John Mellencamp's new album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is an odd collection of songs; two covers, two songs he recorded in the 80s, two songs in which he gets songwriting credit for basically finishing a song, five duets with Carlene Carter, appearances by Martina McBride and Izzy Stradlin. All that may make it seem as though the album would be disjointed, but it turns out to be a very cohesive effort.
You may be wondering why I'm covering a John Mellencamp album at all, since I stay away from mainstream anything. Well, Mellencamp hasn't been anywhere near mainstream music in about two decades.
This started out as project between Mellencamp and Carter that was born out of their collaborations on other projects and playing together each night on Mellencamp's last tour, which Carter opened. They wanted to do an album of old time country gospel songs, but in the writing process it evolved into something quite different.
Sad Clowns & Hillbillies starts out with a cover of the 1971 Mickey Newbury song "Mobile Blue" which fits exactly into Mellencamp's American roots rock wheelhouse.
I'm not going to go song by song here, but just want to point out some stuff that stood out to me. "Grandview" was written in the early 90s by Mellencamp's cousin Bobby Clark and features Martina McBride on one verse and original Guns 'n Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin on guitar.
"All Night Talk Radio" was originally recorded for possible inclusion on the 1995 album Mr. Happy Go Lucky. New elements were added to the version on the current album including backing vocals by Carlene Carter.
On the newly recorded tracks (which is most of the album) Mellencamp's voice shows the wear and tear of years of smoking cigarettes and drinking. That doesn't detract from the quality of the songs here. Hell, he sounds like John Hiatt has always sounded.
Start to finish, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies is one of the best albums I've heard this year.
Here is "Grandview":