february 2011

louvin messer

‘That Sound Of Blood’

Charlie Louvin Takes His Harmony To Heaven

July 7, 1927-January 26, 2011

By David McGee

In reviewing Charlie Louvin’s latest album, The Battle Rages On, I expressed the hope that the country music legend could prevail in his personal battle with pancreatic cancer as successfully as do the soldiers he sings of in his songs of heroism in extreme circumstances. But in his particular illness, Louvin, a WWII and Korean War veteran both, faced his deadliest opponent. He underwent surgery on July 22, 2010, but, as per his son Sonny’s report on Charlie’s website, “the surgery did not go as planned” and his father proceeded with a regimen of alternative treatments thereafter.

On January 26 Charlie Louvin died from complications of pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Betty (they were married on September 18, 1949), and sons Charlie Jr. (aka Sonny), Glenn and Kenneth, and five grandchildren.

In the aftermath of his death, tributes poured in honoring Charlie personally and attesting to the lasting influence of he and his late brother Ira—the Louvin Brothers—on succeeding generations of country and even rock musicians.

Randy Lewis of the L.A. Times Music Blog tracked down a few Louvin acolytes himself and included their observations in his “Remembering Charlie Louvin” blog of January 27. A sampling of those remarks:

louvin brosVince Gill: "You can't find anybody, I don't think, that was not inspired by them. They are the kingpins of that family harmony, and there were so many of them: the Osborne Brothers, the Bales Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, the Wilburn Brothers, the Everlys and on and on and on. I was always drawn to that sound of blood. What I spent my whole life trying to be was the blood of whoever I was singing with. Rodney [Crowell] was one of those for me, I sang so much with him when I was young. Buck Owens and Don Rich were the closest two guys that weren't related that sounded related. I've always been completely undone by the seamlessness of what blood did in music."

Marty Stuart: "Growing up in the South, the Louvin Brothers were part of the atmosphere; like the scent of magnolias, they were part of the breeze."

Phil Everly: “They influenced everybody by the quality of their music. Harmony just got a lot better in Heaven.”

And the most emotional remembrance, from Chris Hillman: "My mother bought a Louvin Brothers album some place in 1960 because it had a picture of Ira playing a mandolin, and she knew I was learning the mandolin. I was a sophomore in high school in Del Mar, Calif. I put the record on the turntable, and oh my God. It was [their 1956] Tragic Songs of Life album, all the old songs with just the two of them. I loved it, I loved the mandolin playing. And that was it, I was swept away.

"After high school, my interest was reignited when I started working with Vern Gosdin and brother Rex. Their uncle Rebe had written 'Don't Laugh' that the Louvins recorded, so here I am, 18 years old playing Louvin Brothers with those harmonies to die for. The Byrds taught me 'Kentucky Song,' which the Louvins used to do. Didn't think much about them for a while, until 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' album, and Gram [Parsons] reignited that love for them; that's when we started doing 'The Christian Life.'  They were always in my life from time I was 16, when they came in totally by accident.

"But it was supposed to be. They were divinely placed in my lap. I owe them both for shaping my whole journey."

Charlie and Ira Louvin, ‘I Don’t Believe You’ve Meet My Baby,’ introduced by Ernest Tubb

The basic biography has been well trumpeted: born Charles Elizer Loudermilk on July 7, 1927 in Henagar, AL, in the state’s Sand Mountain hill country, Charlie (one of seven Loudermilk children) began singing at age eight, and by his teens was performing professionally with his older (by three years), mandolin playing, tenor-voiced brother Ira, performing traditional and shape-note gospel music on radio in Chattanooga, TN, inspired by the likes of the Delmore Brothers, the Carter Family and the Blue Sky Boys. Their career pursuits were delayed twice, first when Charlie went into the service in WWII in 1945 and again in 1952 when he served in Korea. During those years the brothers and their families lived variously in Knoxville, Memphis (where both worked as postal clerks for a time) and finally back to their native state, settling in Birmingham. Gospel music remained the Louvins’ stock-in-trade even after they were signed to Capitol in 1953—their original song “The Family Who Prays” in fact became a gospel standard and propelled them onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where they settled in as a lively, popular attraction.

At the urging of their publisher, Fred Rose, of the fabled Acuff-Rose company and Hank Williams legend, the brothers began recording more secular material, and in 1955 broke through with a Top 10 hit, “When I Stop Dreaming,” one of their most heart tugging love songs and also a textbook example of the Louvins’ unique, and mesmerizing, harmony style, which often veered into octaves to produce an ethereal, mysterious, soulful cry like no other in popular music of any kind.

When asked how he and Ira developed their unusual harmony style, Charlie told a reporter at RaisedCountry.com that the process was in part developed by accident, when the brothers were but lads: “We would crawl under mama’s and papa’s bed, which was about 16 inches off the floor. We’d put our hind ends together and we would sing a song. That’s how we learned to phrase together without lookin’ at each other, without steppin’ on each other’s toes, or winking at each other. It just come natural. If the song was gonna get too high for me to sing the lead on, at that instant he’d take the high lead, and I would come under him with low harmony. We learned it that way, and it that kinda mystified other duets who were tryin’ to figure out who was doin’ the tenor and who was who was doin’ the lead.”

