HIGH ‘N’ LONESOME SOUND, FOREVER Charlie Louvin

“Definitely the songs.” And the
voice, too. Paying tribute to the late country legend.

 

BY ROBERT
BAIRD

 

When Charlie Louvin passed away
yesterday
, Jan. 26, at the age of 83, from pancreatic cancer, one of country
music’s most distinctive voices was permanently silenced. By way of tribute,
then, we present the following story that originally appeared in the April 2007
issue of BLURT predecessor
Harp magazine. At the time of publication, Louvin
had recently released an acclaimed new solo record on the ever-prescient Tompkins Square
label and was enjoying a latterday career resurgence that would yield several
more albums and introduce him to an entire new generation of music fans. – Ed.

 

Beck’s
been doing his songs for years. And Jack White and the Raconteurs have recently
worked the song “The Christian Life” into their set. He’s toured with Cheap
Trick, Cake and the Detroit Cobras, all of whom admire him. Isn’t it about time
Charlie Louvin himself took a crack cementing – or at least celebrating – his
legacy with a new record?

 

Josh
Rosenthal, owner of Tompkins Square Records thought so, but he’s found out that
just because he knows and worships Louvin doesn’t mean everyone else does.
“That’s the main challenge,” Rosenthal says. “A third of the people revere him
and are excited. A third of the people don’t know who he is, really. And a
third of the people thought that he was dead.”

 

As his
new self-titled album shows, Charlie Louvin, the surviving half of country music’s
Louvin Brothers, is a long way from expiring. Backed by luminaries from the
rock world such as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello and Alex McManus of
Bright Eyes, as well as some of the more jagged personas from alt-country
including Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (aka Will Oldham),
Louvin’s back with a rich and relaxed new project.

 

Clearly
flattered by the attention, the famously reticent and humble Louvin is
hilariously polite when asked what he really thinks about all these young bucks
wanting to be a part of what he and Tompkins Square hope will be a comeback
album.

 

“Rock,
yeah it is very different from what I do…” he says, pausing to chuckle at his
own backhanded praise before finishing the thought, “but then everybody’s got
to find their niche, I guess. It would be a real dreary world if we were all
the same.”

 

While he
may not really relate to rock musicians, he does relate to their fans, thanks
to his opening slot on the 2003 tour featuring Cheap Trick and Cake. He also hopes
to lure a few into listening to his record.

 

“The
crowds were very aware. I never went anywhere that the people didn’t know what
I was doing. Naturally I’s scared shitless before the shows ever started. I was
thinking, what are you gonna do when you get out there,  start singing what some people call ‘redneck
music’ and the people start saying, `Hey, we didn’t pay to hear this shit,
let’s get that off the stage.’ I never did come up with a decent answer of what
I would do. But no sir, it never happened.”

 

Truthfully,
Louvin was once a kind of rock star in his own way. Back in the fifties he and
his brother Ira formed the most famous brother duo ever to work in country
music. The Louvin Brothers (the family name was originally Loudermilk) had 12
singles chart from 1955 to 1963 until they acrimoniously parted ways. Ira, the
high tenor, died two years later in an automobile accident in Missouri.

 

While
Charlie has had some success as a solo artist, occasionally reaching the top
ten of the country charts with tunes like “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “See
The Big Man Cry,” it’s the Louvin Brothers material that now looms ever larger.
While they started out singing gospel, recording for both the Apollo and Decca
labels, it’s the duo’s secular material that continues to resonate most.

 

The
Louvins entry into the rock world began with Gram Parsons, who brought “The
Christian Life” to the Byrds’ Sweetheart
of the Rodeo
sessions. He later recorded “Cash On The Barrel Head” on his
second and final solo album, Grievous
Angel
. Parsons protégée Emmylou Harris had an early hit with “If I Could
Only Win Your Love.” In the 1990’s, Uncle Tupelo and Southern Culture on The
Skids both covered, “Great Atomic Power,” the Brothers’ paean to the nuclear
age. In 2004, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs
of the Louvin Brothers
, a Louvin Brothers tribute record that featured,
among others, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and especially Emmylou Harris and
Rodney Crowell (on a transcendent version of “My Baby’s Gone”) won a pair of
Grammy Awards. It’s this steady building of influence that led to Charlie
Louvin’s latest project. Yet according to Tompkins Square’s Rosenthal, Charlie’s
still not quite aware of his own legacy.

 

“You have
all these people from Bright Eyes and Lambchop on the new record, and yet he
doesn’t have a full understanding of the alt country world. He doesn’t really
get that. Charlie is so much fun for me because he doesn’t necessary even have
a handle on the scope of the Diaspora of the music that’s been heeded out there
because of what he’s done. It’s just not his way to spend his time connecting
all the dots and figuring out how influential he is.”

 

Rosenthal
first saw Charlie Louvin several years ago in Albany, New York.
After spending more than a decade at Columbia/Sony Records in promotion, artist
development and sales and marketing, Rosenthal struck out on his own and founded
Tompkins Square
in 2005. One of his first acts was to reach out to Louvin. He emailed the
musician’s website, asking if Charlie would be interested in recording for his
label. Several months went by without an answer.

 

“Finally,”
he says with a laugh, “I got an answer that just said: ‘I’m interested. Charlie
Louvin.'”

 

Rosenthal
adds that he had a concept for the record: “I didn’t want a record of all
Louvin Brothers songs. I thought it would be nice to have a collection of some
key Louvin Brothers songs that should be remembered for all time and also tunes
that inspired him and his brother, and that’s why we came up with a short list
of material by Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers.”

 

Lambchop
member Mark Nevers, who’s engineered albums by Calexico, Will Oldham and the
Silver Jews, was brought in to helm the sessions and also facilitate some of
the guest appearances. After the list of possible songs came a wish list of
guests that got whittled down as scheduling nixed some artists (among them,
Beck) and added others (Tom T. Hall and Marty Stuart, both friends of Louvin).

 

Louvin
also picked two songs, an obscure but gorgeous Carter Family tune, “Grave On A
Green Hillside” (which he sings with Tift Merritt) and “Ira,” a tune about his
brother that he co-wrote with Trent and Tim LeClair. While making cool records
that critics and alt-rock kids should love is all well and good, Charlie is
looking at this project in simpler terms; more along the lines of, say, gettin’
paid.

 

“Josh’s
gone way beyond most record label owners,” Louvin says. “He actually picked the
songs that he thought I oughta cut. He said, ‘If you’ll cut these, I’m sure we
can get them played on college radio. And if you play college radio, you can
work the university. There’s a lot of money to be made there. Lester [Flatt]
and Earl [Scruggs] got rich off of colleges… after the Beverly Hillbillies.’ So
we have great hope.”

 

For
Rosenthal, the thought of doing modern material, a la Johnny Cash doing Beck’s “Rowboat” and Soundgarden’s “Rusty
Cage,” crossed his mind, but in the end he decided against it. “It’s kind of a
choice that you make. There’s a million songs that Charlie could bring a lot of
life to. He’s made records in the past where a producer has given him a song
that’s kind of left field and I just felt like it was a little bit unnatural. I
don’t care for the puppetry that goes along with giving Charlie Louvin a Marilyn
Manson song. I didn’t think it was necessary.”

 

The final
guest list for the project included a healthy cross section of alt talent.
Along with the artists mentioned above, Eef Barzalay (Clem Snide), Mac McCaughan
(Superchunk) and Dan and Tracy Miller (Blanche) also make appearances. The
house band assembled to back the sessions features among the players Lambchop’s
Tony Crow (piano) and William Tyler (guitar), Earl Scruggs’ grandson Chris (guitar),
Chip Young (who played with Elvis Presley; on guitar) and Dennis Crouch (Johnny
Cash, Elvis Costello; upright bass).

