Associated Press: King, Mellencamp Break Rules With 'Ghost Brothers'
06.07.2013 - By CHRIS TALBOTT |
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Stephen King and John Mellencamp had a simple problem
when they started the long odyssey to create a musical.
"Quite frankly, we didn't know what the hell we were doing," Mellencamp said.
Thirteen years later they've created "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," a
musical that's not quite like anything out there — as you might expect from two
of America's most independent artists. Along the way, the author and the singer
picked up T Bone Burnettto serve as a general contractor, enlisted stars like
Sheryl Crow,Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash, and broke
several rules in the classic musical theater handbook.
King says he might have given up long ago had Mellencamp not kept rolling things
forward. Mellencamp says that's a bunch of bull. Now that they're done — "Ghost
Brothers" is out this week with a CD box set, mini-documentary and e-book, with
a theatrical tour starting in October in Bloomington, Ind. — they say the
project strengthened their friendship and left them with a tremendous sense of
"This morning when I went over to my office there was a big stack of the box
sets and I looked at that thing and said, 'We actually have a product here,'"
King said. "It's all been give up to this point. You give of your talent and you
give of your time, and then you get something back. It's here and people are
either going to play these tunes or not, buy and download or not, go to see the
show when it comes to a town near them or not."
The musical started with a real-life ghost story. Mellencamp was looking for a
cabin on Lake Monroe in his home state of Indiana. As the owners handed over the
keys, they casually let it drop that the cabin might be haunted, the spiritual
remnants of a terrible tragedy that had happened decades earlier when two
brothers quarreled over a girl.
The story came with a stack of ancient pulp magazines that detailed the deaths
in grisly detail, complete with photos of a headless body and plenty of purple
Mellencamp scoffed, had the cabin remodeled and took his family to the lake for
a long visit. They noticed the "weird vibe" immediately.
"I don't believe in this stuff," Mellencamp said, "but stuff would start moving.
You'd start smelling cigars. Funny smells would appear and stuff would turn on
and turn off. It was kinda creepy, you know?"
Mellencamp unloaded the cabin and eventually relayed the story to his agent
sometime before the turn of the century. He'd recently been approached about
doing a musical based on his hits, but he wasn't interested. The agent suggested
the ghost story could serve as the basis for that musical, and suggested they
contact mutual client King to help write it.
King and Mellencamp had met a few times over the years, and to Mellencamp's
surprise the idea quickly took root. It was just the kind of challenge King
"Once you get to a certain age — I'm in my 60s now — you've got to try to keep
expanding your field," King said. "You've got to try new things and if you
don't, you tend to get conservative. I always say you dig yourself a rut and
then you furnish it. John asked me when we started this if I'd ever done
anything like this before. I said, 'John, yes, I have. I wrote a play for my Boy
Scout troop when I was 11 years old. And it was a big hit with my relatives.'"
They traveled to New York together where they took in several musicals on
Broadway. And almost nothing appealed to them.
"It was like, how does this work?" Mellencamp said. "What we saw on these
musicals, at least to me, was a bunch of s--- we didn't want to do. OK, we don't
want any dancing, that's the first thing. We just don't. We don't want this, we
don't want that. We don't want to advance the story forward with song, it's too
They decided they'd use their songs to color their characters. The spoken-word
sections of the musical would drive the story, just as they do in a play.
"I just feasted on that because I'm a big rock music fan and country music fan
and alt-rock fan and all that stuff, and I thought, that's what music does,"
King said. "Music speaks to the heart and words speak to the brain, and we can
really do something here. We saw eye to eye on a lot of things and one was we
didn't really want this big orchestral, violin-heavy music. We wanted a kind of
King roughed out the story about two generations of brothers in fictional Lake
Belle Reve, Miss., caught in a tragic tape loop and marked out spaces for songs,
sometimes including a little rhyme to give Mellencamp cues. Mellencamp then
worked up songs from several perspectives.
That's where Burnett, the only producer Mellencamp's ever had, enters the
picture about five years ago. Mellencamp played him the songs and, always up for
a challenge, Burnett signed on.
"It's a very interesting group of tunes he's put together and I do believe some
of his best songs," Burnett said. "Time will be the judge of that but it seems
so to me. They're real powerful tunes, and real stripped down, of-the-earth type
tunes. ... John and Stephen work a lot of the same turf, the legends of
small-town America, that stuff. So I can see the resonance between the two of
them pretty clearly."
Burnett brought in friends and colleagues to hang Spanish moss from tree limbs,
add humidity to the air and bring the characters to life. Actors like Matthew
McConaughey and Meg Ryan helped with the spoken-word parts. Crow sings from the
perspective of the coveted woman at the center of the story. Kristofferson
provides a moral compass. And Costello had a great time taking it fire and
"I had to be the Devil in that story so I made some very extraordinary sounds,"
he said. "I mean I was creaking. I sounded like my teeth were about to fall out.
I thought the Devil, that can't be an ordinary voice. So I sang in harmonic
shrieks and whispering and everything."
The thing that Mellencamp loves about the final product is you can't pigeonhole
it. All the principles will be replaced by other actors and musicians when the
musical hits the road around the country later this year. The ultimate goal is
to debut "Ghost Brothers" on Broadway, but producers have been leery of that
unconventional structure. No matter.
"If it ends up there, great, and if it doesn't, that's fine too," Mellencamp
said. "Because the real victory in 'Ghost Brothers' is that very rarely do you
collaborate with somebody that you walk away and go, 'You know, I really like
that guy. I really had ... fun with that guy.'"<