The Louvin Brothers, ‘When I Stop Dreaming,’ 1955

“When I Stop Dreaming” has been praised by the eminent country music historian Bill C. Malone as “one of the finest performances of pure country music heard on recordings.” From the time of the single’s release in 1955 to their 1963 breakup, the Louvins amassed an awe inspiring catalogue of country monuments, both in original songs ("Cash On the Barrelhead," "I Wish It Had Been a Dream," "The Great Atomic Power") and in covers of traditional tunes they made their own ("The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea," "Knoxville Girl"). In their time together Charlie and Ira heard their style echoed back in the keening harmonies of the Kentucky-born Everly Brothers; in 1968 Gram Parsons helped introduce the brothers' music to a new generation when, as a member of the Byrds, he persuaded the band to include "The Christian Life" on the pivotal Sweetheart of The Rodeo album; in the ensuing decade, Parsons's friend Emmylou Harris championed the Louvins' work repeatedly on record, in concert and in interviews, as she continues to do today; in 2003 a cross-generational array of artists paid memorable tribute in Livin', Lovin', Losin': The Songs of the Louvin Brothers, a 2004 Grammy Award winner as Best Country Album.

When the Louvins were cutting their teeth as professionals, country and bluegrass had no shortage of brother duos: Charlie and Bill Monroe had long since split up, but the Delmores, the Wilburns, the Baleses were all going strong. But by the time Charlie and Ira hit their stride, as the critic John Morthland has noted, brotherly vocalizing was on its way out. When the volatile, alcoholic Ira went his own way in 1963, closing the Louvins chapter in country music history, even the Everlys were sputtering commercially. Charlie then launched a successful solo career that generated six Billboard-charting singles between 1964 and 1972, starting with the Bill Anderson-penned "I Don't Love You Anymore," a Number Four chart hit, and including a series of hit duets with Melba Montgomery. Ira, meanwhile, relocated to Missouri with his fourth wife, Anne Young, where his efforts to establish his own solo career were futile. On June 20, 1965, following a week of concerts in Kansas City, Ira and Anne were killed when a drunk driver plowed into their car on the road between St. Louis and Kansas City.

ira car wreck
Wreck on the highway: Ira Louvin’s car after it was hit by a drunk driver on the road between St. Louis and Kansas City, June 20, 1965

Charlie pressed on, always finding a home for his music on small, independent labels and always welcome on the Opry stage. In the last three years of his life he found his career on the fast track again after signing with the New York City-based Tompkins Square label, which became Charlie’s home for five albums, starting in 2007 with a self-titled long-player on which he was teamed him with a cross-generational array of guest artists including Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Tift Merritt, George Jones, Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, among others, in revisiting original Louvin landmarks ("When I Stop Dreaming," "The Christian Life," "Great Atomic Power"), as well as Charlie's own moving tribute to his late brother, "Ira"; and songs from the artists who inspired Charlie and Ira's music—A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, The Delmore Brothers. In 2008 came two new releases in Steps to Heaven, a gospel album that paired him for the first time in his career with a black gospel choir and moved Charlie to remark, “I did things on this gospel record I had no idea I could do, and I did it” and the Grammy nominated Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs; his Tompkins Square catalogue is rounded out by two live albums, 2007’s Live at Shake It Records and last year’s Hickory Wind: Live at the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull. The abovementioned The Battle Rages On is on the True North label.

Josh Rosenthal, founder of Tompkins Square, posted a touching remembrance of Charlie on the label’s website on January 26, in which he recalled his early meeting with the legend. In one paragraph he described an early encounter that turned out to be revelatory, a moment when Charlie opened his heart to a near stranger without saying a word, but at the same time said more than Rosenthal could have hoped. “I always felt it was my job to just facilitate whatever it was that Charlie felt like doing,” Rosenthal writes. “In 2007, I called Mark Nevers (Lambchop) [ed.  Note: producer Mark Nevers steered Charlie’s TS sessions.] cold and we went over to Charlie's house to discuss a recording. He asked me to bring a contract, but that it should be only one page, like the old Capitol deals. (I think he took me on because my middle name is Ira). The first thing he played us on his boombox was a recitation of his, ‘The Silence of Aging,’ all about getting old. Charlie started to cry. I saw him cry several times. He said in an interview that sometimes he'd cry and didn't know why, like he'd be watching his favorite cartoon, Roadrunner, and just start weeping. Another time was when we sat together at the Grammys. There was a performance by a black gospel group, and he was moved to tears.”

albumCharlie Louvin, the first Tompkins Square album, brought the artist and I together on a dreary January 2007 day for an interview to be published in Acoustic Guitar magazine upon the album’s release. We met early one morning at his Louvin Brothers Museum, now closed but then doing business across the drive from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. There Charlie spent his days surrounded by a multitude of photos charting his and Ira's journey, as well as concert posters, letters, vintage vinyl recordings, t-shirts and other memorabilia, some for sale, much of it only for display purposes. Located in a strip mall a few yards away from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, the Museum was not much larger than a '50s malt shop, which in fact it resembled inside, complete with counter service and a menu featuring barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, Cokes, coffee and such. (He served me a cup of hot coffee and asked how I liked it. “Black,” I said. He raised his cup to me. “Now there’s a man who knows how to drink coffee,” he said. I felt like I had written a hit song with him.) In one corner was a small stage, set up for open mike nights on weekends, at which the store's proprietor often sat in ("sometimes it's pretty good," Charlie said, "sometimes it can get pretty grim"), In the museum, and in the ensuing interview, Charlie proved himself a dutiful steward of the Louvin Brothers’ legacy, and by his words indicated how vivid the music he and Ira made together remained in his soul. As we sat at the counter chatting away, Charlie smoked cigarettes, sipped his hot, black coffee, and nibbled on jellied candy orange slices. Now there was a man who knew how to eat candy.

