It's taken 13 years, thousands of hours and countless rewrites, but Stephen King and John Mellencamp's musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is beginning to take its final shape. A version of the show ran in Atlanta earlier this year, and a CD/DVD deluxe edition, featuring the soundtrack, handwritten lyrics and a mini-documentary about the making of the musical, is hitting shelves on March 19th. The soundtrack features guest singers Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal, Kris Kristofferson and Mellencamp himself.
Mellencamp got the initial idea for the musical in the late 1990s from his own cabin in Bloomington, which he claims is haunted. In the 1930s two brothers got into a fight over a woman at the cabin, and one of them wound up dead. The surviving brother and the woman sped away in a car, but crashed into a lake and drowned. "I called up Stephen King and told him I wanted to make a musical out of the thing," says Mellencamp. "It's outside both of our wheelhouses."
Stephen King only vaguely knew Mellencamp when he got the call. "He came to my place in Florida and it was the first time we ever met in person," says King. "He tuned my guitar and told me about this ghost story about a cabin he owned. I loved the idea they were brothers, and then years later history repeats itself. Something in that resonated with me deeply."
King agreed to write a treatment of the story – which seesaws between the two sets of brothers going through a similar struggle 30 year apart at the same cabin – and Mellecanmp began writing songs. They agreed early on that the songs wouldn't move the story forward. "It was Steve's job to tell the story," says Mellencamp. "It was my job to develop the characters through songs. That's different than most musicals. The best example of that is My Fair Lady. They had a story with Pygmalion, so they just stuck songs in there."
The process was extremely slow since both men were busy with their day jobs. They slowly picked away at it during their downtime, often e-mailing each other to compare notes. "On a creative level we were always in harmony," says King. "We have the same kinds of interests, same background, small town, regular people kind of thing. Also, the more I worked with him the more amazed I was by his level of talent."
Neither man is used to collaboration, let alone working on a single project for more than a decade. "It's very hard for us to work with so many people," says Mellencamp. "We're not really collaborators. I make my records, and he writes his books." Ultimately, they both found it rewarding to stretch their boundaries. "You can just keep doing the same shit and you'll make a living at it," says King. "But the question is, do you want to dig a rut and furnish it? Or do you want to try something new, particularly when you know if you screw it up, you're gonna fall on your face?"
As the musical got closer to completion they brought in producer T Bone Burnett to help flesh out the music. "The idea was for me to come in and create the vibe," Burnett says. "We took the songs and cast them with different singers and musicians , and began creating what I hoped would be a foggy, ghost sound – something that grew up out of the Mississippi."
There was a recent table reading in New York for possible investors, but as of now there's no definitive plan for it to come to Broadway. "There's business people that want it to be on Broadway," says Mellencamp. "I can't speak for Stephen, but for me it doesn't matter. It's the process I enjoy, not the outcome."
King has a different take on the matter. "We were talking about Broadway right away," he says. "John believes in reaching for the stars in everything he does. . . . But a lot of Broadway these days is fucking Disneyland. It's blue-haired ladies from Westchester County. They come in buses and they want to see Aida or the Lion King. It's almost like an amusement park."
They also think it might work as a movie at some point in the future. "I'd love to see that," says King. "One of the other reasons that I did that is that I'm a total whore for musicals. I love Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, Bugsy Malone. You name it and I just love it! It appeals to a sentimental side of me."
Whatever happens, King and Mellencamp are confident they're nearly done fiddling with it. "At this point I don't know what else we could so," says King. "Unless we set it in fucking outer space. Hey, that's not a bad idea! It could work!"
Here is the track listing for the Ghost Brothers of Darkland Couny soundtrack, coming to stores on March 19th, 2013:
"That's Me," Elvis Costello
"That's Who I Am," Neko Case
"So Goddamn Smart," Dave Alvin, Phil Alvin, Sheryl Crow
"Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me," Elvis Costello
"Brotherly Love," Ryan Bingham, Will Dailey
"How Many Days," Kris Kristofferson
"You Are Blind," Ryan Bingham
"Home Again," Sheryl Crow, Dave Alvin, Phil Alvin, Taj Mahal
"What's Going On Here," Rosanne Cash
"My Name Is Joe," Clyde Mulroney
"Tear This Cabin Down," Taj Mahal
"And Your Days Are Gone," Sheryl Crow, Dave Alvin, Phil Alvin
"Jukin'," Sheryl Crow
"What Kind of Man Am I," Kris Kristofferson, Phil Alvin, Sheryl Crow Dave Alvin, Taj Mahal
"So Goddamn Good," Phil Alvin, Dave Alvin, Sheryl Crow
"Away From This World," Sheryl Crow
"Truth," John Mellencamp