What do you get when you cross a cougar and a king, with a little help from a steak? As Ryan D’Agostino of Esquire Magazine puts it, we get perhaps “first-ever musical written by men for men.” The musical in this case is Ghost Brothers of Darkland Country and the men are John Mellencamp and Stephen King. Originally conceived by Mellencamp way back in 2000, the cougar wrote all the lyrics while the godfather of horror wrote the story. The soundtrack is being released June 4th, which is where the steak comes in. The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Originally Mellencamp wanted songs from every genre, but all ended up being folk/rock/roots type of songs. Listening to the album on it’s own, it is difficult to ascertain King’s influence and input. Nonetheless, it is still a lovely listen.
This project was not merely an excuse for King and Mellencamp to come together and invite some of their famous friends. Okay, it is that but it is also a whole lot more. A preview ran from April 4-May 13, 2012, at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, with a cast that featured Tony winner Shuler Hensley, Tony nominee Emily Skinner, American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini, Jake La Botz, and Dale Watson, among others. If that wasn’t enough, Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey and Meg Ryan all did table reads, and the special effects were done by the great Steve Tolin.
The songs are not simply Mellencamp being Mellencamp. In fact, he only appears once on the entire thing – the very last track. What it is instead is a collaboration of legends old and new, to tell a very American tale. The album features such luminaries as Elvis Costello, Roseanne Cash and Kris Kristofferson, as well as others including Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, Ryan Bingham, TajMahal, and Dave and Phil Alvin. Talk about a supergroup. The songs are reminiscent of the 1960s, with strong folk, blues and Americana. I particularly like the harmonies on track #7 – Home Again – featuring Sheryl Crow, Dave & Phil Alvin, and TajMahal. While the music itself may not be unique, that is kind of the point. This deeply personal project seems to be, in many ways, an ode to the folklore of America’s past and the music of it’s yesteryear. Raw sounding music, with simple chord progression, introspective lyrics and rustic vocals.
In many ways the music is classic Mellencamp, while the story is more “Green Mile” than “Cujo”. Going back to the raw and simple music, it is essentially two guitars, an accordion and a fiddle. That’s the most scaled-back musical ever. But like many broadway musicals, the lyrics are poignant and often socially-conscious. Having powerful voices like Lily and Madeleine Jurkeiwicz can’t hurt either. They sing “Truth” with Mellencamp, who sounds, quite frankly, either like a lung-cancer patient or that his throat has been stretched with leather. It’s not a terrible sound, but it is quite the contrast to the ethereal vocals of the Jurkiewiczs. This album may have a hard time crossing over to the charts, but Stephen King wrote a musical and that’s good enough for me.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will be released June 4th, 2013.
RIYL: Americana, John Mellencamp, Kris Kristofferson, Jake La Botz, Jeff Bridges, TajMahal, Smokey Robinson.