All Things Considered Interview: A Rock Star, A Novelist And A Super-Producer Write A Musical
06.12.2013 - A Rock Star, A Novelist And A Super-Producer Write A Musical
Comedian George Carlin liked to say that art doesn't have a finish line. The
trio behind Ghost Brothers of Darkland County are the embodiment of that idea.
Each is a superstar in his chosen field: rock music legend, best-selling
novelist, record producer — trades they could have been content to pursue to the
grave. Instead, they went and wrote a musical together, one 13 years in the
Ghost Brothers was co-written and arranged by John Mellencamp, Stephen King
and T-Bone Burnett. It debuted a little over a year ago on a stage in Atlanta.
This week the trio released a special CD and DVD edition of the production,
complete with libretto and a mini-documentary — and the vocal talent here
includes Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and a host of other
The plot is based on something that happened in John Mellencamp's hometown — in
fact, as he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland, on
own his land in Indiana, in a cabin he'd bought. The story dates from the late
1930s; a warning here that the details are on the gruesome side.
"Two brothers were there late one night with a girl," Mellencamp explains.
"They got into an argument; they'd been drinking. One of the brothers hit the
other brother with a poker. You know, he didn't mean to kill him, but he did.
And as the girl and the younger brother were driving into town, they lost
control of the car on the gravel road, went into the lake — they drowned. So all
three kids were killed that evening. And when they went back to get the boy who
had been hit with the poker in the front yard, some animal had chewed his head
Mellencamp recounted the chilling tale to a friend of his — a talent agent.
"This was about the time that 'Mamma Mia' and all that stuff was happening on
Broadway. I was getting all these requests to do that with a bunch of my songs,
and I wasn't particularly interested in it," Mellencamp says. "I told this guy
this story, and he said, 'Oh, that would make a great Broadway show.' And I
said, 'Yeah, if you could get Stephen King to write it.' He said, 'Well, I'm
Stephen King's agent.'
Enter the king of horror. The two had never met before, and at first, King
was a tough sell.
"I've taken calls from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wanted me to write 'the
scariest devil-worship movie ever made,'" Stephen King says with a chuckle. "And
there was a call from David Bowie, who wanted about the same thing. What I'm
trying to say is, a lot of times, very talented artists have very bad ideas."
But King invited Mellencamp to visit his home in Florida, where the rocker
again shared the story of he three dead kids, and the idea he had to bring it to
"And I sat down with my wife, who is the smartest guy in the room at any
time, and I said, 'What do you think?' Because usually when I say that, she
says, 'I don't think you should have anything do to with this; you've got too
much to do,'" King says. "And she said, 'He's like you. He thinks like you; he
talks like you. I think you should do it.'"
Still, Mellencamp was realistic about the odds of a project like this getting
off the ground. Both men were busy with other things, and at the time, Stephen
King was recuperating from an accident that almost killed him: He'd been walking
on the side of a road when a distracted driver struck him from behind.
"He was on a cane, and I really kind of felt sorry for him," Mellencamp says.
"I said, 'I don't mind waiting, Steve. I'm in no big hurry for this, so when you
get around to it, you get around to it.' And literally within 10 days I get,
like, 65 pages of synopsis. He'd taken that little ghost story and made it into
a Stephen King story."
They traded songs and dialogue through email for more than 10 years, but
eventually found themselves stuck — their musical just didn't resemble anything
fit for the stage. So they brought their work in progress to the man who'd
brought the music to the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and TV's
Nashville: T-Bone Burnett.
"The first thing I got was about 20 or 30 songs, that were incredible songs,"
Burnett says. "They had no destination in mind; they were just looking at what
they had. There was this incredible wealth of material. It was this
extraordinary story. And the thought of doing something like a radio play became
Stephen King heard that idea and loved it.
"My thought was, OK, we open this thing and we've got an old country DJ,"
King says. "The spot comes up on him and he says, 'Tragic news from Lake Belle
Reve, where it looks like a bad accident has occurred unto a double suicide.
Right away, you've got some of the background that you need. And we just kind of
ran with that idea that we're looking at something that's gonna be ... as much
of an auditory experience as a visual one."
In the full version of this interview, the three creators of Ghost Brothers
tell the story of preparing for the show's run in Atlanta last spring, and why
Mellencamp nearly quit the production two days before it was set to open. Click
the audio link on this page to hear more.