John Mellencamp's "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" began as a gospel project with Carlene Carter, and the uplifting "My Soul's Got Wings" is an audible remnant of that original intention. However, the album ultimately turned into a kind of Flannery O'Connor-esque examination of Southern folks' souls.
With "What Kind of Man Am I," Mellencamp sings about a man looking back on his life with deep regret. "Sad Clowns," is an entirely different take, though. It swings like Cab Calloway as Mellencamp paints this character as an unreliable, ungentlemanly player. He warns any woman who desires his "sad clown company" to think twice first. Carter is at her best on the gospel-y "Damascus Road." It begins with Carter singing, "I had a come to Jesus revelation/In a blinding light I saw my soul's salvation." And even though it is framed in spiritual imagery, it's also filled with self-examination. With its pounding drums and train whistle harmonica, this is one of the album's rocking-ist tracks.
"Sugar Hill Mountain" might throw knowledgeable music fans for a loop. The title is close to Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain." But lyrically, it's a woozy, boozy rewrite of the old "Big Rock Candy Mountain."
If you haven't listened to Mellencamp music for a while, you may be shocked by his ravaged voice. Time hasn't been too kind to his vocal instrument, even though he's always been a rough-around-the-edges vocalist. With that said, though, "Sad Clowns & Hillbillies" is filled with fine songs, featuring a variety of arrangements and lyrics that take an honest - and much more honest than most mainstream country songs - at Southern life. It's much more bitter pill than sweat tea.