Not long after buying a rustic vacation cabin nearly two decades ago, Indiana rocker John Mellencamp was told by the previous owner that the cabin was haunted by the ghosts of two brothers and the girl they both loved, all of whom died horrifically there half a century earlier.
Most people would be content to relate that kind of story to friends, family members and neighbors, laugh it off and move on. Not Mellencamp. He called upon one man he knew would be able to grasp the full potential of the tragic tale: Stephen King.
The long-gestating result of that call surfaces this week in an all-star recording of the work Mellencamp, King and superstar roots-music producer T Bone Burnett have been chipping away at for years: “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a macabre tale brimming with sibling rivalry, jealousy, unresolved hatred and supernatural forces of evil.
The album is a complement to the staged version that surfaced last year at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which will go on the road to 20 cities in the Midwest and South this fall.
“It’s a great story, one that’s been with us ever since Cain and Abel,” said Mellencamp, who further connected with the theme of feuding brothers as the father of two boys. That’s his older son, Hud, whose face is on the album’s cover image.
In the work that was inspired by the real-life incident, the ghosts of brothers Jack and Andy, girlfriend Jenna and a caretaker haunt the cabin 40 years down the line when the youngest brother, Joe (voiced on the recording by Kris Kristofferson) returns as an adult with his wife and two sons.
Joe wants to face haunting childhood memories of the tragedy that resulted in the deaths of his beloved brothers and their girlfriend, hoping that in doing so he can stave off similar feuding between his own sons, Frank and Drake, voiced by country star Ryan Bingham and singer-songwriter Will Dailey. Sheryl Crow sings the part of Jenna.
The recording’s cast also includes Elvis Costello — gleefully inhabiting his role as the Beelzebub-like provocateur known only as “The Shape” — Neko Case, Rosanne Cash and, as the titular ghost brothers, Dave and Phil Alvin, co-founders of the L.A. roots-rock group the Blasters.
“That was my idea!” said King, who also takes to the stage now and then to play charity events with Dave Barry and several other writers in the ad hoc band the Rock Bottom Remainders. “I’m a huge fan — of both of them. I’ve still got all my old Blasters records, and I made a 60-mile trek to see Phil play in Florida last year. I’d still like to see one of Dave’s shows.”
Dave Alvin remembers getting the call from Mellencamp nearly four years ago when much of the initial recording was being done. After getting past an initial suspicion that he was being pranked — “To be honest,” Alvin said, “there are some A-listers in this project; our last name may be Alvin, but we’re not on the A list” — he jumped in immediately.
“I get to kill my brother and Sheryl Crow is my girlfriend? Sign me up!” Alvin recalled thinking. “Things like this are a great way of learning little elements I didn’t know before. It’s a bit of a lark. On the other hand, it’s a serious lark.... It’s so different from anything that I’ve done, or would do normally, you kinda gotta do it. It’s like someone saying, ‘Hey, have you ever jumped off the top of Empire State Building?’ Well no, I guess I ought to try it.”
Alvin’s sentiment was echoed by Mellencamp, King and Burnett, who say they were drawn to a project that allowed each to go where none had gone before.
“Steve said it best: The problem with being an artist is that most people dig a trench, decorate it and then they just stay there,” Mellencamp said. “Something like this really takes you out of your rut.”
For King, that meant writing his first libretto. Mellencamp composed songs to establish and amplify fictional characters rather than, as he put it, “just saying what John Mellencamp has to say,” and Burnett stitched the music together to create “a ghost world of sound, which is something I’ve been practicing for a long time,” Mellencamp added.
King said the whole idea appealed to him “because I saw it on stage in my mind. Twelve years ago or whatever it is when we started talking about it, it was just about the two brothers,” he said. “I thought we’d have these live people come into the cabin and the ghosts are still there. The live people can’t see or hear the ghosts, but the dead people can see the live people and communicate with them. And there’s Joe, the patriarch, the only living witness to what happened. That also excited me — that gothic aspect.”
For Burnett, even though he was brought in during a period that was already one of the busiest of his long career, the potential for “Ghost Brothers,” he said, “It was undeniable. Stephen King and John Mellencamp for starters — they’re two pretty dark American figures. I don’t know why Mellencamp is considered heartland, good-time music. To me, his music his horrifying. He’s always writing about some dislocation, some disillusionment. And Stephen — he’s so dark, I don’t even know where to start with that guy.”
From the outset, Mellencamp said, “The rules were that anybody can say anything about anybody’s part at any time. I would tell Steve — it sounds funny now — ‘Steve, that part’s not working.’ When you’re first doing that, you realize, “Wait a minute — I’m telling the most successful author of all time that his story’s not working?’ But he was the same about me: ‘John that song doesn’t work and here’s why I think it doesn’t.’ ”
Broadway may be in the “Ghost Brothers” future, although several aspects of this project go against the grain of contemporary Broadway practices: It’s not a jukebox musical stocked with well-established hit songs nor is it a sequel to any previously successful media property.
Noted Mellencamp, “When we first started doing it, we would have these read-throughs in New York and we would invite Broadway people to come. They all wanted the happy ending. There’s no … happy ending…. In my favorite movies and books and songs, there’s no happy endings. Let’s face it: Life does not have a happy ending.”
It does, however, have a theme, which Mellencamp and King enthusiastically weaved into a new setting.
“There’s only so many stories a guy can tell,” Mellencamp said. “If something is out there, it’s mine. A song, a guitar riff, a story line — if it’s out there, it’s there for me to take and twist and turn and make it mine. That’s what art is. The only critic that means anything, the only critic without an agenda, is time.”