapolis Star the current version “includes some vocals he recorded in the ’90s and some recorded this century.” The song also features Guns N’ Roses’ co-founder and former rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m not gonna deny it – I wouldn’t have minded, if Mellencamp had included one or more rockers like this one!
The opener Mobile Blue pretty much sets the tone for the album. The combination of violin (Miriam Sturm), Hammond-like keyboards (Troye Kinnett) and of course acoustic guitars, some mandolin-like, creates a beautiful, warm and rich sound. Written by American country singer-songwriter Mickey Newbury, the song is one of the two covers on the album. The other one is Early Bird Cafe, a folk song from Lane Tietgen, which was first recorded by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood in 1970. Mellencamp saw that band in the early ’70s, has liked the song ever since, and has performed it solo on acoustic guitar on various occasions throughout his career.
Indigo Sunset is only tune co-written by both artists. Carter and Mellencamp alternate lead vocals. Her traditional country voice and his rougher instrument that briefly join toward the end of the song are a perfect match. Together with the great Hammond-like keyboard (not sure whether it’s an actual Hammond!) and the seductive violin sound, this makes the tune another standout on the album. Damascus Road is the only song Carter penned all by herself. With biblical-like references throughout the lyrics, it’s evident the tune reflects the record’s original idea.
The closer Easy Target presents Mellencamp with his most raspy voice – one review I can no longer find compared it to Tom Waits after he had cleared his throat! Mellencamp’s gravelly singing certainly fits the dark lyrics of the song, which addresses racism and income equality and was initially released on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration – certainly not a coincidence. An excerpt:
Here’s an easy target/With just one quiet pop/Shot to hell anyway/No reason to stop/In the streets and the gutters/The cotton fields in this land/Here’s an easy target/With a trigger in your hand/
So, Black lives matter/Who we tryin’ to kid/Here’s an easy target/Don’t matter, never did/Crosses burning/Such a long time ago/400 years and we still don’t let it go.
Unlike his previous three studio albums Plain Spoken (2014), No Better Than This (2010) and Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008), which were produced T-Bone Burnett, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was produced by Mellencamp. The album was recorded at his studio in Belmont Mall – funnily, as an NPR story pointed out, that studio is located in Nashville, except it’s Nashville, Ind., not Nashville, Tenn. The art work on the album’s front cover is from Mellencamp, who is also a painter. It was taken from Twelve Dreams, a painting he created in 2005.
Painting has become a very important aspect in Mellencamp’s life, which also impacts his songwriting. In the current print issue of Rolling Stone, he explained how songs come to him while being all by himself and painting in his Indiana compound. “A voice in my head will go, ‘OK, put your brush down and write these words down’…And I’ll be like, No, I don’t want to write a fucking song.’ Then the voice will go, ‘You better write it down, you idiot.’ Then I forget about it, and I find it and I go, ‘When did I write this?’ It’s a wonderful way of writing songs.”
For more on Grandview, Easy Target and Mellencamp’s upcoming tour in support of the album, see my previous post. And, of course, I couldn’t help myself – here’s a great clip of Carter and Mellencamp perfoming Indigo Sunset together live.
Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Yahoo! News, Indianapolis Star, NPR, Rolling Stone, YouTube