Star Tribune: Ghost Writers: Mellencamp And King Scare Up A Musical

By: Jon Bream, Star Tribune

John Mellencamp was cranky at hello.

He had been painting — he’s an exhibited artist — and when he sat down to pick up the phone, he’d gotten paint on a favorite chair at his South Carolina retreat.

It doesn’t take much to get the Indiana rocker to go off. He is, after all, John Cantankerous Mellencamp.

He wasn’t calling to get agitated about the economy or to talk about his painting. He wanted to promote his 13-years-in-the-making new musical co-written with horror-novel king Stephen King, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” now on a 20-city Midwest tour with a presentation Thursday in Minneapolis.

In short, “Ghost Brothers” is a Southern gothic Cain-and-Abel tale about two feuding brothers, a tragic accident, a mystery and a young boy who saw it all in the 1950s and now, as an adult, is facing the truth.

Here’s the back story:

In the 1990s, Mellencamp bought a cabin on a lake outside Bloomington, Ind., for a place to go with then-wife Elaine Irwin and their two young sons. People told him it was haunted.

The story, which Mellencamp researched, involved two brothers who fought over a woman. One accidentally died from a fireplace poker to the head. The other brother and the woman fled the scene, only to perish in a car accident.

Mellencamp mentioned the story to his Los Angeles agent, who suggested it could become a musical. The agent also happened to represent King.

“Steve created the characters,” Mellencamp explained. “He would call me up and say, ‘If this person could say this about the moment they’re in’ and then I would write a song. This is really ass-backwards for a musical. None of our songs move the story forward.”

King wrote the book, Mellencamp the music and lyrics. They communicated by phone, e-mail and text — and sometimes in person.

They mounted a monthlong production in Atlanta in 2012 with mostly local actors, then released an all-star recording this summer — produced by T Bone Burnett and performed by Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Phil and Dave Alvin, Ryan Bingham and others, plus dialogue recited by the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Meg Ryan, Mellencamp’s girlfriend.

Mellencamp is featured only on a bonus track. “The record company demanded it,” he explained.

Since he was in a confessional mood: Does he believe in ghosts? “No, not really,” he said. “I’ve been creeped out before, though. I don’t know if it was ghosts. I imagine it was my imagination.”

Some creepy things happened at his cabin. A caretaker made fun of the rumors, so Mellencamp said he encouraged the guy to spend a night.

“He left in the middle of the night in his underwear. There was an old Victrola in the place. It started to play” on its own.

No famous stars

The touring production features actors who sing, including Hollywood character actor Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek Into Darkness”), Broadway regular Emily Skinner and Jake LaBlotz, who has been in movies with Steve Buscemi and Sylvester Stallone and released six albums. The on-stage band includes guitarist Andy York and drummer Dane Clark from Mellencamp’s touring group.

Calling himself a minimalist, Mellencamp described “Ghost Brothers” as more like a radio show than a conventional musical. He insisted to director Susan V. Booth that there be no dancing.

He said he and his partners recently turned down an offer for a limited Broadway run. The Great White Way isn’t necessarily a goal for him.

“ ‘Ghost Brothers’ is under construction,” he said. “Every time we see it, we have the opportunity to change it.

“Our goal is to make it as good as we can make it. It’s already successful for me. We had a great time doing it, and Steve and I have become great friends. Broadway? I have a real job, Steve has a real job, T Bone has a real job.”

What did Mellencamp, 62, learn from the long process?

“That I don’t play well with other kids,” said the singer, who created, directed and starred in a 1992 film, “Fall From Grace.”

Geez, he’s known that for years. He also knows he needs to get working on another Mellencamp album. His last recording was 2010’s rootsy, stripped-down “No Better Than This.” He just signed a deal with Universal Music Group.

“I’ve had a couple rehearsals with the band, and T Bone and I go in the studio in January,” he said. “I’m not part of the music business. I want to write my songs, do some little shows.”

Meanwhile, he’s painting.

“I’ve been here for two weeks and I’ve done four paintings” at his South Carolina vacation place on Daufuskie Island, population 250, accessible only by boat from Savannah, Ga. He has a portrait exhibit set to open Nov. 3 at Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio.

“Back in Bloomington, I’ve got a painting I’ve been working on and I’ve got 52 hours on it and I’ve probably got at least that many hours to go on it,” he said. “I think if you spent 52 hours writing songs, you might be able to write a good one.”