John Mellencamp maintains a rebellious spirit with ‘Sad Clowns & Hillbillies’
At 65, John Mellencamp no longer chases drama.
“I have found that life is a big enough adventure,” he says calling from his 86-acre property in Bloomington, Ind. “Young kids go to the movies to be scared. If we were together, I’d say to you, ‘Have you seen this mole on my arm?’ That’s scary enough; I don’t need to see ‘Suicide Squad.’”
Age has a way of taming even the most rebellious spirits, and while Mellencamp remains a crusty character full of blunt proclamations and salty language, these days the self-professed homebody takes increasing comfort in the familiar. That’s why he asked his friend, Carlene Carter, to join him on his new set, “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” released Friday.
While it is not an official duets album, Carter earns her co-billing — the album is credited as “John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter” — by penning two of the songs and singing and playing on 10 of the 13 tracks. It is Mellencamp’s second set for Republic Records, a label better known for promoting such pop stars as the Weeknd and Ariana Grande than veteran rockers.
Yet growing up, Republic chief executive/chairman Monte Lipman so adored Mellencamp’s music and antiauthoritarian attitude that he signed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee to a lifetime recording contract in 2014. This, despite knowing that Mellencamp could be a tough customer.
“Very first time I met John, he said to me, ’Apparently you heard I threw a chair at a particular record executive, but I’m here to tell you that’s not true. It was actually this other [jerk] at the record company that got furniture tossed at him!’” Lipman writes via email. “Ever since that first encounter, I figured it was in my best interest to sell as many records as possible, and don’t get hit with a chair.”
Mellencamp and Carter met a few years ago when Carter sang “Sugar Hill Mountain” on the Mellencamp-penned soundtrack for “Ithaca,” the directorial debut by his then-girlfriend, Meg Ryan. Mellencamp had been friendly with Carter’s mother, June Carter Cash, and her stepfather, Johnny Cash. The pair toured together in 2015 and formed an easy alliance, bonding over their love of American roots music.
Midway through the tour, Mellencamp recalls passing Carter as he was walking off the stage and saying, “‘I think we should make a gospel record together’ and she said, ‘Oh, that sounds good.’ That’s how it started.”
The plan for the gospel album fell apart after the pair couldn’t agree on the repertoire, but there’s plenty of sin and salvation on “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” which Mellencamp recorded at his Belmont Mall studio outside of Bloomington.
“What Kind of Man Am I” — which, along with “You Are Blind,” originally appeared in “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical stage drama written by Mellencamp, Stephen King and T Bone Burnett — is a heavy lament that carries the same world-weary weight as Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” “Sad Clowns,” meanwhile, is a tongue-in-cheek, cautionary tale, waving off any woman who comes too close.
Salvation comes with the Carter-penned, redemption-filled “Damascus Road” and “My Soul’s Got Wings,” a Woody Guthrie lyric that Mellencamp set to music.
Perhaps it’s his heartland roots, but Mellencamp has always excelled at simple stories rather than grand gestures through such hits as “Pink Houses,” “Paper in Fire” and “Small Town.” Carter says it’s a trait his songwriting shares with the music made by her legendary ancestors, the Carter Family.
“As complicated a person as [John] might be,” Carter says, “he does write really catchy. But the content is very real, and I won’t say heavy, but deeper than a little ditty.” [Insert “Jack & Diane” joke here].
On the closing track, “Easy Target,” Mellencamp turns to the big picture, adopting a Tom Waits-like growl as he sings about racial and economic inequality. But he resists the notion that the song is depressing.
“There’s a difference between down and observational,” he says. “A down record was ‘Berlin’ by Lou Reed.”
He also scoffs at the impression that his own life serves as the inspiration for any of his songs.
“The idea that I’m writing about myself is a fallacy,” he says. “First, I’m not that interesting. As a matter of fact, I get kind of annoyed by that. It’s a song! Do you really think that Tennessee Williams was Stanley Kowalski? He wasn’t. It’s a play! It’s meant to entertain by using reality and observation and thought and imagination.”
Mellencamp will perform songs from “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” when he hits the road in June for his first headlining amphitheater tour in years, including a June 18 stop at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Although he played minor league baseball stadiums with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson in 2009 and 2010, for the last two decades Mellencamp has preferred 2,000-3,000-seat theaters.
“When you’re playing in front of 18,000-to-20,000 people, you know that guy in the back row is not enjoying it and that is no time to challenge an audience. So I decided a long time ago to play places where I can drag the audience along with me, play new songs, do what I want to do, and not make this about ‘am I the biggest rock star in the world,’ ” he says.
Four decades in, he’s reached the point where “I don’t get paid for going on stage, I get paid for leaving home,” he says.
He emphasizes that he has little use for money or fame. The former he says, he too often squandered when he was young — “I either spent it or lost it or wasted it on whiskey or women,” he says — while the latter has only proved to be an irritant, especially when he found himself tabloid fodder as he dated Ryan and then Christie Brinkley, with whom he split last year.
“I hate it,” he says. “I don’t know why anybody would give a [crap] who an old man would go out with. I could care less about anybody’s personal love life.”
These days, his constant companion is his paint brush. The accomplished painter declares that he has not left his property in 45 days, instead spending eight hours a day on his feet, painting. “I’ve done like 17 paintings or something,” he says.
His Midwestern work ethic doesn’t tolerate sitting around.
“I’m a very active, Type A-type of guy,” he says. “If a day goes by and I don’t make something, I feel guilty. I exercise every day. If I don’t paint or I don’t write a song or I don’t do a performance, then I’m being lazy and I need to get to work.”
But he warns this summer could be the last chance to catch him in large outdoor venues and vows that he is one act that will never play the festival circuit.
“If I have to do those things, I’m quitting,” he says. “If your motivation is the money, it’s the wrong motivation.”
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