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 revenge.”

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 happened.

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 fantastically.

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 it.’

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 through.

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 night?

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?"