Over forty years ago, John Mellencamp released his first album under the moniker “Johnny Cougar” after a skeptical producer told him his German surname would be too difficult to market. Now a household name, Mellencamp has had his share of Top 40 hits and commercial success, all while maintaining his reputation as heartland America’s most prolific troubadour. His body of work espouses simple pleasures, traditional values and has managed to strike a successful balance between alternative country and the mainstream, garnering both the adoration of fans and respect of contemporaries. Recent years have seen Mellencamp embracing roots-rock and moving away from the populist sound that gained him traction; his twenty-third album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is yet another step in that direction. Accompanied by Carlene Carter — progeny of country legend and accomplished musician in her own right — Mellencamp has created a raw, authentic compilation of folk, blues and roots.
Although not quite a traditional duet album, Mellencamp and Carter spend a good chunk of time harmonizing their way through ballads of struggle and daily life. The juxtaposition of his increasingly grizzled croon and her entrancing lilt is undoubtedly one of the record’s strongest features and mirrors the thematic contrast between light and dark — between sin and salvation. It comes as no surprise that Sad Clowns was originally slated as a gospel record. “Damascus Road” is an urgent, impassioned plea for forgiveness and guidance, while “My Soul’s Got Wings” — the lyrics of which were inherited from Woody Guthrie, a longtime influence of Mellencamp — is an infectious, hand-clapping track straight out of Sunday mass.
“Grandview” breaks up a long stretch of predominantly acoustic tracks with a pulse of electric guitar tuned to the blues and a short, sultry vocal cameo by Martina McBride. “Indigo Sunrise,” the first of several Mellencamp-Carter duets, is an aching ode to a former lover. The two take turns singing the line, “I just close my eyes and see the sun setting on you,” and the emotion builds effortlessly with each repetition. The oppressively sweet “Sugar Hill Mountain” is a transplant from the soundtrack of Ithaca, which Mellencamp worked on with Carter back in 2015. “You Are Blind,” a contemplative organ-driven track, is uncannily similar to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” The album rounds out with a quiet, minor-key protest song that whips us abruptly back to the present day.
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies isn’t going to break any records, but then, it wasn’t intended to. It plays like a labor of love and, from the first track, it’s clear that Mellencamp is on the hunt for something more than validation. It’s refreshing to see that the veteran rocker hasn’t let overwhelming success sap his creative spirit. As Billy Joel said during Mellencamp’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, “Stay ornery…people need to hear a voice like yours to echo the discontent that’s out there in the heartland.” From the sound of it, he’s still doing his due diligence.