John Mellencamp tells a mean ghost story. Explaining the origins of his latest effort — a collaborative country-rock album written with Stephen King and produced by T-Bone Burnett — he details murder, mayhem and mutilation in grisly detail, with a keen sense of the absurd and a sheepish admission of his own cowardice in the face of creepy. It’s not hard to imagine him holding forth over a campfire, enthralling a pack of Boy Scouts with a spooky tale while toasting marshmallows.
The ghost story in question — recounted below — is all true, Mellencamp says, and it inspired “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” an ambitious project 15 years in the making. Mellencamp wrote the songs, King penned the libretto, and Burnett assembled an impressive cast of actors and singers, including Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Matthew McConaughey and Meg Ryan. The album was released this month, and a short tour will follow in the fall.
Mellencamp isn’t quite sure what to call “Ghost Brothers,” which recounts two generations of sibling enmity, but he does admit it gives him the creeps. Speaking to Salon, he detailed those eerie origins, explained why it took a decade and a half, and revealed the greatest horror of them all: having your song co-opted by a politician.
Can you tell me about the incident that inspired “Ghost Brothers”?
I bought a cabin in the early ‘90s on Lake Monroe [outside Bloomington, Ind.], and the people I bought it from said, "Oh, by the way, this place may be a little haunted." I just laughed. Yeah, OK. We’ll deal with that. And then they gave me a bunch of old detective magazines from the '30s and '40s that had a whole bunch of clippings from this incident here in Bloomington. What had happened was, these two brothers were drinking and got in a fight over a girl. One brother picked up a fireplace poker and hit the other in the head with it and killed him. Of course, they freaked out. So they tried to drag the kid out to the car, then they decided it wasn’t working because he was bleeding all over the fucking place. So they just left him in the front yard, and they drove into town to get help. They were driving real fast along the lake, and of course the roads out in the country back then were all gravel, so they lost control of the car, went into the lake, and drowned. That evening was pretty fucked up for those three people. When people found the car and the two kids dead in the car, where’s the brother? By the time they got to him, animals had eaten his fucking head off.
Did you notice any weird occurrences while you were living there?
It was pretty rundown when I bought it, but we put a little money into thinking it’ll be a nice place. I had two little boys at the time, and we wanted a place that’s a 25- or 30-minute drive away from our home and we can go there on weekends and not leave the area. But it was really fucking creepy in there. It was so creepy that I just said, I don’t really want to stay out there anymore. My wife says, John, we just put a bunch of money in here. But she found it creepy too. We had a guy who worked for us who was like a caretaker of our property in town, and he thought we were crazy. He said, I’ll just go out there and stay by myself. The first night he was there, the old Victrola we had out there started playing by itself! And the guy ended up running out of the place in his underwear. Once that happened, we thought we had to sell the place.
How did you come up with the idea to turn that story into a musical project?
I don’t know why, but I was talking to my agent in L.A. and I was telling him about what had happened. He said that’s a great story. We got to talking about what to do with it, and he said I could make a musical about it. Everybody was making musicals at that particular time, and everybody was bugging me to use my songs in a musical the way that they had done “Mamma Mia.” I wasn’t really interested in doing that, but the idea of doing an original musical was interesting. But we had to have somebody to write this thing, somebody like Stephen King. I had met Steve a couple or three times, so we started talking. That was 15 years ago.
What about this idea kept you motivated for a decade and a half?
I don’t think it was the idea. We both liked the idea, of course. When we first started it, I was on tour and Steve was working on a book. That was 30 books ago. He said, when I get around to it, I’ll write a synopsis and we’ll go from there. A couple of weeks later I got an 80-page synopsis or some shit like that. We worked on it for a while, but I’d have to put a record out or something and work would stop. Time would go by and I’d get a text from Steve asking if we’re going to pick up on “Ghost Brothers,” and he’d get a text from me: Wanna work on “Ghost Brothers” for a few weeks? We just kept doing that, and we took it to New York a couple of times and had a few run-throughs, but we weren’t satisfied with what was going on. Steve had never done it before and I had never done it before.
What was it like collaborating with someone so closely?