Charlie Louvin signing autographs on opening day of his Louvin Brothers Museum in Nashville. Photo: Sanford Myers

This tribute to Charlie includes the full Q&A we engaged in at his museum in January 2007. Granted, he had addressed some of these topics many times before and had a well-oiled presentation down, but we went to a few new places as well, and he held nothing back. As it happened, with the album centered on Louvins repertoire, asking about the songs was tantamount to exploring the brothers’ history, and Charlie needed no prompting to provide the necessary background—in fact, he delighted in it. In retrospect his pride in having sustained a solo career after the breakup with Ira was far less consequential to him than the achievements of the Louvin Brothers, mainly because the exploits with Ira were about family, and Charlie treasured his family. I think in his mind’s eye when he spoke of the Louvin Brothers’ career he saw himself, Ira, his other siblings, his mother and his father, all together in the Alabama hill country again, and it warmed his heart. Something good came out of those hard times, something more than the Louvins’ legend and reach, something spiritual that buoyed Charlie’s soul to the end of his days, and indeed, continued to provide him inspiration. Think about the final scene in Robert Benton’s beautiful 1984 movie Places In the Heart, when the camera pans the church congregation and we see all the characters, living and dead, who have shaped the little town’s history, for better or for worse, again all together as one, in communion, in God’s hand. Not much more need be said, save the deeply held belief in these quarters that the world is a little worse off for Charlie’s departure. But I hope, I surely do hope, Phil Everly is right about that harmony in Heaven thing. Love never ends.


A Conversation With Charlie Louvin

Charlie Louvin’s tribute to his brother, ‘Ira,’ from his 2007 Charlie Louvin album for the Tompkins Square label

Before I even asked a question, Charlie started in talking about the song “Ira” he had written about/for his departed brother, and mentioned another new song, “The Silence of Aging,” which Josh Rosenthal references above, that didn’t make the album. From there we took off.

What inspired you to write a song about your brother in the first place?

Well, David, I've tried a lot of people, and there ain't no Iras. I don't care where you go. Lot of times I'm out and I'll have somebody says, "I know an ol' boy lives up the holler here who can sing exactly like your brother." And I'll say, "Well, go get him, I want to hear him." So they'll bring him and I'll say, "What songs of the Louvin Brothers do you know?" "I don't know, I know most of 'em." I'll say, "Do you know 'Nearer My God to Thee'?" "Yeah, yeah." "Well sing that song." Put my capo on, make a D position, which is an E, and immediately he says, "Oh, me and so-and-so, we sang that in D," and I just tell the guy, well, he ain't no Ira Louvin. But when I do have a pretty good one—and I used to try to do this—and I carry a pretty good tenor singer that played mandolin—I was rudely reminded several times, "That ol' boy you brought with you is pretty good, but he ain't no Ira Louvin." I say, "I knew that before I left home." So I'm criticized if I get a tenor singer and just do Louvin Brothers songs, trying to cash in on something that I'm not entitled to. So I have this lady and a boy that plays bass. We do a lot of Louvin Brothers songs, but we do 'em trio form, and they don't even bring that up that there is no high tenor there. The girl sings high tenor without being called a high tenor singer. But that's the way we're doing a lot of the songs.

How did the song develop?

Well, we started off with where we was born. Our first paying job was in 1941. We dreamed of doing the Opry. We didn't have a radio because we were honest to God poor people. Maybe when I was 16 we got an old battery radio. But we didn't get electricity at our house until after we was already gone. It was 1947; I'd have been 20 years old then. So we heard all this great stuff; of course you was limited on how much time you could play the radio, you know. Not like today—hell, people go away from home they leave their radio on, so people will think there's somebody there. But we couldn't' do that. We'd go to the grocery man's, a little over a quarter of a mile, we'd walk over there on Saturday night, and there might be 20 people in his living room, listening to the Opry. Of course we admired Acuff; the Delmore Brothers was/is and will always be the hottest duet ever to perform on the Opry. And it was those 26 Saturdays that you had to give the Opry in order to be called a member, and they had a disagreement with that because that's the best money date of the week. So they left the Opry. Monroe Brothers never was on the Opry. They recorded for Bluebird Records, and we had some of their records that my daddy would bring home. But they broke up before Bill came to the Opry in 1939. He's credited with bluegrass because that's what he called his band; him being from Kentucky, he called them the Bluegrass Boys. He didn't pay very well, so he had a lot of personnel changes. Usually his banjo player and his guitar player—he always had to hire a lead singer—they would leave and form their own act. That happened with Mac Wiseman and Don Reno, and another guy, then with Flatt and Scruggs. They'd go off and they couldn't call their band the Bluegrass Boys but they could say, "We're gonna play bluegrass music." That's the way the name was born. Actually there was maybe one song that was actually written for a bluegrass act, the Osborne Brothers, "Rocky Top," written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. It was written for the Osborne Brothers and it became a hit, one of the state songs here. But most bluegrass music is just country music speeded up. Once a grass group records it, in their mind it becomes a bluegrass number. But the Louvin Brothers have been very fortunate; hadn't got paid for all of it, lot of the signature albums comes out, some of 'em is all Louvin Brothers songs. I'm so conscious of how we got started that I wouldn't report nobody. If a publishing company don't hear about it and rake you over the coals, I certainly won't. But we were given a real nice award for the Louvin Brothers' contribution to bluegrass music through the songs.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘A Soldier’s Last Letter,’ penned by Redd Stewart and Ernest Tubb. The brothers’ version was included on their 1962 album, The Weapon of Prayer, and is reprised by Charlie on his last album, The Battle Rages On.

Is it true that you and Ira always resisted being categorized as bluegrass musicians?

My brother woulda fought you if you'd called him bluegrass. Because we never recorded with a banjo, save one—"We Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow," and we got Grandpa Jones to help us out. We put a 7 chord in it, and that just really pissed Pa off. "Who put that off chord in that song? That ain't right!" I said, "Gives you something to highlight the harmony a little." But Pa had a capo on his banjo and that messed him up. Like if you was playing a D, that seventh chord's a C; with the capo on it you couldn't make a C chord unless you went way down to the bottom, made it down there. But he got through it.

