Ghost Brothers of Darkland County

Dark, Foggy and Scary:
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County Premieres in Atlanta

For the past 12 years, legend of a Southern Gothic piece of musical theater written by horror novelist Stephen King and roots rocker John Mellencamp has haunted the theater world like a ghost from small town folklore. Stories steeped in rumor and speculation have continued to emerge until last December, when a press conference was held in Atlanta to announced that Ghost Brothers of Darkland County would finally materialize this month with its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre.

Written by King with music and lyrics by Mellencamp, the show is directed by the Alliance’s Susan V. Booth, with musical direction from T Bone Burnett, known as much (if not more) for producing albums for an array of diverse artists ranging from Lisa Marie Presley and Elton John to Elvis Costello and Mellencamp, as well as soundtracks to movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? Walk the Line and the recent blockbuster The Hunger Games, as he is for his own music.

Set in Mississippi, Ghost Brothers is the story of a 1950s tragedy still haunting a small town decades later. Atlanta was chosen as the site for the world premiere because of its status as a major metropolis while also being in the middle of the South, surrounded by rural areas and small towns like the one in the play.

“We talked about a number of possible regional theaters and the first requirement was that it be a theater that would want to take a chance on a couple of guys that were known in their fields, but trying something different,” says King. “John and I both liked Atlanta because he’s an Indiana boy, I’m a Maine boy and it’s somewhere in the middle. We wanted a place that was cosmopolitan, but not out of touch with country roots. Atlanta looked, to me, like the middle of the bull’s eye.”

King and Mellencamp also found that Atlanta, and the Alliance in particular, was a great place to premier the play for numerous other reasons.

“I came down here and looked at the facility and my eyes just about fell out of my head,” says King. “I was amazed at how much there was here, what the infrastructure was like, the stage, all the shops and the way everything was set up. And it isn’t just the theater here, it’s the whole arts complex. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen… where they have all these facilities and abilities.”

“Susan has really been able to have a vision and the ability to deal with all three of our egos and ideas and be able to facilitate these things in a way that is not anything other than ladylike and professional,” adds Mellencamp. “To put it bluntly, she’s pretty goddamn good.”

With the tone of the story established, the music clearly plays a large role in how that story is conveyed. But it’s how King and Mellencamp wanted the story and music to mesh that has previously stalled the production from making it to the stage.

“Steve and I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to do a musical where the songs moved the story forward,” says Mellencamp. “He had to be able to write something that I had to then be able to expand the moment without telling part of the story. In essence it was like Pygmalion and My Fair Lady: the story was here, the music was there, and how do we work it together? Susan has been able to put it together like the same guy wrote the songs and the words.”

“The next thing was there was ghosts, there was dead people, it was Mississippi,” says Burnett. “So we had a big head start on what it was going to sound like. I wanted it to sound dark, foggy and scary. John had already written some scary sounding songs. Even the beautiful songs were beautifully scary.”

Previous attempts to premiere on Broadway weren’t total wastes of time as King and Mellencamp were left with a cast featuring Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley, Austin twanger Dale Watson, Justin Guarini (the runner-up from American Idol’s first season) and numerous other accomplished musicians and actors, many based in Atlanta. Dave Roe, longtime bassist for the late Johnny Cash, played on Mellencamp’s latest album and plays standup bass for Ghost Brothers alongside members of Mellencamp’s touring band.

“It’s not like a traditional Broadway show, where everything is scored,” says Roe. “It’s more like a great band playing really cool tunes where they fit the story. We were basically hired to do what we do. No one has ever really leaned on us to be anything but ourselves. It’s classic Mellencamp meets classic T Bone, which sounds sort of like a really rocked-out, avant-garde blues band.”

Despite these unique approaches, however, Ghost Brothers is ultimately a traditional ghost story that could be (and has been) told in just about any small American town.

“There’s that tradition of Southern Gothic and one of the things that John and I talked about early on were some of the plays by Tennessee Williams,” says King. “I’ve read Faulkner back and forth. You can’t ask Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner what’s so scary about the South because they’re dead. But for me it’s just a country vibe where you’ve got small towns and a lot of stuff has gone on, legends have built up, people keep their secrets and some of them are dangerous secrets. I don’t think country life changes from Indiana to Maine to Mississippi to California.”