You have to realize that Steve and I are not collaborators. I’ve had the same band for 35 years now. Steve sits there and writes by himself. So we’re pretty much set up. We’ve worked well with each other, but when you put directors in there and actors in there, it’s just like, whoa, wait a minute. This is way out of our fucking wheelhouse. But -- I’m quoting Steve on this — he said, What happens to most creative people is, they dig themselves a rut and then they decorate it and they never get out of it. If you want to stay creative, you have to try other shit. So we just did that. It was a big learning curve for us. Plus, you throw Broadway in and it’s like, whoa. But that never really was our goal. Of course, we’d love to get on Broadway, but our ambitions weren’t really that high. Three years ago, they asked me and Steve to be on that awards show, whatever they are. If you guys go on this awards show, you’ll be part of the community. We just said nah. We don’t want to be on the Tonys. I don’t want to get on there and sing a “Ghost Brothers” song. Steve didn’t want to go on. So we decided not to do it. We got T-Bone involved a few years ago, because he loved the songs so much, and since then it’s been the three of us. Really, we’re just dicking around with it.
You are doing a live show in the fall, though, right?
The thing opens here in Bloomington in October. Steve will be here. T-Bone will be here. All these kids who are in the thing will be here. It’s gonna be a different type of thing. People are gonna go, what the fuck are they doing? Because it’s not your traditional Broadway show. The presentation of “Ghost Brothers” is like an old radio show. There’ll be actors in costume, but there won’t be all of this cornball dancing and all that kind of stuff. At least I hope not.
It’s weird because it’s hard to classify “Ghost Brothers.” It’s not really a rock opera, but it’s also not really a musical. It’s a weird hybrid.
That’s been terrible for us because when you go to try to sell something like this, people want to pigeonhole it. Is it like “Mamma Mia”? Is it like this? Is it like that? Nah, it’s really not like any of that. It’s really hard for people to grasp. There’s a record coming out with it, and nobody’s every put a record out like this. It’s got dialogue, plus it’s got the libretto. And you read the libretto and then it says, “play song now,” and you play the song. Nobody’s ever really done anything like that, so I think people are going to think, what the fuck are they doing? But we’re just doing it our own way. The good news is that I've got a real job and so does Steve. Our lives are not riding on this. It’s just something that we’re doing because we like doing it.
How did this project challenge you as a songwriter?
It didn’t really challenge me. It was just different. I would get assignments from Steve. He would call up and say, Hey, John, we need a song that’s this. And what ended up happening is, Steve told the story but my songs were the character development. Inside the songs is where you learn about the people, whereas most songs, if you take an Andrew Lloyd Webber-type of approach, move the story forward. These songs do not move this story forward. They tell you about the person. I had to develop the characters, and he told the story. It’s kind of like what they did with “Pygmalion.” Kind of. But not really. “Pygmalion” originally didn’t have music, but they turned it into “My Fair Lady.” So basically we’re breaking every rule you can break, and I don’t know if people are going to get it or not. They might. They might not. But people like McDonald's. They like what they’re used to. It’s going to be challenging for an audience to watch this.
Your songwriting has always been very engaged — socially and politically — with the present moment. How was it different to engage with a fictional world?
I’m writing in a lot of different voices. There’s a song on the record that Neko Case sings, and it’s a really flirty, sexy song. That’s not a song that I would normally write. Maybe when I was a kid. I could equate it with one of my earlier songs from when I was in my 20s, like “Hurts So Good” or some bullshit like that. Others songs I had to write for a 7- or 8-year-old boy. When you make your own records, people want to think the songs are about you. I made a record a few years ago called “Life Death Love and Freedom,” which was about growing old, death and life after death. But everyone was like, are you sick? No, these are fucking songs about these topics. Life, death, love and freedom: It’s kind of self-explanatory. It’s a song. It’s not real life. I’m talking about real things, but that doesn’t mean it’s about me. So “Ghost Brothers” really separated me from that. There’s no way that these songs are about John Mellencamp. Now I’m writing songs for my next record, and I’m back to that grind where I can’t say that, I’ve already said that before, so I can’t say this again. It’s different.
I’m guessing you won’t have to ask a politician not to use one of these songs. There does seem to be a quality in your music that appeals to a broad range of listeners, both socially and politically.
One quality of a good songwriter is to be vague. A vague notion, a vague image, but enough to give the listener the opportunity to make more out of what’s being said than is there. That’s the great thing about Bob Dylan’s songs: We the listeners have made more out of them than he ever intended. And he’ll tell you, I didn’t mean for that. I didn’t think people would take it that way, but OK, if you want to take it that way, take it that way. I’ve always said the same thing. I said it to Ronald Reagan. Look, just so you know, these songs are for everyone. They’re not really for any particular party, Democrat or Republican, but just so you know, I’m as left-wing as you can get. So you can go ahead and use the song if you want, but just know that you’re using it in a way it was not intended. And if you listen to the song closely, it’s really not your message. I never tell them not to use it. I always say, you can do what the fuck you want. Steve and I — and T-Bone, too — are probably more liberal and more left-leaning that your average American. All three of us are in league in that category.