“I don’t have any hopes for it,” T Bone Burnett confesses about Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the Stephen King/John Mellencamp collaborative play/performance experience he was enlisted to help wrangle three years ago. “It’s unwieldy and a whole different kind of thing that can be hard to quantify.
“But when they ask me to show up, I’m gonna show up full force.”
The Ghost Brothers soundtrack, slated for release today, is a gothic heartland noir tale that finds the ghosts of two brothers at odds over a woman revisiting their nephews, on the verge of repeating the same murder and suicide pattern. Complex, edgy and yes, unwieldy, the songs are inhabited by a who’s who of post-modern Americana: Elvis Costello, Ryan Bingham, Neko Case, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow and Mellencamp, as well as real-life brothers Dave and Phil Alvin, best known for their genre-breaking ‘80s band the Blasters.
To say it’s epic, in spite of its small-town setting, is an understatement. Or as Burnett offers, “Mellencamp and King are interesting collaborators. They plow a lot of the same ground: small-town America, but more from the shadows.
“Stephen is closest to our [Charles] Dickens, I think. But a play is a whole other thing. Neither have done this. They started from scratch: one would write something, then the other’d get in there and raise the bar, try to take it even further. Both informed the other, rising to the occasion, and John only wanted to write songs from the inside of the emotional narrative.”
Almost 13 years—along with many other projects—in the making, Ghost Brothers kept drawing Mellencamp and King back together, revising, rethinking, remaking. Inspired by a story about a cabin on Mellencamp’s Indiana property, the Grammy- and Oscar-winning Burnett came in three years ago to focus the music, songs and recording.
Having worked extensively with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor, director and Dylan’s Rolling Thunder compatriot Sam Shepard, as well as his Oscar-winning collaborative foils the Coen Brothers, the elegant Texan understands the textural integration of songs and story. Just as significantly, he’s not afraid of people who color outside the lines.
“Nothing would surprise me with this show,” Burnett says, picking up his earlier train of thought. “They weren’t trying to do anything, except looking for a new way to tell the story. They wanted to use this exalted form where the character expands—especially in the songs. [With Mellencamp’s songs] you’re in the character’s head, where they’ve been and what they’re doing.
“I think it will take a million forms over the next many years. They may take it to Broadway, but it’s also something entirely different—more of a sprawling, grappling thing that’s as much theater of the mind. I can see a high school in Oakland staging it, a theater company in Omaha might do it. And each time, it will be something different, something else.”
That tension and haute trash drama offer lots of frisson. For the project, Mellencamp wanted the brothers Alvin to play the protagonists. Ironically, the pair’s celebrated falling-out is well-known to fans of the ‘80s cowpunk movement they were part of.
“They both said no when we asked them,” Burnett recalls. “Then they both came back to us. ... We knew what we were asking. At first, they came in one at a time, but by the end, they were in the studio together. So, it was healing.
“And for people who remember: They were a killer rockabilly blues band. Can you imagine if a band like the Blasters came out today? You can hear the electricity between them. Mellencamp knew that. He said, ‘Here are a couple of brothers who…’”
Burnett, who produced Mellencamp’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom and No Better Than This, recognizes the restless creativity that drives Mellencamp, as well as the trap of being an icon. Working outside expectations is a good thing.
“He’s the lightest and happiest in the entire time I’ve known him. He was a much darker character. ... But once you get trapped in your own persona, it’s a world you can’t really escape. When [John] was in his late teens, he was a killer R&B singer, just as good as Jagger.
“And as Roy [Orbison, whose A Black & White Night Live Burnett spearheaded] taught me back then, [fame] is its own being. He told me driving around one day, ‘I just have to drag this legend around with me. There’s nothing else I can do.’ And he did.”
Mellencamp, who has forayed into painting, expands his hook-driven heartland rock. With Ghost Brothers, he explores minstrel shows, juke joints, gospel and the smeared roots of Americana as he and King craft a father’s torment at seeing his own sons go the way of his older brothers, who fell to jealousy, liquor and lust.
Whether it’s Neko Case’s sultry tease “That’s Who I Am,” Elvis Costello as the Devil’s Dixie burlesque “That’s Me,” Rosanne Cash’s lush cocktail “Monique’s Song” or Kristofferson’s faltering “What Kind of Man Am I,” there are nuances beneath the storyline, subtleties set to melody that transcend the perfect pop of Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane.”
The churchy “Truth,” which serves as the set piece’s close, finds Mellencamp gruffly patriarchal. “Double talk by a lair / Truth has come, set you on fire / Lies are spoken, the truth is what is,” Mellencamp rasps over clouds of B-3, buzzing guitar and a small pristine choir.
“It’s one foot in front of the other,” says Burnett. “[Ghost Brothers] is alive and it grows. Shakespeare took centuries for his plays to evolve to where they are now. Solitary genius bangs it out in a fit of creativity, but a lot of movies take eight to 10 years to get made.
“Folk music is all about storytelling. The songs go away, but the story remains—and these are historical characters. It’s the nature of this [work], that it’ll find its way. Watching [what happens] will be half of it.”