Knoxville News Sentinel: John Mellencamp Says His Musical 'Ghost Brothers of Darkland County' Is Always Alive And Changing

Knoxville News Sentinel Co. - By Wayne Bledsoe

John Mellencamp figures he’s beat the odds already:

“You know what the life expectancy is for a guy in a rock band? 49.”

Mellencamp, though, at 61 has lived a slightly cleaner life than some of his contemporaries.

“I haven’t been a drug taker or a drinker,” he says. “I haven’t been drunk or stoned since 1971. It’s so foreign to me that it never even occurs to me. Now cigarettes are a different story. They occur to me about every 15 minutes!”

Mellencamp, best known for his many hits, including “Small Town,” “Hurts So Good,” “Jack and Diane” and “Little Pink Houses,” has well outlived the central characters in “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the musical that he created with novelist Stephen King and producer/musician T-Bone Burnett.

“The origins of ‘Ghost Brothers’ is a true story,” says Mellencamp.

The inspiration for the play began when Mellencamp bought some land in Indiana and heard about what happened in a cabin on the property. Two brothers got into an argument over a young woman and one of the brothers accidentally killed the other. Soon after the killer and the woman died in a car crash. Mellencamp contacted his friend King about turning the story into a musical and the process began.

“That was 15 years ago, or something ridiculous like that,” says Mellencamp. “There would be times that Steve and I would work on it for six or seven weeks. Then I’d have something come up and I’d have to promote a record or something. I’ve probably done 1,000 shows since we started ‘Ghost Brothers’ and I’ve made a handful of albums since then. And I bet Steve’s written 950 books!”

Burnett has also been busy acting as music director for Coen Brothers’ movies and producing.

The show has gone through a lot changes before getting into its current state. It was presented onstage in Atlanta for six weeks in 2012 in what Mellencamp says was a “Broadway style” production.

“We were dissatisfied with that. So we came up with another way of approaching it. We work-shopped it New York, not in a theater, but in a theatrical room and we liked what we saw, and that was maybe 10 months ago. And it took us this long to get this together. It takes a long time. Our goal is to watch this show under these conditions and see what else we need to change.”

He says there is a “scorched earth” of songs that have been changed and discarded.

“We’re always changing it. Always changing the songs. Always changing what’s happening. Steve, he just wrote a new character for this production. This character was a little teeny part. Now it’s a big part. It’s in motion all the time.”

Mellencamp says he’s enjoyed the process.

“I loved it. We made a record of it that’s got Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow and different people, Matthew (McConaughey) and Meg (Ryan). I’ve heard a lot of people singing these songs. And it’s easy to tell which are the good songs when you have other people singing them.”

The current presentation features Mellencamp’s regular band members playing the music.

All of this leads to a lot of confusion with artists and promoters. The performers on the album are not the performers touring with the show. It’s presented with a bare bones production rather than Broadway theatrics

“It think the biggest misconception about ‘Ghost Brothers’ is the biggest misconception about entertainment. People assume your goal is to go the Broadway. People assume your goal is to have a hit record. It doesn’t always have to be your goal. I’ll put it in a sexual form: Every girl you meet, the assumption should not be that you want to have sex with her. Because you don’t. You just don’t. If the sparks aren’t flying there’s no reason to go forward with the relationship. But if the sparks are flying and it feels good then you go for it. If not, you’re not interested. Somebody a few weeks ago said we want to develop a movie. ‘I don’t think so. We’re not ready for that. We’re not ready to get married yet.’ ”


Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 12

Where: Civic Auditorium

Tickets: $72.50, $57.00, $41.50, plus service charges, available at Knoxville Tickets