Stephen King and John Mellencamp had a simple problem when they started the long odyssey to create a musical.
"Quite frankly, we didn't know what ... we were doing," Mellencamp said.
Thirteen years later they've created "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," a musical that's not quite like anything out there — as you might expect from two of America's most independent artists. Along the way, the author and the singer picked up T Bone Burnett to serve as a general contractor, enlisted stars like Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash, and broke several rules in the classic musical theater handbook.
King says he might have given up long ago had Mellencamp not kept rolling things forward. Mellencamp says that's a bunch of bull. Now that they're done — "Ghost Brothers" is out this week with a CD box set, mini-documentary and e-book, with a theatrical tour starting in October in Bloomington, Ind. — they say the project strengthened their friendship and left them with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
"This morning when I went over to my office there was a big stack of the box sets and I looked at that thing and said, 'We actually have a product here,'" King said. "It's all been give up to this point. You give of your talent and you give of your time, and then you get something back. It's here and people are either going to play these tunes or not, buy and download or not, go to see the show when it comes to a town near them or not."
The musical started with a real-life ghost story. Mellencamp was looking for a cabin on Lake Monroe in his home state of Indiana. As the owners handed over the keys, they casually let it drop that the cabin might be haunted, the spiritual remnants of a terrible tragedy that had happened decades earlier when two brothers quarreled over a girl.
The story came with a stack of ancient pulp magazines that detailed the deaths in grisly detail, complete with photos of a headless body and plenty of purple prose.
Mellencamp scoffed, had the cabin remodeled and took his family to the lake for a long visit. They noticed the "weird vibe" immediately.
"I don't believe in this stuff," Mellencamp said, "but stuff would start moving. You'd start smelling cigars. Funny smells would appear and stuff would turn on and turn off. It was kinda creepy, you know?"
Mellencamp unloaded the cabin and eventually relayed the story to his agent sometime before the turn of the century. He'd recently been approached about doing a musical based on his hits, but he wasn't interested. The agent suggested the ghost story could serve as the basis for that musical, and suggested they contact mutual client King to help write it.