The Tennessean: Mellencamp, King, Burnett Spin Ghost Story
The Tennessean by Tennessean Music Team
John Mellencamp is returning to Ryman Auditorium this month, but instead of
taking the stage, he’ll take a seat.
The veteran roots-rocker — famed for hits including “Jack and Diane” and
“Pink Houses” — will check in on the touring production of “Ghost Brothers of
Darkland County,” a song-driven stage play he created with bestselling author
Stephen King and Americana super-producer T-Bone Burnett.
Mellencamp recently called The Tennessean to talk about the making of a
“Southern Gothic supernatural musical of fraternal love, lust, jealousy and
You’ve written from others’ points of view in the past, but getting
to write songs for the characters in this story — was it liberating?
It is, and it’s fun. Because I’ve written a lot of John Mellencamp songs. ...
We realized that my songs were the character development, and that Steve
(Stephen King) had the story.
The formula for Broadway is that the song has to move the story forward, or
else (the audience) doesn’t get it. What we decided to do was make the song the
character development. You find out about the characters through their song,
about what they’re feeling in the moment.
The Great White Way would say, “Well, that’s three minutes of the story not
moving forward.” My response was, “So?” Everything doesn’t have to move the
story forward, at least not in my mind.
So Steve would call up and go, “OK, this is what’s happening here. This
person needs to say this about themselves.” We’d be talking about a particular
character like Jenna or Anna, who are basically two teenage girls. He would
describe the scenario and say, “Can you have them say this about themselves in
the song?” Then I would write the song, and sometimes I’d get it right, and
sometimes I wouldn’t. Then I would rewrite. There is a bucketload of songs that
were in the show 15 years ago that aren’t there now.
Working with Stephen King, was there any crossover as far as what
each of you brought to the table? Would he have musical ideas, and would you
help shape the story?
Steve and I made an agreement on the night we first decided to do this 15
years ago that both of us wanted input from our partner. It wasn’t separated or
walled-off. Steve never said to me, “This is my story!” Nothing like that ever
I have to say, the greatest thing about “Ghost Brothers” is my friendship
with Steve King. He and I are like brothers. In 15 years, I don’t think we’ve
had a cross word. We’re like good brothers (laughs). We’ve never gotten mad at
each other. We’ve laughed at each other and teased each other quite a lot, but
never has there been any kind of, “I’m really mad about this.”
And you have to remember that I don’t play well with the other kids, and
neither did Steve. Steve lives in Maine by himself. I live in Indiana by myself.
... So the idea of him and I working together doesn’t sound like it would work
very well, but both of us are very respectful of each other, and it’s worked
Getting this touring production together — do you have a hand in
that? How does that work?
Steve and I, the business part, of course we’re interested in, but it’s not
really what we focus on. We just kind of see what comes along. And it came along
that Atlanta wanted to do it, and we did six weeks in Atlanta.
We did the full-blown Broadway production, which, after the first couple of
times Steve and I saw it, we realized, ‘Oh, we don’t need all of this stuff, all
of this movement. We don’t need dancing. We want to tell a ghost story, a family
story, a Tennessee Williams, Faulkner story with ghosts, with Americana music to
And all of the production was just in the way. I didn’t like hearing Anna
sing a song, and having people dancing behind her. It was like, “No, no, no, no,
no! Let’s not do that!” (laughs) We were very cognizant that we were making a
play with music, and it’s for men. Any guy who would like rock music, or folk or
country music, could walk in and go, ‘Yeah, (expletive), I like that.”
It took roughly a decade from when people were first hearing about
this project to when it first made it to the stage. Was that matter of
scheduling (time to work on it)? I know you talked about the retooling you went
It's a matter of looking at our options and just going, "Do you want to do
this right now?" We were just offered a limited run on Broadway, and we turned
it down. We're not ready for that yet, and we don't want to go through that yet,
and maybe we made a mistake, but we just turned down, I think it was 14 nights
on Broadway. It was just like, 'We're on tour," you know I mean? The thing is on
tour now. When we get off tour, then we'll think about that. And there's been
people who've been interested in making this a movie already, and Steve's
definitely not ready for that. I don't know much about that, so I kind of leave
that decision-making to him, because he's made a lot of movies, and I've only
made a couple.
The tour comes to the Ryman Auditorium on October 16 - and you
mentioned you'll be in the audience. Will you just be watching the show that
There will be enough shows that have gone by, and I'll come down and watch
it, and there a couple of other places that Steve and I are going to go to. I'm
not sure Steve's going to Nashville, but I know I am, and I think T Bone might
be there...I'll never be on the stage. There's no reason to be on the stage.
"Ghost Brothers" has to be a standalone project. I was really hesitant to sing
the last song of the show on the record, but after much cajoling, Steve wanting
me to do it and everybody else, I said, "OK, I'll sing this song."
The last time we saw you at the Ryman, you were touring in support of
your last album, also produced by T Bone (2010's "No Better Than This"). Any
idea of when we might expect another one?
I haven't made a record in five years, which people who do my business keep
reminding me. So I actually went into rehearsal a month ago and started working
on some songs, and right now, T Bone and I are scheduled to start making a new
Mellencamp record, so we'll see how it goes. I've always been pretty fast and
loose with schedules...I don't know if I'm lazy, or I procrastinate, or I don't
care, or I care too much, but I'm really bad at keeping schedules. The only time
I'm on time is when it's 8:15, and it's time for me to be on stage. I'll be
there. The rest of my life, it's like, "Where is he?"