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Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013

The Ghosts of Darkland County

John Mellencamp-Steven King comes to the Riverside

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“Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.” The image from 1985 shows John Mellencamp’s knack for literary horror, 15 years before he began writing a musical with horror writer Stephen King. The song about a dying Heartland farm was one of the singer-songwriter’s first indelible artistic statements. Some years ago, Mellencamp bought a lake cabin which turned out to be allegedly haunted by accidental deaths and restless spirits, the inspiration for Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, the “live radio musical” that will come to the Riverside Theater on Oct. 29.

The story’s key dynamic is two mirroring male relationships—dead brothers who haunt their living nephews in a Southern gothic atmosphere of poisoned character entanglement.

Curiously Mellencamp and King developed into working “blood brothers.” King’s prolific sensibility resurfaces relentlessly like a specter from the dankest pits of the American experience. He’s also an amateur musician, and a roots music aficionado.

“The greatest thing about Ghost Brothers is my friendship with Steve King,” Mellencamp said in an interview with The Tennessean in Nashville. “He and I are like brothers. In 15 years, I don’t think we’ve had a cross word.”

However, the biography John Mellencamp: Born in a Small Town details his problematic history with collaboration.

“I don’t play well with the other kids, and neither did Steve,” Mellencamp admits. “Steve lives in Maine by himself. I live in Indiana by myself so the idea of him and I working together doesn’t sound like it would work very well, [but]…it’s worked fantastically.”

Ominous isolation? Their compounded charisma and connections attracted an all-star cast recording, including actors Matthew McConaughey and Meg Ryan (Mellencamp’s current girlfriend). The recording’s musical lineup: Mellencamp, producer T-Bone Burnett, Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, Sheryl Crow and Marc Ribot.

The touring cast stars Bruce Greenwood as the father, Joe McCandless. Greenwood played JFK in the film Thirteen Days, Denzel Washington’s friend/union rep in Flight and Captain Christopher Pike in two Star Trek films. Emily Skinner (as Joe's wife Monique) earned a Tony nomination for Side Show.

Blues-influenced singer-songwriter Jake LaBotz plays The Shape and a few other cast members have musical credits. Mellencamp’s band, led by guitarist Andy York, provides the accompaniment.

The tale’s Mississippi cabin is “haunted by the ghosts of people that had a terrible thing happen,” King said. “Because it is so awful, their spirits stayed there, and then the whole chain of events starts to repeat itself.”

The libretto’s shades of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and perhaps Carson McCullers underscore King’s undervalued skills as a psychological writer. Pithy Mellencamp lyrics and memorable refrains reflect a theme of suffering, resilience and self-acceptance in the face of fate. Booth says the low production values “allows us to sit and listen to Stephen’s words and plug our imagination in, rather than having the work done for us by a fully stage production.”