But we didn't record with banjo and very little fiddle. We did some fiddle on the MGM record. Well I guess we had a little fiddle on "Alabama" also, the first song we recorded for Decca. The first one we recorded was on Apollo Records, Smiling Eddie Hill's label, and we were working for him. We were pretty warm in Memphis and he wanted to put us on there. In little copyright-size print it says "Vocal Duet," with The Louvin Brothers on the right hand side of the hole. I never had [a copy of the record.] Searched for one for 30 years. Finally found it in Pennsylvania. The guy said, "I hear you've been looking for one. I'll mail mine to you." I said, "Oh, God, please. Don't even talk about the mail. I'll drive up there and pick it up. But don't put it in the mail because it'll be crumbled when it gets here." Those 78s are too fragile. I finally got that but it's so precious I got offered $10,000 for it. I got it at the house. I wouldn't put it up here.

How did you and Ira work together as songwriters?

Well, I gave him lots of ideas, David. Any songwriter's gonna have something to write about. Way back when radio was good I listened to radio; I don't much anymore; it just upsets me. But I would hear somebody make a statement—like I was listening to a preacher one morning and he was talking about some people use their small children as an excuse why they don't go to church, because the kids might cry and upset the people there, and even the preacher would get irritated. But this preacher preached on it and said, "Suppose God would see fit just to remove your excuses?" And I told Ira, "I believe that's a song title." And in 15 minutes he wrote the song. He was gifted as a writer. I think writers are born. I've wrote a few songs, but nothing like him. He could write a song as quick as he could write a postcard to his mom.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘Love They Neighbor’ from their 1958 album, The Family Who Prays

Was there an editing process that went on? Once you had the framework for a song, would you toss it back and forth and refine the lyrics?

Yeah, we'd do that. I'm almost ashamed to tell this but it's the gospel truth. He would come to my house, when we weren't on the road, which was not very often. But he'd come to my house with his mandolin and say, "Get your guitar. I just wrote this song." I'd have no idea what the melody of the song would be, but I knew him so well that when he started singing tenor I could put a lead with it. And if I didn't, first time through, he'd just wad it up and throw it in the trashcan. He'd say, "Probably wasn't no good anyway, I'll write another one." Lot of times I thought the song really had merit, so I'd take it out of the trashcan, smooth it out, and two or three weeks later, I'd find him in a good mood and I'd say, "Show me the tune that you had for this song," and it would be a good song. "Born Again" happened that way. "If We Forget God" happened that way. Because I was unable to know the song instantly without anybody showing me anything, he'd say, "It wasn't no good." He had no patience with humans, but he could take a walnut and carve two monkeys swinging in a swing on it and might work on it two months. He had all the patience in the world with repairing instruments, putting mother of pearl on 'em, but he had no patience with us human people. But he had the gift of writing.

He was basically the lyricist in the duo?

Yes. We'd work on the melodies together. You could tell the melody was made to bring the tenor up power. Today if you and I was a duet, and you sang tenor, you would be more faint than the guy carrying the melody. But that wasn't true. I could get from here to there to a microphone, and he could stand as far away as you are from the cup and he'd still override. But we never used two mics during our career. We used one microphone. That way we could control what we thought it ought to sound like. If you put it on separate mics, then you're at the mercy of the mixer, what he thinks a duet should sound like. Some people still do that. The Osbornes used to have this very expensive microphone that they'd gang around, and they'd set it for 'em at the Opry. They didn't want to work five, six feet apart.

Well, the most entertaining part of Lester and Earl's show was to see how the pickers could work their way into the mic without hurting anybody. And if the fiddle player could get in, the dobro player, the banjo player. That was half of their show, and they had it so it worked like clockwork.

But the "Ira" song we started in Alabama. In our day there wasn't nobody that didn't want to be an Opry member. So in the song we said, "Alabama was the second hardest," and the first hardest would be when we weren't together. I wrote the verse, "You had a way with writing music from the heart/and there was a time when you give Bill Monroe a run for this money," he and Monroe were good friends. And Monroe liked very few people, but he liked Ira. If you said something about tenor singers, he'd tell you right quick "There ain't but two, and  Ira Louvin's the other one"—he always included himself as number one. I suppose that Ira could have sang tenor to Monroe's tenor, if you kept Monroe at a falsetto, because on our records Ira never used falsetto. I'm sure he had one, because he impersonated Minnie Pearl, but I couldn't sing high enough to force him to use falsetto. I love the open harmony. It might be a little rough when some people do it that way, but I could live with it that way better than I could with that squeaky falsetto.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me,’ on the Pet Milk Grand Ole Opry show—‘Man, that’s a real tearjerker!’

So the lyric in your song “Ira” about always hearing your brother’s voice when you're singing maybe explains why you haven't been satisfied with the other tenors that have come along to join you from time to time.

(laughs) Some time before I die—the Japanese will probably be the ones to do it—you’ll get you a gizmo to put on your ears and when you sing a song, whatever your hear in your head will actually come out and you can record it. Now when I get that, I'll be one of the best trios—

You'll be back in business then!

I will! On this new record, in two or three places—like "When I Stop Dreaming"—I always let the girl sing the first verse. We start off with the harmony—"When I stop dreaming/That's when I'll stop loving you"—then she sings her verse and then we sing, "That's when I'll stop wanting you," and it changes from E, modulates up to B, and I sing the lead on the rest of the song. I done that in the session, and the powers that be, whoever it was, they didn't want her on the record at that point. So they took it off and said, "You'll have to come back in and sing it." I said, "Shit, that's not my key. E puts me right through the floor; I'm not Red Foley or Ernest Tubb, I can't do it."  "Oh, you can do it. You can do it."

So I went back in and as far as I'm concerned it's a sloppy job. You just kind of wandered around because I don't have that kind of low notes. But we got through it, then Elvis Costello did the first one and I did the second one.

I thought your part was very effective. I like the arrangement.

Well, I like the fiddles on it, but sometimes when we put harmony on it, they'd get some of those rock 'n' rollers in there and it'd sound like a front porch get-together, nobody knew what the other was doing and it covered up some of our better harmony. He left a little on "Grave On the Green Hillside." That dates back...I heard Helen, Anita and June Carter sing that when Anita was six years old. They had the transcriptions that they shipped to radio stations; they weren't for sale, you couldn't buy 'em, those radio transcriptions.

Emmylou Harris and Charlie Louvin perform a Louvin Brothers classic, ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love.’ Emmylou’s single version, from her 1974 debut album Pieces of the Sky, was a career launching #4 country single.

This is an album of Louvin landmarks in a way, in that you have Carter Family songs, Delmore Brothers, you reference your influences so often, and you start the record off with a song written by Bill Anderson, who wrote your first solo hit. What do you think about him as a songwriter?

Anderson, of course, he's an educated boy; went to college for journalism. He is maybe, it would be a tossup between he and Curly Putman—I think Curly Putman is one of the greater writers ever born; Anderson's ahead of him because Curly's well went dry. And Anderson, course Curly Putman, Harlan Howard, they didn't mix up with the young kids coming along today. But Bill has, 'cause everybody knows he's a great songwriter, and they get hung up on a song and he throws in a line or two and it's half his song. So he's still producing songs.

But it's a funny song, and it strikes me as if Bill were writing a good natured parody of a Louvin Brothers song in that it starts off bad and it keeps getting worse, this woman keeps coming back to inflict more pain. After she's already made her point. I think last year, 2006, Anderson had more co-writes than he's had probably in three decades. He's getting his credit on a lot of songs.

You could go back to the days when the pro helped the amateur. When Hank Williams started writing, Fred Rose, hell, Fred wrote "Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain," he would straighten Hank's songs out, change a line. They never would admit that until after Fred died. But he did.

My brother, when we would turn in songs, Fred would say, "Wouldn't it have been better if you'd said this?" And Ira would say, "Fred, if you don't like it, I'll write another one. But if we record it, dammit, we're gonna record it this way. That's the way I felt it. I wrote it; it might not be perfect, but neither is the Louvin Brothers." He'd always say that. So Fred would just let it ride. But Fred got us in the business, with the exception of the Eddie Hill Apollo thing, but that was a nothing thing. He got us a contract with MGM and produced our first couple of sessions. Then he came to us one day and said, you know, "I've learned that if you're not Hank Williams or Patti Page you've got no business being on MGM, because that's where all their promotion money's spent." So he got us on Capitol, and he was the one who recorded "The Family Who Prays." They publish that crap about Ken Nelson found us working in a Post Office in Memphis; we were working at a Post Office in Memphis, but our contact with the music world was Fred Rose. He got us a contract and then later Ken Nelson got us on the Opry, through a bluff. It was an outright bluff.

We had tried, tried. We had auditioned for Jim Denny. Shit, Jim Denny was just a stage manager. He had no hiring or firing ability, but he did have a publishing company. Of course if you didn't record Jim Denny's song, something in his publishing company, you would be on the short stick of show dates, because he ran a booking agency too. Which was illegal, and finally he got fired for that. Jack Stapp was the boss. So we had auditioned several times and he told us like he told Elvis-he told Elvis don't give up his truck job-and he told us, "We'll call you, don't call us." We were so exasperated that when I got back from Korea we was gonna quit. We had won everything that gospel music had to offer, but you can't make a living that way. It's almost like begging, and we never did do that, thank God. We were working in Birmingham after I got back from Korea. We resigned from the Post Office [in Memphis] because the guy wouldn't give me—after you get out of the Army you're supposed to go back to your job; if you don't, you lose it—but I was a Civil Service employee there, they couldn't fire me. I asked for three or it might have been six months, and he said, "That's just like these hillbillies. Make up your mind. Do you want to sing or do you want to work at the Post Office? But your request is denied.” I told him to take his job and shove it, and we left and went to Birmingham. My wife is a very conservative type person. She saved royalty money while I was gone, the allotment, she worked, all this, so we had some money and a car paid for, and a 20-foot mobile—they called it a mobile home then but it was real dinky; but there was only two of us. So Ira said he knew where we could do well in music, and I believed him, and we went to Birmingham. After six or seven months I spent everything that was in the bank, was out of the mobile home, sold it, and he and I—and he had a child and his wife, and we had a child that was born while I was in Korea—and we were living in one side of a two-bedroom duplex, all six of us. So I called Ken Nelson, rather than quit, to see what he could do. I called him from a pay phone, because we had already lost our home phone. I said, "You know anybody at the Opry?" He said, "I know Jack Stapp pretty well." That was a new name to me. I said, "Ira and I, we're gonna quit if we can't get on the Opry. We believe the Opry would turn it around." So he called Jack, and I don't know exactly what Jack said to him, but he must have stuttered. Ken told him, "I've got this duet on my label and I'd like them to be on the Opry." Whatever Jack said, it didn't jibe with what Ken was talking about, so he said, "If you don't want 'em, Springfield, Missouri, does." Springfield had the first television country station, and Jack said, "Now wait a minute, Ken. We don't need nobody defecting to Springfield. Tell 'em they're on this Friday." That was on a Tuesday. The girls packed up what we had, Ira's wife went back to Knoxville to her family, and my wife went back to Memphis and her family, and we came to Nashville.

chet atkins louvins
Ira and Charlie with Chet Atkins, circa 1956. Atkins and Paul Yandell were the stalwart electric guitarists in the Louvins’ always-solid backing bands. Photo: Bill Preston.

