Music Interviews
3:58 pm
Sat June 8, 2013

A Rock Star, A Novelist And A Super-Producer Write A Musical

Originally published on Mon June 10, 2013 7:04 am

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, 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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Tess Vigeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: Comedian George Carlin liked to say that art doesn't have a finish line. Our next guests are the embodiment of that idea. Each is a superstar in his chosen field - rock music legend, bestselling novelist, record producer - art they could have been content to pursue to the grave. Instead, they went and wrote a musical together 13 years in the making.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEAR THIS CABIN DOWN")

TAJ MAHAL: (Singing) Tear this cabin down and start all over again. Tear this cabin down.

VIGELAND: "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" 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/DVD edition of the production complete with libretto and a mini-documentary.

And the cast 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 told, me right there on his land in Indiana in a cabin he bought. The story dates from the late 1930s.

JOHN MELLENCAMP: Two brothers were there late one night with a girl. They got into an argument. They had been drinking. One of the brothers hit the other brother in the head 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAR THIS CABIN DOWN")

MAHAL: (Singing) Only God knows where we've been.

VIGELAND: Mellencamp recounted that chilling details to a friend of his, a talent agent.

MELLENCAMP: This was about the time that "Mamma Mia" and all that stuff was happening on Broadway. And I was getting all these requests to do that with a bunch of my songs, and I wasn't particularly interested in it. And 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.

VIGELAND: Enter the king of horror.

STEPHEN KING: Hi, yeah. Steve King.

VIGELAND: The two had never met before, and at first, King was a tough sell.

KING: I've taken calls from Arnold Schwarzenegger who wanted me to write the scariest, devil-worship movie ever made. And, you know, there was a call from David Bowie who wanted about the same thing. So what I'm trying to say is a lot of times, very talented artists have very bad ideas.

VIGELAND: But King invited Mellencamp to visit his home in Florida where the rocker again shared the story of the three dead kids, and the idea he had to bring it to the stage.

KING: 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, blah, blah, blah. She said: He's like you. He thinks like you. He talks like you. I think you should do it.

VIGELAND: Still, Mellencamp was realistic about the odds of a project like this getting off the ground. Both were busy with other things, and at the time, Stephen King was recouping 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.

MELLENCAMP: He was on a cane, and I really kind of felt sorry for him. And...

KING: And you still feel sorry for me, don't you, John?

(LAUGHTER)

MELLENCAMP: Not as much as I did. Not as much as I did. I said: I don't mind waiting, Steve. You know, I'm in no big hurry for this. So, you know, when you get around to it, you get around to it. And literally within 10 days I get, like, 65 pages of synopsis where he had taken that little ghost story and made it into a Stephen King story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) You know what a loser is? Someone who can do in a game what he can't do in real life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) Tell him you can prove it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) And I'll prove it. You see that bowl of fruit?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) Stop. This is crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as Character) I will just put this apple on my head like this. Now, let's see how you do under pressure, Hawkeye. Shoot it off my head. (Singing) Go on and do it.

VIGELAND: 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 brought the music to the Coen Brothers movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and TV's "Nashville": T-Bone Burnett.

T-BONE BURNETT: The first thing I got was about 20 or 30 songs that were incredible songs. 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.

VIGELAND: Stephen King took the radio play idea and ran with it.

KING: And my thought was, OK, we open this thing, and we've got an old country DJ who's on the side and the spot comes up on him and he says: Tragic news from Lake Belle Reve...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Character) ...where it looks like a bad accident has occurred onto a double suicide.

KING: And 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 more of an auditory experience - or as much of an auditory experience as a visual one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: I wonder if you would take me back to the premier of the work: Atlanta in April of last year, 2012. Mr. Mellencamp, what was your range of emotions on opening day, given that this was your baby from the start?

MELLENCAMP: Well, you know, my whole goal - and I've told Steve this - is to just one day sit in the dark with Steve and watch this. That was it. I didn't care where it was at, what was going on.

But to answer your question, I don't play well with the other kids. So my immediate reaction was I got pissed off and left. And I remember - I think it was the only time I've ever raised my voice at Steve - me, Steve and T-Bone were setting in there, and they were talking to the actors, and T-Bone sent me a text: John, you're scaring the horses.

(LAUGHTER)

VIGELAND: You left the theater?

MELLENCAMP: Yeah, I didn't leave the theater. I left Atlanta.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: That was like two days before we opened. But he was back.

MELLENCAMP: Yeah. I came back, you know? But it was just, I couldn't take anymore because, you know, I'm used to saying: Hey, put this guitar part on and the guitar part goes on. Now, all of a sudden, I'm having to have conversations with people and saying: Hey, this wardrobe is not working. OK. We'll take care of it, and then nobody ever took care of it.

Thank God T-Bone Burnett came down there to work with the band, because it was my band who I worked with 1,000 times. But I was so put out with the sound engineer that I just couldn't deal with it anymore. I wanted to shoot myself. And the dialogue would start, and the volume would be down. Well, that just drove me nuts, because like, the first three...

VIGELAND: But it was a rehearsal. That's what it's for.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Hey, he knows that now.

MELLENCAMP: Well, I know that now, but it still doesn't matter to me. And so it would just drive me lunatic. I mean...

KING: I got to break in here. You know that saying about how some people do not suffer fools gladly? John doesn't suffer fools at all. And that's the absolute truth. I mean, I'm going to say flat-out John's the most talented person that I've ever worked with. This guy is so talented he makes me look like a foothill compared to a mountain. You know, he just had it going on.

And he wants things to be a certain way, and there's no slide zone with John. John wants to get it right. He wants it to be right. And when it's not, you know, I think in some ways he's like a mathematician or a chess prodigy who doesn't realize that other people don't get it the first time.

The rehearsals for the show were ragged. There were problems there. And then opening night came, and we sat there in the dark at the back of the theater and watched the show and listened to the audience laugh the way that they're supposed to. And they were getting some of the lines, and they were gasping. And at the end of the first act, they stood and applauded. And I looked at John and said...

BURNETT: You better leave now.

KING: This is - we...

(LAUGHTER)

MELLENCAMP: I think what we said was: We might as well die now.

KING: Yeah, because it was really great. It was a good show.

MELLENCAMP: Somebody better shoot us because it's not going to get any better than this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ME")

ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) You know that voice you hear in your head...

VIGELAND: That's John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett. They're the creative team behind the musical "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" just out on CD and DVD. They're taking that show on the road this fall. If you'd like to hear a sample, go to our website. It's nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) I can get you to do anything I want, because I'm a sexy one with all that good stuff...

VIGELAND: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Tess Vigeland. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ME")

COSTELLO: (Singing) And when you feel like cheating on a lover, that's me. Oh, yes, that's me. I can get you to... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: