John Mellencamp and Stephen King’s dramatic “roots musical,” in the works for more than a decade, will finally debut this spring. Ghost Brothers of Darkland County debuts as a theatrical presdentation beginning April 4 in Atlanta; a guest star-packed studio concept album will follow on May 22, via Hear Music, in both a single disc and 3-CD deluxe edition.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: First-call rock drummer Kenny Aronoff talks about working with Chickenfoot on tour, his nearly two-decade stint with John Mellencamp, and the lasting impact of jazz.]
Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Taj Mahal and Neko Case are set to sing on the project, with Matthew McConaughey, Meg Ryan, former boxer Joe Frazier and Costello doing readings, as well. Both projects are produced with the input of producer T-Bone Burnett — who described the sound as “dark, foggy … and scary.”
The novelist King authored the narrative, while veteran singer-songwriter Mellencamp added music and lyrics. “It sounds like the Sgt. Pepper of Americana to me,” Mellencamp said in pre-release materials, adding that the goal was to make the recording sound something like “an old radio play” complete with dialogue and sound effects.
Other musicians who worked on the project include Dave Alvin, Phil Alvin and Will Dailey.
Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on John Mellencamp. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
JOHN MELLENCAMP – NO BETTER THAN THIS (2010): as John Mellencamp continues a run of career-defining records, dating back to 2007’s Freedom’s Road, best leave your dancing shoes in the closet. Producer T Bone Burnett cops to it, in the liner notes here: “All those ghosts. All those spirits. This is a haunted record.” No Better Than This is an old-fashioned project done in an old-fashioned way. It’s not just that Mellencamp and Burnett used a half-century old monophonic tape recorder and a single, vintage microphone, without overdubs or other studio add-ons. Mellencamp has for some time been a voice for a rural world riven by change, but now he’s more completely inhabiting a broader persona forever divorced from the times of youth, and — like Robert Johnson and his country counterpart Hank Williams Sr. — finds himself alternately accepting of and then gripped by white-knuckled fear of the end.
JOHN MELLENCAMP – LIFE, DEATH, LOVE AND FREEDOM (2008): Most of the dark but down-home lyrics could have fit in fine during the Depression; even the contemporary-minded “Jena” is phrased in Civil Rights-era prose. Yet, it remains vintage Mellencamp; he remains true to himself — writing songs in a way that make the biggest impact without needing a lot of notes. The lyrics seem to come out as natural as conversational speech. Moreover, his voice has settled into a weary, reserved rasp that brings out more sincere emotion than the yelling of his salad days ever did. At 56 years old and more than thirty years being in the music business, two of John Mellencamp’s best albums are his last two. Some things just get better with age.
JOHN MELLENCAMP – FREEDOM’S ROAD (2007): Mellencamp, with his now-familiar passion and accessibility, recognizes that this is a complicated world, and if he doesn’t quite solve its mysteries, at least he is honest enough to admit that — and to give it a try. He wants to get there by getting along, joining a pitched battle against (among other things) the veiled racism of the post-Jim Crow landscape and the trumped-up reasons for sending young people into faraway conflict. That’s not to say that Mellencamp doesn’t sometimes struggle to find purchase on the high ground that he’s always sought to share with artists like Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen. Still, he has never sounded more comfortable in relating the uncertainties that exist inside the reliable traditions of middle America.
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