I never will forget, we met Mr. Stapp, we met Vito Pellitierri—he's the guy that called you and said, "What song are you going to sing this week?" [Ed. note: Vito Pellittieri was the stage manager for the Grand Ole Opry]—and you could look at the program and the titles of the songs you were gonna sing in on the program. Then we met Jim Denny. We had met him before in a tool shed down at the Ryman. His secretary's name was Mary Claire. He said, "Mary Claire, get me Webb Pierce." Few seconds the phone would ring, "How you doing, Webb?" And he'd talk, talk. Then he'd say, "Get me Minnie Pearl." "Get me Carl Smith." All these people left with Jim when he got fired. Finally Ira, he always had a shorter fuse than I did, stood up and said, "Mr. Denny, we'll see you on the show tonight." Well that must have hit a nerve with Jim, because he pulled his glasses down on his nose and looked up and said, "Boys, you're in tall timber. You better shit and git it." Ira said, "We have the saws, Mr. Denny, you just show us where the woods are." And that even made him madder. But we were very lucky to get on the Opry. I still think it's one of the highlights of my life, to strive for something that long. Most people would have given up and stuck to the beer joints. I don't know how to handle a drunk, didn't know how to handle Ira—Ira was a big-time drinker—and I still don't know how to handle a drunk today. When they grab you by the shoulders and insist on putting their face six inches from yours and talking to you that way, I'll do something bad to get loose. I just can't stand a drunk blowing Jack Daniel's in my face. I could point out some of the most important things in my life has been lost because, for no other reason, than whiskey. I suppose I could even say that I hate it. I hate to see people get hooked on that.

You've seen what it can do.

Well, it's very hard. I don't know if you have a brother, but brothers don't like to take orders from the other brother. So Ira and I tried to work it out. I said, "You take care of the music, I'll take care of the business." Sometimes that would get crossways. Sometimes we'd be on stage and he's supposed to be taking care of the music. We'd be on the stage, and he'd say, "What do you want to do next?" And I always had a title. "What do you want to do next?" And I'd just give him a title, and he'd look at me and say it almost loud enough for the audience to hear, "What do you want to sing that G-d thing for?" I said, "You asked for a title. I gave you one!" In a way it was comic. He busted instruments. His mandolin got out of tune he'd sling it back against the wall and go stomp it. Then he'd call his wife and have her ship him another mandolin the next night, and he'd sweep that one up and put it in a sack.

You recorded "The Great Atomic Power" in the '50s and here we are today, 50 years later, and we're talking about Iran getting nuclear weapons, North Korea going nuclear, India and Pakistan already have the bomb. You could have thought up that song today and it would still be relevant. What inspired that song in the first place?

Buddy Bane had that idea. Buddy Bane is a boy from Corinth, Mississippi, and he would come to Memphis every chance he got, and Eddie Hill would let him sing on the program. He had the idea but he couldn't put it together. So he asked Ira to help him on the song, and hell, he just sat down and wrote it in a few minutes. Then we recorded it and Buddy gave us two-thirds of the song instead of spitting it between Ira and himself; he put both our names on it, published it with Acuff-Rose.

Get a whole bunch of kids.’ Well, he didn't get no kids, but he got—I don't know how many people are on it. Mark brought in a whole slew of people I never met—still hadn't met 'em—people from Wilco and BR 5-49, I don't know these people.

With all due respect to the younger artists on the new record, the veterans—Bobby Bare, George, Tom T.—really carry the day when they come around.

I don't know how many people are on it. Mark Nevers brought in a whole slew of people I never met—still haven't met 'em—people from Wilco and BR 5-49, I don't know these people. I was there when Jones cut "Must You Throw Dirt." He wasn't in good voice that morning. I think he just ate dinner and took up all of his air space. So I believe Mark used Pro Tools on him. I'd fight an engineer that wanted to use Pro Tools on me. Everybody that knows me knows that when the Good Lord don't let me sing on pitch, on key, I'll quit. Now everybody screws up once in a while, but when I get to where I can't hear pitch and can't be on pitch, I want out. Because I don't want people to talk about me like they talked about Lester, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe—these people didn't have to keep on singing. They had the means to retire. If you work 50 years trying to be on key and you only live one year off key, that's all the people remember. "Oh, yeah, I heard him. I never heard anybody sing any flatter or any sharper than he did." I didn't want to be remembered that way.

One thing I’ve always liked about your gospel songs is that oftentimes there's a message, not just songs about "I'm going to meet someone in Heaven when my day comes." So many of your songs seem to have a message about—

About how you should do it here. Well, now a lot of people have said they believed Ira was called to preach. He didn't answer that call, but he wrote about it; he knew the Book. You listen to the songs, you know he knew the Book. He told his mom that when he got back from Kansas City he was gonna get him a tent and he would start preaching. And momma believed it. If that was true, I suppose the good Lord was glad to hear something like that but He knew Ira wasn't strong enough to follow through on it. So he just got him out of here. But he was always told, so many times he was sick of hearing it, "whiskey's gonna kill you." Whiskey did kill him. There was two black people in the other car, on the other side of the road, and according to Missouri law they was nine times drunk, on their way from St. Louis to Kansas City, celebrating Father's Day. They just started celebrating before they left. He got killed exactly at the halfway point between Kansas City and St. Louis.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘Alabama,’ from Tragic Songs of Life (1956)

How important in your life is church, religion, the Bible?

