Comedian George Carlin liked to say that art doesn't have a finish line. The trio behind Ghost Brothers of Darkland County are the embodiment of that idea. Each is a superstar in his chosen field: rock music legend, best-selling novelist, record producer — trades they could have been content to pursue to the grave. Instead, they went and wrote a musical together, one 13 years in the making.
Ghost Brothers was co-written and arranged by John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett. It debuted a little over a year ago on a stage in Atlanta. This week the trio released a special CD and DVD edition of the production, complete with libretto and a mini-documentary — and the vocal talent here includes Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and a host of other showbiz legends.
The plot is based on something that happened in John Mellencamp's hometown — in fact, as he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Tess Vigeland, on own his land in Indiana, in a cabin he'd bought. The story dates from the late 1930s; a warning here that the details are on the gruesome side.
"Two brothers were there late one night with a girl," Mellencamp explains. "They got into an argument; they'd been drinking. One of the brothers hit the other brother with a poker. You know, he didn't mean to kill him, but he did. And as the girl and the younger brother were driving into town, they lost control of the car on the gravel road, went into the lake — they drowned. So all three kids were killed that evening. And when they went back to get the boy who had been hit with the poker in the front yard, some animal had chewed his head off."
Mellencamp recounted the chilling tale to a friend of his — a talent agent.
"This was about the time that 'Mamma Mia' and all that stuff was happening on Broadway. I was getting all these requests to do that with a bunch of my songs, and I wasn't particularly interested in it," Mellencamp says. "I told this guy this story, and he said, 'Oh, that would make a great Broadway show.' And I said, 'Yeah, if you could get Stephen King to write it.' He said, 'Well, I'm Stephen King's agent.'
Enter the king of horror. The two had never met before, and at first, King was a tough sell.
"I've taken calls from Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wanted me to write 'the scariest devil-worship movie ever made,'" Stephen King says with a chuckle. "And there was a call from David Bowie, who wanted about the same thing. What I'm trying to say is, a lot of times, very talented artists have very bad ideas."
But King invited Mellencamp to visit his home in Florida, where the rocker again shared the story of he three dead kids, and the idea he had to bring it to the stage.
"And I sat down with my wife, who is the smartest guy in the room at any time, and I said, 'What do you think?' Because usually when I say that, she says, 'I don't think you should have anything do to with this; you've got too much to do,'" King says. "And she said, 'He's like you. He thinks like you; he talks like you. I think you should do it.'"
Still, Mellencamp was realistic about the odds of a project like this getting off the ground. Both men were busy with other things, and at the time, Stephen King was recuperating from an accident that almost killed him: He'd been walking on the side of a road when a distracted driver struck him from behind.
"He was on a cane, and I really kind of felt sorry for him," Mellencamp says. "I said, 'I don't mind waiting, Steve. I'm in no big hurry for this, so when you get around to it, you get around to it.' And literally within 10 days I get, like, 65 pages of synopsis. He'd taken that little ghost story and made it into a Stephen King story."
They traded songs and dialogue through email for more than 10 years, but eventually found themselves stuck — their musical just didn't resemble anything fit for the stage. So they brought their work in progress to the man who'd brought the music to the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and TV's Nashville: T-Bone Burnett.
"The first thing I got was about 20 or 30 songs, that were incredible songs," Burnett says. "They had no destination in mind; they were just looking at what they had. There was this incredible wealth of material. It was this extraordinary story. And the thought of doing something like a radio play became very interesting."
Stephen King heard that idea and loved it.
"My thought was, OK, we open this thing and we've got an old country DJ," King says. "The spot comes up on him and he says, 'Tragic news from Lake Belle Reve, where it looks like a bad accident has occurred unto a double suicide. Right away, you've got some of the background that you need. And we just kind of ran with that idea that we're looking at something that's gonna be ... as much of an auditory experience as a visual one."
In the full version of this interview, the three creators of Ghost Brothers tell the story of preparing for the show's run in Atlanta last spring, and why Mellencamp nearly quit the production two days before it was set to open. Click the audio link on this page to hear more.
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