 

Overall, Louvin’s
voice is in remarkable shape for a man approaching 80. It’s also remarkable
that a man his age has made an album featuring that voice front and center. On
some tunes, like “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” which is billed a duet with Bright
Eyes’ Alex McManus, you can hardly hear the guest.  There are also times, however – in “Blue Stay
Away From Me,” for example – when he tries to stretch too far and ends up
showing his age. Speaking of age (or better yet, being ageless), longtime
Louvin pal George Jones adds vocals to two tracks, the Bill Anderson-penned “Must
You Throw Dirt In My Face” (which was the last Louvin Brothers hit) and a fun
stroll through “Waiting For A Train,” a tune by the so-called “Father of
Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers.

 

Elvis
Costello takes a verse and duets on a chorus of what was undoubtedly the
Brothers’ most transcendent bit of harmonizing, “When I Stop Dreaming.” Louvin was
in Nevers’ studio in Nashville
when Elvis cut his vocal track and clearly came away impressed by what he
heard.

 

“There
are so many big time rock groups that cut their musical habit on Louvin Brother
material, that I’m just thrilled to death,” he enthuses. “I wanted to
congratulate Elvis on being the father of twins. I called his management the
other day. I was hoping for a phone number where I could call Elvis personally
but I didn’t get it.”

 

Perhaps
the Brothers tune that’s best known among the alt-rock crowd is “Great Atomic
Power,” cut here as a chugging, midtempo gospelized duet between Charlie and
Jeff Tweedy, plus (in the choruses) Mark Nevers’ two daughters. In the
background after each chorus there’s a guitar squall meant to suggest an air
raid siren. Says Louvin, “It kind of scared me when I heard ‘Great Atomic
Power.’ I called Mark’s office and said, ‘You’re gonna have to mix this again
cause you’ve got a hell of a feedback on the choruses.'”

 

Another
highlight is “Ira,” the new song Louvin wrote about his brother just for this
album.

 

It’s well
known that despite being brothers and possessing the ability to sing
otherworldly sibling harmonies  Ira and
Charlie were very different people, starting with the fact that Charlie was a
teetotaler and Ira wasn’t. Talking about the song “Ira” veers the conversation
towards the real life model. Gone now for 41 years, Ira Louvin, the peerless
high harmony and volatile bad temper of the group, was the embodiment of the
title of his 1965 solo album, The
Unforgettable Ira Louvin
. Capable of amusing schemes like the famous tire
fire and cardboard devil on the cover of the Brothers’ Satan is Real album, Ira could also be a nasty drunk about whom the
tales of anger and woe are legendary. Charlie volunteers that his brother was
“getting his ducks in a row” when he was killed. 

 

“It’s
hard for brothers to get along, ‘cause one brother don’t like the other brother
tellin’ him what to do. So Ira and I had an agreement that I would take care of
the business and he would take care of the music.

 

“But it
wasn’t our conflict like that that caused the Louvin Brothers to not sing
together after August 18, 1963. It was simply… liquor. I just didn’t know how
to handle a drunk. I still don’t today. I won’t allow it in my group. I tell
them, ‘I don’t care if you soak in a bathtub full of bourbon, when you show up
for the date, I don’t want you to smell like it or act like it. And if you do,
I’ll unload your equipment and you can get home the best way you can.'”

 

What’s best
about Charlie Louvin is that the guests
are there just for color. Louvin, who in many ways was just as big a character
as his brother was, is not drowned by all this alt-country, alt-rock firepower.
Rosenthal agrees, saying, “It’s Charlie’s record. It’s Charlie’s voice and in
some cases it’s Charlie’s songs and that’s where it’s at. It’s a credit to him
that he was open minded enough to want to do it. I think older artists, it’s
kind of easier for them because they know who they are. You don’t have to
convince them of anything.”

 

One thing
Louvin is convinced about is the reason why the Brothers’ music has lived on, and in fact grown larger and more influential
with the passage of time. This is not an honor that most country stars of his
generation can claim.

 

“I
believe that the life of the Louvin Brothers is definitely the songs. They say
something that a lot of people can associate with, either when they’s young or
when they got too old to enjoy it. So first and foremost, it starts with the
song. And then when you’re born and raised in the same house, you can never
find anybody [else] that their dialect and their way of thinking is the same as
yours. And that’s why.

 

“That,
and I never let the publicity go to my head.”

 

[Photo
Credit: Alan Messer]

 

 

 

 

 

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