It's very important. I don't profess to be good, but I do as good as I can. But as children, on a Saturday night, we didn't wonder, or we didn't ask, "Are we going to church tomorrow?" You knew you was. My daddy and momma never sent us to church; they took us. My daddy was a strict man. He never believed in telling you but once to do something. If you didn't do it, you would remember it.

Those songs about, as you put it, "how you do it here," did you believe that? Do they express principles that you believe and live by?

I do. I do believe that.

You weren't just writing songs to entertain people; you had something to say.

If your neighbor has more ammunition than you do, he's gonna blow you away and take what you have. That's what it would be if we had no laws of God. Sometimes they contradict with man-made laws, but yeah, I'm a strong believer. I don't know about poppa, but I believe my momma is in Heaven, and that makes me want to do better.

The new album reflects the range of influences on the Louvins’ music. A couple of songs are from A.P. Carter. How important was the Carter Family in shaping your own music?

We liked to listen to the Carter Family; truly enjoyed them. And we sang a lot of their songs, because they put out nothing that harmony wouldn't work on. But our true favorites were the Delmores, because nobody ever phrased better than Alton and Rabon Delmore. It's like one voice was doing both parts.

The Delmore Brothers, ‘Blues Stay Away From Me’ (1946). ‘Our true favorites were the Delmores,’ Charlie Louvin said, ‘because nobody ever phrased better than Alton and Rabon Delmore.’

Eddie Stubbs on WSM-AM said you told him that without the Delmore Brothers there wouldn't have been a Louvin Brothers.

That's true. We highly admired the Blue Sky Boys too. The Delmores broke up, and it was whiskey on Rabon's part. I don't know what happened to the Blue Sky Boys. I believe they're both still living. One lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, retired from the post office. The other lives in Atlanta. I went to see the one in Atlanta once. We talked for thirty minutes, and I said, I guess it was Bill I went to see, Bolick was their name; but I forget the other boy's name. [Ed. note: Earl and Bill Bolick were the Blue Sky Boys.] We were just talking along and I said, "How's your brother?" And he stood up and said, "Well, I see we've run out of anything to talk about. Nice of you to come by." I got to feeling he was fixing to bounce me out of his house, so I left. I made a big mistake, I shouldn't have mentioned his brother. I don't think brothers should be that way. But the Everlys, they don't speak. The Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie fought with ballbats. Ira and I, bless his heart, he was six-one, gawky, no way he could ever win a fight with me, 'cause he was in several of 'em with me, and his part was over before he could ever get it going. That never solved nothing, but it's comical sometimes.

When you started your solo career, did you find it difficult to write alone?

Oh, absolutely. I've worked on one song for like, all your spare time for a week. Finally just trash it because I couldn't think of nothing. I knew what I wanted the song to say, but I couldn't put it on paper. I've dreamed a couple of songs. This part of "Ira" was a dream, and I wrote one called "Mama's Angels," and it was twenty years after I wrote that song before my mama passed away. So when she left she left exactly like I dreamed it. The best way to go is to go to sleep and wake up in another world. My daddy was in a fetal position and couldn't do nothing but try to talk to you with his eyes, and that is a terrible way to get outta here.

When you and Ira were started out, did you guys talk about how you could distinguish yourselves from, say, the Delmore Brothers?

When we first began, David, I could sing just like Oswald and Ira could sing almost identical to Acuff. The first professional show we even seen was when Acuff came to our part of the world. We went to see him—we didn't have the money to go see him, but there was two or three hundred people more out in the yard that didn't have any money either, but we could hear and see the show. That was our big dream. They came in a car that was as long as that alley out yonder, three doors on each side, air-cooled Franklin. The clothes they wore—we just imagined they got rich that night. Probably had three hundred people because that's all the school would hold. But later on I got to adding, and they only charged fifteen cents for children and a quarter, thirty cents for adults. Well, they didn't take in more than about a hundred dollars that night. But that was our dream from the time we seen that show. But as we grew up, my voice changed and I became the lead singer. And Ira's voice, when it changed it went up and he was a natural-born tenor. Then we started listening to the Delmores for phrasing. People come to our house and our daddy, he probably helped us, but he'd embarrass us. In the living room where the fireplace was, there was a bed in there too—there was a bed in every room in the house. So he'd insist, "Sing these people a song." Ira and I would get under that big ol' steel bed, it was like two and a half feet above the floor, we'd get under there and put out butts together and sing.

How old were you at this time?

I guess I was nine, he was twelve. But we were so bashful we couldn't sing in front of those people. We'd get under the bed and sing, and that's how we really learned to phrase, by not looking at each other, but your heads was that far apart. Our admiration for the Delmores, Ira never tried to play the tenor guitar until we cut the tribute album. We went to Alton's house in Huntsville to show him which songs we picked, in case he'd say, "Well, you left out one of the better ones." And he was thrilled. He got up and went in the other room, and said, "I got something in here I want to give you." He handed Ira Rabon's tenor guitar. He said, "It ain't been out from under that bed since Rabon died." I don't know how many years that was, but Ira brought that guitar home, wound them and put them in kerosene and soaked them two days. Then shined them up and put them back on the guitar. That's the strings that Rabon had picked on. But he tuned it different from a tenor guitar.

What does that do, soaking the strings in kerosene?

