John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter - Sad Clowns & Hillbillies album review

Mellencamp ploughs an alternative furrow with country’s best girl by his side

Cover art for John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter - Sad Clowns & Hillbillies album

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John Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album takes a while to hit pay dirt. Openers Mobile Blues and Battle Of Angels, then Grandview (a by-the-numbers paean to trailers featuring country-pop star Martina McBride) sound curiously lowkey… but when the album delivers on its artwork credit and starts “featuring Carlene Carter”, the magic really happens.

The collaboration with Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash, stepdaughter to Johnny) arose from soundtrack work done by Mellencamp on the stage production of Stephen King’s Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County and the 2015 Meg Ryan directed movie Ithaca. Both featured Carter to some degree, and she subsequently opened for Mellencamp’s tour in support of his Plain Spoken album.

For this follow-up, Carter duets on five of the 13 songs, notably What Kind Of Man Am I (sung by Sheryl Crow in Ghost Brothers…) and the light-hearted Sugar Hill Mountain (from Ithaca), while elsewhere Mellencamp shines alone – particularly on Sad Clowns (where his voice and lyric hurtles into Tom Waits territory) and All Night Talk Radio.

Miriam Sturm adds stellar fiddle work everywhere, before the album ends brilliantly with a thigh-slappin’ Carter duet – My Soul’s Got Wings featuring lyrics by Woody Guthrie – and Mellencamp’s own barbed state-of-the-nation lament Easy Target, its “black lives matter” theme biting deep and proving he’s a man we should never ignore.

Neil Jeffries

Freelance contributor to Classic Rock and several of its offshoots since 2006. In the 1980s he began a 15-year spell working for Kerrang! intially as a cub reviewer and later as Geoff Barton’s deputy and then pouring precious metal into test tubes as editor of its Special Projects division. Has spent quality time with Robert Plant, Keith Richards, Ritchie Blackmore, Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore – and also spent time in a maximum security prison alongside Love/Hate. Loves Rush, Aerosmith and beer. Will work for food.