Qctimes.com Interview: Mellencamp Takes Grass Roots Approach For 'Brothers'

qctimes - By David Burke

During more than 40 years in rock 'n' roll, John Mellencamp says he's always been a rebel.
He feels the same way about author Stephen King.

"I've never really been part of the music business like Steve's never really been part of the book business," Mellencamp said in a telephone interview this week from his house in South Carolina. "Steve lives in Maine, and we're not part of it. We're used to doing things the way we want to do them, and we're doing this, too."

"This" is "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," a production that is a collaboration between the Indiana music icon and the horror-suspense novelist that's been more than 13 years in the making.

It was then that Mellencamp told King about an incident that happened in a cabin on his land in Indiana long ago where two brothers got into a fight over a girl, with one brother accidentally killing the other. The survivor fled, only to be killed, along with the girl, in a car crash a short time later. Adapted for the stage and set in Mississippi, the story is about two ghosts of brothers killed in a murder-suicide and their present-day nephews, who may be going down the same path.

"Ghost Brothers" is on a 20-stops-plus fall tour of locations mostly in the Midwest, including Nov. 3 at the Adler Theatre in Davenport. The show's producers and Mellencamp asked for early publicity because of confusion about what audience members might see onstage.

It is not, Mellencamp said, a musical. Nor is it a staged concert featuring performers who were part of the "Ghost Brothers" album released this summer, including Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal and Kris Kristofferson.

"It's a play with music," he explained.

The show's history included a six-week run in Atlanta where it was staged as a full musical.

"Steve and I thought it would be better going at it in a different way, so we're going at it a different way," Mellencamp said. "I just thought Steve's story was stronger without all the bells and whistles, and he did, too. We're just trying to tell the story without interruptions of dancing and that kind of (stuff)."

The songs, with words and music by Mellencamp, do not move the story forward, but rather are more a character study of each person.

After the six-week run, during which Mellencamp and King each saw all but about three performances, the show was changed and workshopped in New York.

"We liked it, and that's what's going on the road," Mellencamp said.

He said "Ghost Brothers" was offered a limited, 12-performance engagement on Broadway, but he and King turned it down.

"We're not playing by the rules," he said. "Our hope is that we break even and do OK. That's all we care about. If we break even, there'll be another leg, just like a tour. We'll go to bigger cities and we'll be able to watch this thing and make corrections."

The touring production's cast was announced this week, with Bruce Greenwood of "13 Days" and the two newest "Star Trek" movies in the male lead.

Mellencamp and King each will see several performances of the show during its October-November tour, Mellencamp said.

Suggestions will be given and changes made, he added. It's a fluidity that Mellencamp wishes he could have taken advantage of in writing his songs.

"Art is abandoned," said the performer known best for hit songs such as "Jack and Diane," "Hurts So Good" and "Small Town."

"I hear some of the songs on the radio that I wrote 30 years ago as a kid and I think, '... dammit, if I would have spent 10 more minutes on this part, it would have been better,' " he said. " 'Ghost Brothers' is not like that. We keep changing it, we keep working on it. It's not abandoned."

And unlike musicals, Mellencamp said, it's making a push for a different audience.

"I hate to say it, but it's a play for men. Most guys don't want go to musicals because they don't want to watch the dancing," he said. "There's none of that stuff."

The destination is not as important as the journey, he said of "Ghost Brothers."

He then points to a musical with famous names behind the scenes.

"The last thing I want to do is go do 'Spider-Man.' I don't need to be involved with that," Mellencamp said of the 2011 Broadway musical written by Bono and The Edge of U2 fame. The production suffered a series of creative and technical setbacks before a team including director Philip William McKinley, now living in Davenport, brought it to the stage.

Hence the plan for taking the show on tour to smaller markets before working its way up.

"We're just starting out in a grassroots way, the same way I started out or (Bob) Dylan started out. We're just doing it in an old-fashioned way," Mellencamp said. "I'm always rolling the rock up the hill. I think anytime you do anything, that could happen to you."

One burden off his shoulders early on, he said, was bringing in producer T-Bone Burnett to do the song arrangements, leaving him to concentrate on the writing.

"T-Bone came in and said, 'You guys are all (screwed) up.' He straightened us out and got us on track," Mellencamp added.

Burnett, a roots producer whose hand has been in everything from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack to the tunes on the TV series "Nashville," produced Mellencamp's two most recent albums and will do the same for an upcoming album to be recorded in January.

"T-Bone is the only guy I've ever been able to make records with. I don't play well with the other kids," he said with a laugh. "T-Bone was the first guy I've been able to go in the studio with, after 20-some albums. He and I work well together."

Mellencamp and King have been a mutual admiration society since the 1980s, when the novelist would send the singer some of his books, and the musician responded by delivering albums to King's home in Maine.

Eventually, they got the same agent.

Whenever Mellencamp had a tour or album to work on or whenever King was developing a book, the project would be placed on the back burner.

Even though they weren't in the same room, Mellencamp said, there would be collaboration.

"Steve would call me up, realizing we'd be developing the character through song, and go, 'What's happening? Can you write a song that says this about this person?' You learn about the characters through the song and you watch the story through the acting," Mellencamp said.

The 61-year-old Mellencamp said neither man's career will suffer if "Ghost Brothers" doesn't become known beyond the towns where it tours.

"And as far as I'm concerned, the thing is already successful because Steve King and I have become, like, the best friends in the world," he said. "I don't know what else a guy could hope for, other than to have a really good friend."