Well, it makes them come alive again. All the grease from your fingers, it cuts that off. It makes a new set of strings out of them. But he tuned it like the bottom four strings on a guitar, and that's the way picked it, but it sounded remarkably like Rabon on the breaks that he took on the tribute album. Merle Travis drove all the way from California to be on that session; Grandpa Jones was there—Grandpa had sung with the Delmores and he wanted to make sure we used the right words. Merle had played with 'em and sang with 'em, and he wanted to make sure we didn't screw up the melodies. But we had them all there. The Browns Ferry Four was the quartet that Grandpa was in with the Delmores, but both of them guys—Travis and Grandpa Jones—just worshiped the Delmores. But after Ira passed away, Lionel—that's Alton's son—wanted to give his father's guitar to the Hall of Fame, and I owned the tenor guitar. So he wanted to know how much I'd take for it, said, "I want to put it with my dad's guitar in the Hall of Fame." I said, "Nothin'. Here it is." So those two instruments are in the Hall of Fame. I'm looking for something of the Louvin Brothers to put in there. Forty-two years, everything gets away except a few photographs.

The Louvin Brothers, ‘I Like the Christian Life’

What’s the origin of "I Like the Christian Life”?

We had heard people, when they were trying to convert you, would say, "I personally like the Christian life." You know. People think you have to be sulky and so humorless in order to be a Christian. I personally think a preacher ought to drive as nice a car as anybody that comes to church; he ought to wear clothes as nice as anybody that comes to his church; and he should be happy. If religion's gonna make you a sad sack, you're not gonna influence nobody. They're not gonna want to be like you if you acted like you was in misery all the time. That title came from our early lives. We went to church as kids, and there was always somebody in that church, four or five ladies, that you expected to hear from when it come time for anyone to give their testimony; you expected them people to get up; if they didn't, the service was incomplete.

The Byrds, with Gram Parsons, rehearse ‘I Like the Christian Life’ for Sweetheart of the Rodeo

People like me who grew up in the south and had Louvin Brothers records playing in the house and heard you on the Opry on Saturdays, that was part of our lives, but there were people in other parts of the country that didn’t grow up with the Opry, or country music, or the Louvins’ music in their lives in any way. The Byrds’ version of “I Like the Christian Life” wound up introducing you and your brother to a good part of another generation.

I know. I'm not particularly a fan of Gram Parsons. But I give him a lot of credit. He recorded "Cash On the Barrelhead" and it didn't turn me on at all; it was a Louvin Brothers song that he introduced to a lot of people. But you probably heard the story about how Emmylou Harris heard about the Louvin Brothers.

Gram was a big Louvin Brothers fan, and the story was that he paid people to look in pawn shops, old record stores, whatever they could find, for Louvin Brothers records and he'd give 'em their money back for 'em. He played some Louvin Brothers for Emmylou one day and she really liked the sound. She said, "Who's the girl singing the high part?" He said, "That's not a girl; that's Ira Louvin." That's the way she was introduced to the Louvin Brothers. She treated us nicely.

Why did tragic songs appeal to you? You even cut an entire album titled Tragic Songs of Life. Why are you, a God fearing man, drawn to a song as brutal as "Knoxville Girl,” in which the girl is not only killed, the killer drags her body around by the hair before he throws her in the river?

People constantly ask me this question. They say, "Why did he do that? What would come over a man to do that?" I'd say, "Well, you didn't listen to the song." The song plainly says, you know when he drug her around and around and threw her in the river, it says, "Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl/With the dark and roving eyes." She had eyes for somebody else and he just couldn't handle that. If I can't have you nobody's gonna have you. That's what the whole thing was about.

"Knoxville Girl" was the most requested song that Ira and I ever sang. It's hard to imagine, but it was. Ken Nelson would say, "It's too long," "It's too morbid," or something like that. Then along comes "Tom Dooley" which was just as morbid or more so and longer than "Knoxville Girl." So he says, "Maybe it's not as bad, so we'll release it." In the meantime, Teddy and Doyle Wilburn had cut it, because they were getting a lot of requests for it off of ours. So they cut it and the records came out at the same time, their single release of "Knoxville Girl" and ours. But we'd had it on an album three or four years before that.

Ira and Charlie Louvin, ‘Knoxville Girl,’ from the brothers’ Tragic Songs of Life album (1956). ‘‘Knoxville Girl’ was the most requested song that Ira and I ever sang. It's hard to imagine, but it was.’

Do you feel those tragic songs are instructive in some way?

I guess the message is a lot more there than in a song that you write if you think you're writing a commercial song. You know. A commercial song is nothing more than a record that sold. And then they'll call it a commercial song. But we was raised on them. My mother knew a burlap bag full of those old songs that we didn't even have room to put on there. Like "The Girl at the Pencil Factory," little Mary Fagin, which was right out of Atlanta. And her boss loved the way that she looked, and she had to go back and pick up her check Friday morning, and he raped her and killed her. Well, they hung his butt from under the oak tree where they made love; that's where he raped her and they hung him from that tree. Then little Cathy Fiscus, the little girl who fell in the well, they tried for days to get her out and never did get her out. There was a song about that. It's so different, the world we live in, than what I was born in. When I was a young person, eight or ten years old when I started noticing. If a girl screwed up and got pregnant, she went away to college immediately, before she started showing. She went away to college—that's what her people would say. Everybody knew they was much too poor for her to go college and she never came back there with a child, because it was a disgrace to the family. Today it's different. Like in that song that's in that album (Tragic Songs of Life), "Mary Of the Wild Moor," did you ever listen to that song? That's so much tragedy in that song, but that's the way it used to be. She's trash. If you had an out of wedlock child, you're trash. And the fact that she's your daughter didn't seem to matter, in that song. But they do it different today. I've known girls that's had three babies, never get married, and they just take 'em home and give 'em to their mother. And she cares for them.

Charlie Louvin, 1970, ‘Will You Visit Me On Sunday’

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