JOHN MELLENCAMP, STEPHEN KING AND T BONE BURNETT
“Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” (Hear Music/Concord)
Another grown-up rocker has headed into musical theater: John Mellencamp. “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which had a theatrical production last year in Atlanta, is a grim Southern Gothic tale of tragedy recurring through generations. It has brothers who hate each other, girls they both want, booze, guns and old secrets, with its violence spurred by the Devil and observed by ghosts.
In the 1990s Mr. Mellencamp enlisted the author Stephen King to collaborate on a stage piece about a cabin haunted by murder. Eventually they brought in T Bone Burnett, the master of spooky, rootsy ambience who has produced Mr. Mellencamp’s albums since 2008, as well as Grammy-winning albums like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss collaboration “Raising Sand.”
They recorded the “Ghost Brothers” album with a studio cast of Americana and Americana-loving rockers: Sheryl Crow, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Neko Case, Dave and Phil Alvin from the Blasters (quarreling brothers in real life) and, as the smirking Devil figure, Elvis Costello. Mr. Mellencamp, sounding even gruffer than Mr. Kristofferson, arrives for the finale. Actors, including Matthew McConaughey and Meg Ryan, deliver snippets of dialogue, though it takes a reading of Mr. King’s full libretto, which is included physically or digitally in the album’s various configurations, to understand the ending.
The songs, as with Mr. Mellencamp’s own albums lately, look to a down-home past: to blues, country, rockabilly, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Mr. Burnett’s production gives them a penumbra of disquiet. He keeps ballads eerily slow, makes the percussion thud or bristle and creates shadowy dark corners of reverb.
Only a few songs directly advance the plot. Instead, Mr. Mellencamp illuminates characters and has them ponder questions of responsibility and truth, heaven and hell: “For those too weak to tell the truth/Into darkness you will be cast,” Mr. Kristofferson sings in “What Kind of Man Am I.”
Mr. Mellencamp came up with superb songs for women, who respond with quietly glowing performances. Ms. Case and Ms. Crow play frisky good-time girls in “That’s Who I Am” and “Jukin’ ” and, even better, Ms. Crow wishes for a heaven in “Away From This World” and Ms. Cash becomes a troubled but devoted wife in “You Don’t Know Me.” Those songs rise above the story line, but probably wouldn’t have existed without characters to sing them — reason enough for a rock songwriter to venture into a musical.